Featured Interview: Jay Fraga About Helmet Safety

  • A few weeks ago while racing downhill in Fontana I had a pretty gnarly crash.  I was in a high speed section and fully committed to this section of the course.  While jumping into a blind section I high sided a deep rut, washing out both tires instantly upon landing.  Everything happened so fast, there simply was no hope of riding this one out.  As soon as the tires hit the dirt, a nano second went by and I was drilling my head and shoulder into a large rock deeply rooted in the ground.  It was not budging at all.  I was KO’d for a few seconds, and as one of the sideline marshals and a few others came to drag me off the course so as to not be run over by the next racer, I came to.  Even with an EMS background I knew better that removing my helmet, or moving for that matter.  But with my bell rung good I was not thinking clearly.  The first thing I could think of was “DAMN I hit that rock HARD with my head and shoulder, I had to have shattered my helmet!  I have got to see this, I am sure it is bad!”.  NOTHING, it was barely touched.  Still in a deep fog and not thinking clearly, the competitor in me pushed on.  After all the helmet looked fine, lets finish this shit out.  FontanaCrashFreezeFrame

    I realize there are a host of things that could have and should have been different.  Not only what I could have done but others as well.  I should have never been allowed to be moved very far.  I should have never been allowed to remove my helmet until medics arrived.  This whole crash was a HUGE implosion.  I still was able to get up, put my helmet back on and finish the race.  My shoulders still hurt and there is a separation on the right shoulder.  The fog in my head took a few days to clear.  This article is not about my crash but rather the importance of safety gear, namely helmets.  I honestly think my Kali Avatar II helmet I was wearing possibly saved my life, or at least a LOT of dental work and a bad concussion.

    Kali Carbon Avatar II

    We have reached out to our good friend and helmet advocate Jay Fraga who has had his own personal experiences and tragedies around helmets and safety.

    Jay to get started tell our readers a little bit about your back ground with bicycles.
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    I started racing BMX in 1982 when I was 10. I had been interested (more like chomping at the bit) since 1979 when I saw my first BMX Action in a local drugstore’s magazine rack. Those were really the glory years of BMX as far as I was concerned. It was such a cool and exciting time in the sport. Everything was so moto-oriented in those days. I was a huge motocross fan to begin with Bob Hurricane Hannah was my idol at that point. Early on, I remember riding my bike through sand pits and making noises like it had a motor. I was intoxicated with going fast and jumping. And then I became intoxicated with winning. Along the way, I learned quite a bit from BMX racing that didn’t occur to me at the time. Self confidence, self reliance, and work ethic were all things that I owe to my parents and BMX. BMX really created a competitive and success-driven monster within me for that, I owe the sport and my early racing heroes everything.

    I raced up until getting my driver’s license. At that point I quit due to “Car fumes and Perfume”, as AA Pro Jeff Upshaw’s Dad Big Jeff is fond of saying. Cars and Girls did me in. I didn’t make it back to BMX until I was 29. I had a bad car wreck just before my 20th birthday that put me in a wheelchair and really jacked me up. I had to learn how to walk again, etc. I would have been back to BMX much sooner had it not been for that.

    Not much more than a year after my return, I opened up a shop called Aggro Bikes with a partner. I started a team right away and it was very successful. I bought my business partner out a year later and didn’t look back. Before I knew it, we had national and global reach. The whole thing was a very neat and very humbling experience. I’m so thankful for everyone who has ever raced for me and what they’ve been able to accomplish in our colors.

