By Jacob Seelman, Special to Kickin’ the Tires
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out for support. Resources include the National Alliance on Mental Illness website and the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (dial 988).
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Keeping one’s chin up amid the stresses of daily life is difficult enough, but in the sports industry, that task is often taller than most people see or realize.
Athletes, in motorsports or otherwise, are held to a high public standard that can make it difficult to manage the inevitable bumps and ruts in the road – whether those dips are small or cavernous.
It makes opening up, allowing space for the bad times to be worked through, that much harder.
This writer is also a testament to the fact that even when things appear to be good, and on solid footing, the reality of what isn’t seen by others around you can be a stark contrast to the view from the outside looking in.
Oftentimes, maintaining any sort of public image makes it seem as though one can’t open up, can’t say aloud that things aren’t as positive as they look, all because it’s what’s expected of the position.
It’s a deep-rooted stigma, one that several NASCAR drivers have actively worked to change over their tenures so far in the sport.
Perhaps chief among the advocates for mental health awareness in motorsports is Cody Ware, the son of team owner Rick Ware and one who has grown up in the environment of racing for a lot of his life.
However, those advocacy efforts were born out of deep trauma, something that Ware could have easily allowed to keep him from ever pursuing his racing aspirations at all.
It’s a moment from his past that the 26-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., has told more and more in recent years, most notably in the NASCAR short film “The Battle Within” last year.
One night in the woods, the actions of the friend group Ware fell into at the time turned from nuisance and small-town trouble to near-disaster, after they soaked him with gasoline and lit his legs ablaze.
Severe burns came from that incident, as well as a lengthy healing process that included physical pain, mental and emotional chaos and a sense of loss, lack of direction and overall uncertainty.
Racing provided a way back to stability for Ware, as well as a curtain to cover the noise and intrusive thoughts that often clouded his mind and attitude.
“Driving a race car is about passion for me, but it’s also an escape and something I use as a tool in my daily battles,” Ware told Kickin’ the Tires during a lengthy sit-down interview at Bristol Motor Speedway. “When you’re doing something that requires full attention, full focus and the mental strength that driving a race car does, it helps me to clear out the white noise, the things that others or myself might say, and the doubts or fears that show up in my day-to-day life.
“When I’m out on the racetrack, I have to be 110 percent focused on what I’m doing in that moment where — even if I wanted to think about all the other worries or anxieties that I might have normally — I don’t have time to think about those things,” he added. “It’s an escape and something that’s good for me.”
But Ware also recognizes that his way of managing some of the issues he deals with isn’t realistic for others in the sports industry. It’s more than about drivers and athletes, he said, because the mental toll that traveling across the country and being away from family and friends creates effects crew members, officials, media members and anyone else involved in making the product that fans see on TV successful.
It’s something that isn’t talked about enough, Ware noted. His hope is that his continued conversations around mental health will begin to tip the scale toward changing that.
“I think it goes without saying that the biggest thing that we’re dealing with in this industry is trying to get the stigma (surrounding mental health) taken care of, and I think that the more conversations that people have with those around them is how you accomplish that mission,” Ware pointed out. “I think that’s a long process; there’s no denying that, but that’s definitely how you make progress with everybody. The biggest thing is not to be afraid to reach out to somebody that you trust. There’s always going to be a friend, a family member, someone that does care what you’re going through. To be able to reach out to somebody is so important.
“Especially in the Cup Series, everyone – whether you’re a driver, crew chief, engineer or someone else who works in the sport – you’re working long, hard hours and spending a lot of time away from family and friends. That quality of life, it can have an impact on anybody. I know a lot of people that probably wouldn’t have thought that they were susceptible to depression, anxiety, or mental health struggles who probably have been a little surprised when they started to deal with some of those things, because they’re taught to be strong and taught to not have to think about or worry about things like that.
“When it happens, it becomes difficult to process those emotions … and that’s why it’s so important to talk to somebody about what you may be going through.”
Ware’s words created a moment of pause for this writer, who was ready to make an attempt on his life last July and spent the second half of the year in psychiatric rehabilitation for multiple deep-rooted issues, away from the racetrack and away from the people he’d been around for nearly a decade since joining the motorsports media corps in 2013.
Those words are still difficult to put on paper, or a web page, in this case. It’s not a period I enjoy reliving in my mind, but it’s one that I’ve tried to open up about as a call to others that they aren’t alone if they’re battling a dark time in their life – even if they feel isolated on an island, like I did during many of the days in my ongoing recovery process.
“Everyone is going through something, even if they don’t talk about it,” one longtime industry member reminded me on Friday during a quiet moment amid the Bristol activities.
It’s a sentiment that Ware later agreed with when we spoke.
