He was one of NASCAR’s first superstars, but Fred Lorenzen’s memories of his Hall of Fame career have dimmed as he battles dementia. His Daytona 500 victory, the wins he piled up to become NASCAR’s first $100,000 driver, his life on the road, all have been largely extinguished.
Lorenzen still has flickering moments when he remembers the days when he was NASCAR’s “Golden Boy” for his rugged, movie-star looks. Like in recent years, when he visits Chicago Speedway, not far from his assisted living facility.
“His face just lights up when he’s there,” said his daughter, Amanda Lorenzen Gardstrom.
The Elmhurst native was one of NASCAR’s first stars to hail from outside the sport’s Southern roots.
Nearly 45 years after his last Cup race, Lorenzen hoped he would still make his mark on the NASCAR community. Inspired by Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to pledge his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Lorenzen became the second known driver to make the same decision.
Gardstrom made it official Friday with a pledge to Legacy co-founder Chris Nowinski. As auto racing grapples with the issue of concussions and head trauma, one of NASCAR’s pioneers is now alongside Earnhardt in the donation queue.
“As a family, we decided we wanted to support Dale Junior and all work together toward a healthy future for these drivers,” she told The Associated Press.
Earnhardt’s concussion history — he missed two races in 2012 — spurred his decision to pledge his brain to the Legacy, a group that works with Boston University on research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that doctors believe is caused by repeated blows to the head.
Gardstrom is convinced the 81-year-old Lorenzen has CTE as a result from years of brutal wrecks and hits from the 1960s, one of the most dangerous eras in racing history. Lorenzen won the Daytona 500 in 1965.
“He never stopped to heal,” she said.
She wants to help, and knows her father does, too, and advance the understanding of concussions and their treatment in NASCAR.
“It’s the younger generation that we really need to educate,” she said. “They’re young, they’re hungry, but when they get in a wreck and get a concussion, they know if they don’t get back in the car, someone else is going to take it. We want to change the culture of the sport.”
Earnhardt has become the face of concussion awareness in sports and will skip Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of concussion symptoms. There is no timetable on when NASCAR’s most popular driver might return.