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Fast Take   Story by Dwight Drum
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NASCAR: Helmet on, brain off?

The question asked to many NASCAR drivers over the past few months was -- Do driver’s change when they put a helmet on? Do different personalities emerge or were the personalities already there waiting to get into a racecar?

Jimmie Johnson was amused by the helmet question.

"There is an old saying that before you put your helmet on, you take your brain off (laughs),” Johnson said. “From when I was a kid on a motorcycle, I've always been kind of quiet and I certainly like to have fun, but my element has really been with the helmet on. And that's my space, that's what I'm good at, that's what I do, that's what I look forward to, and we all have that thing that we're good at. And for me, it's when that helmet goes on. That's my little piece of the world and I enjoy it."

Jeff Gordon commented on personality changes inside NASCAR helmets.

“I would say it does, yeah,” Gordon said. “I’m a lot more relaxed and low-keyed outside the car than I am inside the car. I think that definitely the aggressive side of me comes out, the intensity side comes out and the focus and all those things. I think your personality carries over into a racecar, but I think that there are some things that come out that you don’t always get to see.”

Richard Petty probably can’t recall all the times he has seen helmets go on and come off but he had no problem defining the process.

“When I see somebody drive a racecar,” Petty said, “Then I could pretty well tell you their personality went out of the car or if I talked to somebody out of the car, I can pretty well tell you what they are going to do in the car as far as the way they drive. I think just because you put the helmet on, I don't think it changes your personality.”

Alex Gurney in NASCAR’s Grand-Am Series had an opinion of competitors.

“Some guys act super nice to you and shake your hand and then they’ll chop you off, completely off into the grass like they hated you or like they want to kill you,” Gurney said. “At that point there are definitely two very different personalities that drive around in the car and then get outside.”

Rusty Wallace has had a legendary career in and out of helmets and with it comes wisdom.

“There are a lot of guys that want to get along with people and be everybody’s friend and when they get in the car they get real greedy and go, ‘Okay, I want it.’ Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. was always like that,” Wallace said. “You could hang out with him all day long. I went on vacations with him and then I’d race him. I’d say I can’t believe this is the same guy, completely different. There are a lot of drivers like that, completely different. Because when you go out there you’re racing for positions. You’re racing for money. You don’t want anybody else to get it. You’re greedy. You’re selfish. You want it all for yourself. That’s what you got to do. When you put your helmet on, that changes your attitude big time.”

Denny Hamlin agreed with Wallace’s assessment.

“I think a lot of people’s personalities change once they get in a racecar,” Hamlin said. “I think we all do. I think we all change at some point. It just depends on who is around us and what’s just happened to us whether we’re the good guys or the bad guys.”

Joey Logano is the new guy on the big block, but he has raced for much of his young life.

“Everybody does – yeah,” Logano said. “My smile pretty much washed away when I put a helmet on. I think everyone does. They focus in. This is a big business. It’s not like you’re going to a go-kart track and you’re beating around with everyone laughing the whole time.”

Kurt Busch noted the value of experience behind the fast wheel.

“We're out there putting the car right on that edge of being out of control,” Busch said. “It's something to where you try to stay as smooth and calm and collected as you can. The more years of experience you have, the easier it is to do.”

Carl Edwards saw it all as work ethic.

“I don’t think your personality changes,” Edwards said. “I think it’s just business time. You got to do what you got to do. That’s it. You get the helmet and you get racing. You get serious.”

It appears from NASCAR driver diverse comments that putting on a helmet doesn’t cause a bipolar diagnosis nor ignite any stark contrast of good and evil in a Jekyll and Hyde personality, but certainly the inner environment changes. Something happens within every driver to shift mental gears, engage focus and then thrust forth.

Between helmet on and helmet off, Victory Lane has room for only one triumphant competitor. That part never changes.

Helmet image purpose: Identify eight drivers with helmets on. Hint: Six NASCAR drivers and two IndyCar drivers. Identities revealed at the end of the page.


Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick. Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon

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