“There’s 100 percent truth in that,” he said. “But it also underscores the importance of being able to open up to people, whether it’s publicly opening up or not. For me, (talking about mental health) started off as something that was obviously not only beneficial for people who are hearing or listening to the story, but it was also very therapeutic for me. It became my decision to start talking about mental health and the awareness around it more openly at a time where I was still in the trenches of dealing with my battles and my issues. The more that I started to talk about it and share my experiences, not only did I see that I was helping others, but also – in hearing from other people in return – it helped me realize that I wasn’t as alone in those issues as I might have thought I’d been.
“I also utilized the help of counseling and therapy, seeing a sports psychiatrist … and it really was a turning point for me because I felt like I was going down a path where, if I didn’t get my act together, I felt like I was going towards a path of self-destruction and getting into an attitude that likely would have made me very distant and taken me away from racing,” Ware continued. “Racing has been my passion since the moment I set foot in a race car, since the first time I hopped in a Legends car, there has never been anything else that I’ve wanted to do since then. It was a realization that I wasn’t willing to risk what I built my whole life around, just because I was battling with things that I wasn’t willing to get addressed. As I started to address them, be open and share it, it became a good double-edged sword where I was helping others and also helping myself in the process.
“It could have happened earlier for me in my journey, but there’s probably never a wrong time to take that step (and seek help). I’m here now and definitely on track toward success and getting better every week, every day. I feel like that’s all I can do and all I can ask for right now.”
One level over in the NASCAR Xfinity Series garage, JR Motorsports young gun Sam Mayer has also consistently sought to utilize the power of his platform in racing to bring awareness to philanthropic efforts, often in the context of mental health and its various challenges.
During his 2020 ARCA Menards Series season, then 17-year-old Mayer highlighted various different foundations on his GMS Racing Chevrolet through partnerships driven by Capture Sports Marketing.
Among the most talked-about of those groups was the End Stigma. Change Lives. campaign, an initiative close to Mayer’s heart whose goals are to raise awareness for the need to break down the stigma around mental health, create opportunities for individuals to become comfortable talking about mental health, and empower people to seek help.
Why has Mayer pushed so hard to use his platform to inspire change? It’s because the battles he often talks about and brings to the forefront are personal to him, as well.
“For me, personally, the mental side of racing is tough because it’s so draining. It’s a lot for anyone to take in, especially on the bad days,” Mayer told Kickin’ the Tires Friday night, following a rally back to fourth in the Food City 300 Xfinity Series race. “I’ve experienced it, it’s happened to me like it has to anyone in the garage, even if people don’t always see that firsthand. The key is trying to make sure you stay positive, even on nights like we had tonight, and celebrating the fact that there are victories even in something that seems like a bad day. That applies to racing and life in general.
“My advocacy for mental health and wanting to shine a light on those challenges started based off (personal) experience, and it’s evolved into showing people – including myself – that you can find a drive to stay happy and do what you love. For me, it’s continuing to race cars, and for others it could be something else … but that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s something that will always be important to me and something I’m passionate about.”
Mayer’s night Friday served as somewhat of a microcosm of all the things he referenced.
He had the speed to contend for the win in his No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro, yet got “over-eager” in trying to make a three-wide pass in traffic near the end of stage two. The move led to a spin from second place.
But Mayer rallied through the field to his eventual top-five finish, and though he admitted his regret over what could have been, he still cracked a smile and looked at the positives of his night.
“To finish top five with the speed we had is a disappointing day, but if you’re disappointed with a top five, you’ll be alright in moving on to the next one and knowing you’ll have another shot at it,” Mayer tipped. “To keep my chin up after everything that I’ve been through to this point, I just look at the fact that I have good people around me, a good team around me, and we’ve had all the tools and speed to be successful. We got a top five at Bristol. We did our jobs on pit road and on the race car. Behind the wheel, I did what I needed to do 80 percent of the time, and we got a strong finish out of it.
“We’ve been right there, and I feel like we’ll continue to be as long as we work as a team and lift each other up.”
Lifting those around them up is something that both Mayer and Ware have worked to do over the past several years through their conversations about and surrounding mental health.
In fact, it’s something that Ware specifically referenced that he continues to try and do with his outreach even as he competes week-to-week in the top form of stock car racing in the United States.
“It comes down to giving back to others,” Ware explained. “That’s why I do what I do and why I have the conversations that I have. I want to try to be there and be the person for someone else that I wish had been there for me when I was going through things in the months and years after my incident. I didn’t have anyone who I felt as though I could talk to or let be there to give me support. I don’t want others to feel that way, like they’re alone in whatever fight they’re going through.
