Kern lends drivers helping hands
(reprinted from The Indianapolis Star--Aug 1, 1998)
By Curt Cavin
INDIANAPOLIS (Aug. 1, 1998) -- When Dale Earnhardt crawled into his race car two years ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was broken and battered following a horrifying accident in Talladega, Ala., the week before.
That he was ready to drive three days after the crash was considered remarkable.
But here's a secret: He had help.
That week of the Brickyard 400, Earnhardt met Beckie Kern of Indianapolis, a former journalist turned massage therapist. He was told she could alleviate some of his pain with a therapy session. He was skeptical.
"She did wonders for me as far as getting me to drive a race car hurt," Earnhardt said. "I've played hurt my whole career, since 1979 on, but if you can get some relief, you can play better."
Earnhardt finished 15th that day and was on the road to recovery. Kern has worked on him most race weekends since, including this one. She has even become one of his confidants, enjoying quiet conversation in the garage.
Kern said bonds with patients are one of the special aspects of her job. And at the moment, her friendships are growing at a rapid rate. It seems every time a NASCAR Winston Cup driver is injured, someone refers them to her.
In recent weeks she's worked on Mike Skinner, Steve Park, Darrell Waltrip and Kenny Wallace, just to name a few.
Some treatment sessions take 15 minutes, others an hour. Each visit is unique. Earnhardt sometimes takes four or five treatments in a day.
Kern is paid, but she says the reward is in the patient's eyes.
"People don't know massage therapy can make that much of a difference," she said. "Afterward, they are genuinely happy to know that they're not going to be in pain all of the time."
Waltrip is like Earnhardt, a red-blooded stock car driver through and through. He started racing in Winston Cup 26 years ago.
Today, he swears by Kern's work, and truthfully, he'd just as soon not discuss it.
"When something's that good, you hate to give your secret away," he said, smiling. "But really, she's been good for me and good for a lot of people in this garage.
"I don't think any of us knew how much we needed massage therapy. In the old days of racing, we never used techniques like this. I guess we all thought it was for sissies."
Kern has taught the drivers there are pressure buildups in the body -- she calls them trigger points. And when released, they can allow the body's natural fluids to flow.
She said she can find them with simple rubbing motions, led by her thumb. When she comes across a trigger point, it feels different, like a pearl beneath the skin.
"As you apply pressure, it begins to dissolve," she said.
A trigger point on one side of the body can lead to pain or stiffness on the other. She emphasizes that every part of the body is connected, like a race car, and when something like the spark plugs don't function properly, the engine can't either.
"Beckie says the body is a road map, where there is all these things going on inside and they're tied together," Waltrip said. "It's an aspect of racing that we never considered."
Kern said her work with the drivers is not unlike what she does with the 670 patients she has in central Indiana. She treats them as part of her self-owned company, The Indiana Holistic Center.
Kern specializes in trauma cases with head and spinal cord injuries but also works with organ transplant patients and premature infants. The key is helping make a difference in people's lives.
"Nothing compares with working with someone in great pain and watching them get up and be able to breathe freely again," she said. "That's what I've devoted my life to."
The difference with racing is the demands it places on the human body, particularly with the forces that push a driver into a direction opposite of where the car is turned.
"This is a violent sport, and not just when a car crashes," Kern said. "Most people don't realize that.
"Some tracks wear on the neck, some on the hands. On the short tracks, drivers have to work the brake so much that it's important to keep their leg from cramping.
"And every driver is different. No two massages are alike."
Kern, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., graduated from the University of Akron with a degree in journalism. Her original plan was to attend medical school, but she switched majors because she didn't want to wait years to help people.
Kern has more than 1,500 hours of certification in massage therapy and an additional 1,500 in medical/clinical techniques, all since 1993. Her experience commands an hourly fee of $100, but she does not reveal what she receives from the Winston Cup drivers.
Currently, she and Earnhardt, her first priority on the circuit, do not have a contract. But the perks are good. She has developed close friendships with many in NASCAR, including Earnhardt's son, promising young driver Dale Jr.
And in one way her job gets easier by the day. When she started on the circuit two years ago, Earnhardt referred to pain in general terms. Now he and the other drivers are fluent in muscle terminology, which helps pinpoint the stress.
Her biggest problem? Too much work. Many of her weekends become day-long sessions, with person after person winding up as a patient.
"She's good," Park said. "That's why we come back."