    A big crash in May of 2010 medically retired me from being on the bike. I had my 8th concussion, and the aftermath was just horrendous. It was and is the worst thing I’ve ever been through. It was pure hell on earth. I continued to run the business and the US team until last October. At that point I decided to take my Doctors’ advice and focus on my health, since working 70 hours a week didn’t lend itself very well to shaking the effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. My good friend and British Team Manager Stu Dixon picked up the reins and continued the Aggro name across the pond. We’ve got a bunch of serious rippers over there. I keep my finger on the pulse of the sport through them.
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    So you have run a successful business and BMX racing team, and with so many members on your teams you have seen plenty of accidents/crashes. As a team owner and mentor how is it seeing those crashes?
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    It’s kind of a “then versus now” scenario. Before the crash that finished me off, I thought like a typical racer: dust yourself off and keep going. Crashes were kind of abstract they were just barriers to get over. I would obviously be concerned when one of my riders ate it, but it was a part of racing. Thinking back to watching my riders ringing their bells before I was hurt, it certainly didn’t have the kind of weight that it does with me now. I really didn’t understand what was at stake in those days. You’d ask them if they were all right, and that was about it. After I got hurt, seeing someone whack their head off the ground would pretty much put me in a mode where I’d curl up in a ball and cringe. I became known as the guy who would lecture everybody and anybody about concussions after I got hurt and had a first hand dose of what the aftermath of Post Concussion Syndrome was like. You don’t want to see anyone else go through something like that. I’d have appointments every couple of weeks in the big Sports Concussion Clinic here where I’d walk in feeling like death, see young kids in the waiting room that were there for the same thing, and I’d have to walk back out because I’d start crying. It was bad enough to hack those symptoms as an adult, but I just couldn’t deal with the thought of kids having to do it. Seeing those kids there would annihilate me. Then I’d be back at the track on Friday nights with our vending trailer where inevitably you’d see people wreck. That became pretty difficult for me. Especially when you saw a kid with their eyes crossed after smacking their head and their parents waved it off like it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a helpless feeling.
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    You even have your own personal experience that sidelined you from racing for a bit, can you tell us about your crash?
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    It was a local race here in Mass. We’ve got a pretty vigorous cruiser class for the over 30 guys in this area. Full gates of 8 aren’t out of the norm. I rushed to the starting hill after getting hung up at our vending trailer fixing a customer’s bike. I totally was not focused on the race at hand I was still in mechanic mode and I was flustered as I was gating up. In retrospect, I should have known better that lack of focus is bad news. Anyway, we had a group of guys that were fairly quick on the gate and it was round one. The guy in first had a bike lead on me and I just kept forcing the issue. I’ve always been an “all or nothing” kind of rider, and I didn’t want to lose to this guy. I looped out in the rhythm section and took the full impact of the fall on the back of my head. Lights out. When I woke up, I was slurring my words and couldn’t remember where I was or what happened. The back of my left eye was burning (I later found out it was from my brain slamming off the optic nerve and front of my skull) and I was a mess. My good friend and rider (at the time) Rick Marceau was behind me when I went down, and he stopped. He’s a firefighter and first responder, and when he started talking with me he was like, “Dude, get in the truck you’re going to the hospital”. There were no “if’s, and’s, or but’s”. He knew I was cooked. My CT scan there showed a little brain swelling in the back, but no bleeds, so they cut me loose. It was obviously a concussion, but I was pretty lucky. From that moment on, my head has been a mess. As we’re talking, it’s been 1018 days since, most of them miserable from nausea, light sensitivity, headaches, cognitive issues, poor memory, etc. It’s been a very long road, and some of it has been pretty dark. 
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    Jay is there anything you could have done differently in that crash?
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    I could have been a little less proud and hit the brakes instead of hitting the section WFO. I had another shot at qualifying for the main in the next round (I would have made it), but I’d have been damned if I was going to let the other guy win that moto without me trying to get around him. That’s just how I’m wired. My competitiveness has always been one of my greatest assets, but it’s also been one of my biggest downfalls. 
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    Do you feel you had the right type of protection on that day?
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    The helmet really did its job. Helmets aren’t designed to prevent concussions (I understand that some new helmets are attempting to address them); they’re designed to protect against that one massive impact that will induce brain death. My CT showed some swelling towards the back of my brain that wasn’t a gigantic deal, but my Doctor did say later that the helmet I was wearing probably saved me. So, there’s no doubt that things could certainly have been worse than they were. In terms of other protection, I did skip wearing my pressure suit that night. Wearing it probably could have saved me a couple of broken ribs. Those were an added hassle on top of the head injury. 
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    What is your take on todays neck braces?
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    I think they’re great. They’re a big advancement that could potentially save someone from a broken neck, paralysis, or worse.
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    Do you think wearing one would have made a difference in your crash?
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    Good question. Not a big difference, if I had a guess. My c-spine showed clear that night in the hospital, but on top of everything else, my neck was sore for a week. I don’t know if one would have helped to mitigate that or not. 
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    Over the last several years we have lost a good number of riders due to head and neck injuries. What do you think we should be looking into to make things safer?
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    The evolution of equipment is important, but from my standpoint, education is the biggest priority. Many people don’t understand that helmets have a single good crash in them and then they’re useless. The EPS foam compresses after a crash, and they’re useless after that. You may as well go out and ride with a milk carton on your head if you’re riding in a helmet that has been crashed in before. I’ve had people argue with me before and say, “Hey man, helmets are expensive I don’t have money for a new one”. I usually shake my head and tell them that their priorities are totally out of whack. First of all, we’re riding $1500-$2000 or higher bikes. You’re going to spend more on a pair of cranks than you will on something that protects the most important organ you own? I don’t care if a replacement helmet costs $500, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to a bunch of neuro visits that run $2000 a pop. Really though, the money is nothing on top of the suffering.

    Having people understand the correct steps to take with suspected concussions is paramount. The news spotlight around the NFL and some other sports has increased awareness of head injuries, but we really have a long way to go. As an “invisible” injury, people blow concussions off way too much. It’s only when it’s too late and someone feels like they have a scorching hangover do they start to pay attention to it and ask what they can do to feel better. I hate to say it, but at that point, you’re already behind the curve. To that end, I’ve started a foundation called The Knockout Project (www.theknockoutproject.org) which is very new, but we’re trying to get the word out about the carnage that concussions can cause. Lots of people in the BMX world are aware of what I’m up to with that, but it’s amazing how taboo the subject of concussions in racing is. Some people are vocal about their support publically while others email me privately and admit that they’re in miserable shape and suffering; and they ask advice. Some people don’t want to hear it at all.

    The Cliff’s Notes for all of this are pretty simple: if you suspect concussion, get checked out. If one is confirmed, full cognitive rest (no phones, texting, computers, TV, music, etc) for a couple of days should straighten you out. I made the mistake early on of trying to push through my symptoms and I paid a heavy price for it. Too many people find out the same thing the hard way: that it’s easier to shut the lights out and sleep for a couple of days than it is to live for weeks, months, and years feeling like you’ve got the worst hangover of your life. Knowledge is power.

    At the end of the day, technology can only do so much. People want an app or a piece of equipment that can absolve them of personal accountability. The bottom line is that our anatomy can only take so much; it’s important for us to recognize that, know the signs of being hurt, and be treated appropriately. Health is something that people take for granted until it’s threatened.

About WingNutt

Rider, Racer, Owner of MyBikeStand.com. A long history in racing and riding, from BMX and freestyle to Downhill, Dual Slalom, 4X and even some Road races spans nearly 25 years. Spent some time working in bike shops. I love to ride my bike.

Comments

  1. Nancy Fraga says:

    Very proud of my son, Jay Fraga, for getting the word out about concussions. Keep spreading the word and people will listen.

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