“One part of it is doing what I can do to break the stigma, to make about mental health and getting treatment for it a more normal thing, but I also want it to be a reminder for people that if you need someone to talk to, I’m someone they can talk to. I’m grateful to those who have reached out and utilized that outlet of talking and allowing me to listen, and because of that I feel like I’ve done some good in this journey. Even if it’s saving just one person, that makes the time I spend with them worth it.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that staying positive is easy. Mayer, who many fans often see as one of the most outgoing and upbeat drivers in the sport, notes that it’s a continuous battle.
“Honestly, I’m not going to lie to anyone, I think it does passively wear away on drivers … when you’re in a situation that you know you can succeed in and accomplish your goals and circumstances or whatnot keep preventing that from happening,” he said. “I know that it has for me, personally, with how many good cars we’ve had at JR Motorsports since I came here and not always being able to get the results we’re striving for. I know some of that is on me, and I need to keep learning from those moments.
“It’s almost to the point – which is kind of weird and deep to think about – where it doesn’t even bother me anymore when mistakes like tonight happen. It more frustrates me in a sense of feeling like I deserved (to contend for a win), or I think I did, and then I don’t get (that chance) and I envy not having it,” he added. “But the strains that this sport and the bad days put on your mind, no matter what role you have in the industry, are really passive and you may not realize what it’s doing right away. You just have to keep finding ways to fight and push forward, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“I’m going to keep trucking away. I can’t do anything different.”
Though they may be two of the louder voices in the garage area when it comes to talking about mental health, Ware and Mayer aren’t the only drivers who have opened the conversation up in the past.
Kansas Cup Series winner Bubba Wallace has also lent his story to the mental health conversation at times as well, particularly on social media, where he is one of the more interactive drivers in the sport.
Wallace opened up in 2019 about his fight with depression, calling it “a rough moment” at the time.
Ha..with a laugh and smile like this every week you’d think there is no way one could mask so much negative and dark 💩. Lonely dark roads ain’t fun, keep on keeping on I guess. pic.twitter.com/uaXncfuOE5
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) May 7, 2019
Asked what advice Ware would offer to someone in need of support who might be fighting a battle with their mental health, he offered two different avenues for the different aspects of the journey.
“I think for somebody who’s already working through and open with their struggles, or at least in the process of doing that, I think the biggest thing is just to remember that even as you’re making progress and getting better and more healthy each day, that there’s going to be bumps in the road. There’s going to be days where you might fall back a little bit, but even little regressions, or days where you feel like you might have felt weeks, months, years ago … you’re still human and susceptible to getting burnt out. … Even if you’re doing a really good job, making progress and doing well in your journey with mental health, there’s still going to be days where the world is going to feel like it’s falling apart, and you know you don’t have anything figured out.
“It’s easy to get excited and optimistic and forget that you have problems when you have a week or days or months where things are going great, and then that one bump in the road comes and it’s like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ Progress isn’t going to always be in a straight line. There’s going to be dips and valleys as you slowly progress up the mountain towards getting healthy. For them, that’s my advice.
“Then for people that are struggling with how to start their journey or how to talk to somebody, just realize that everybody – no matter who you are – has somebody that loves you and cares about you, and that’s always a great first line of people to reach out to. … A lot of times I think people take for granted how valuable just getting some things off your chest can be to someone you trust and care about. If you had a bad day, tell someone about it and get it off your chest. Don’t carry that weight and that burden on your shoulders by yourself, because there’s somebody that cares and empathizes with the situation that you’re in.
“Even though they might not be able to help you or share the brunt of that with you, just knowing that someone is there and supports you and hears you can mean a lot. That can also be a great first step towards getting that help that someone may possibly need.”
Racing isn’t the only sport that has seen an increase in recent years in openness and conversations surrounding mental health and its challenges.
Both the NBA and NFL have seen athletes speak out on the effects their respective sports take on mental well-being, including current Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan and Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Lane Johnson, who missed three games in 2021 while battling struggles with anxiety.
It’s a turn that provides optimism that change is being generated, both in sports and in general.
For this writer, Bristol weekend has marked a return to the racetrack after more than 14 months away, and the first two days of the affair have been somewhat overwhelming.
There have been nerves about the internal battles, worries over what I’d be coming back to and how to manage my personal mental health diagnosis (read more on that in a personal letter I penned earlier this summer, on the anniversary of my spiral down) while figuring out my place in the industry again.
At times, I looked at how far I’d fallen after stepping away out of necessity and wondered if I’d ever be back in this environment again, feeling like I didn’t (and still don’t) deserve a second chance.
But seven words from Friday night’s fourth-place finisher started to put those fears into perspective.
“Take it one step at a time,” Mayer said before walking off from the media bullpen for the night.
That’s a piece of advice that applies at every leg of a mental health journey, whether that journey is in a high-profile, fast-paced environment or in the kind of everyday life that the general public sees.
It’s something that the sports world is trying to follow as it combats the stigma around mental health, and that’s a positive takeaway for everyone involved.