Stephen Leicht stewed as the NASCAR driver hiring climate robbed him of his potential.
A promising career with Robert Yates Racing fizzled. Sponsorship fell through. Team leadership changed. At 20, Leicht’s career, his life, hung in the balance.
He competed in 39 races across NASCAR’s national series from 2008-2012. He spent the next four years out of the sport.
Leicht started drinking more while battling depression and anxiety. An eating disorder followed.
“I took it really personal,” Leicht said. “I felt like what did I do to cause this and be in this situation? Financial trouble — racing was all I had ever done and was my only source of income. … It’s hard to reset your brain and start over.”
Many athletes live with rejection and starting over. But NASCAR challenges drivers and crew members to the extreme, experts say.
They perform while in jeopardy of serious injury or death, travel 35-40 weekends annually (contributing to potential infidelity and alcoholism), spend long days in loud garages, and work in a cut-throat industry with no collective bargaining agreement amid frequent fears of losing a job or a sponsor.
When NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace revealed in May his battle with depression, it struck a chord with many inside the garage who, such as Leicht, live in silence amid mental health struggles.
“That opened a door, a big ass bay door,” said Wallace, who met with a sports psychiatrist and psychologist but discontinued after a couple sessions. “I don’t regret saying it. I had a lot of people reach out and say, ‘It’s OK to get help, it’s OK to do this.’
“I know it’s OK. I don’t feel guilty. I went and got help and I don’t think it helped me that much.”
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Psychiatrist Jason Mastor, who practices in Mooresville, N.C., in the hub of NASCAR, understands the challenges.
“I am sure the pressures are enormous,” Mastor said. “That probably makes it even scarier because a lot of these guys might not be (post-high school) educated. They’ve been driving since they were children, so losing their ride has got to be a scary thing for them.”
Leicht’s story describes fear and frustration.
“At the level of racing we do, emotions run really high and everyone is passionate and competitive,” Leicht said.
“When you try to hold all those emotions in, at some point there is a breaking point and I finally reached mine. I got to the point. I couldn’t watch the races. I didn’t want to go to the race track.”
Stephen Leicht (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk, Getty Images)
Still, Leicht enjoyed racing success that just a small percentage of racers reach. When part-time Cup Series driver Cody Ware attempted to take his life several years ago, he wasn’t racing at the time, and he stresses that depression doesn’t choose based on what people view as success or living the dream life.
Therapist Crystal Hulett, who operates Thrive Counseling and Wellness near the NASCAR base of race shops in North Carolina, hopes that Wallace’s candor will pioneer a movement of acceptance of mental health issues among those in the sport.
“It’s been hard to complete treatment with any of them … It’s much more challenging to get them into a good place than the general population because there are so many barriers,” she said.
Also, unlike NASCAR, other sports have a longer off-season when athletes can deal with issues. They also don’t compete where one mistake – by them or someone else — can make the difference between life and death, amplifying their reticence to admit any weakness. Hulett said crew members say they do not want her to inform crew chiefs or superiors about their treatment and discuss ways to help them.
“They’re a dime a dozen,” Hulett said about crew members. “So it’s like, ‘We’ll get somebody else in here and get them up to speed. Bye.' ''
Wallace and Ware said they don’t feel their issues have impacted racing performance.
Tia Konzer, a North Carolina-based psychiatrist who specializes in sports, said athletes can compartmentalize, and the spike of adrenaline and competing can be therapeutic.
“The problem is you can’t have that level of adrenaline all the time,” Konzer said. “You may actually have those moments when you feel better in the middle of the race but then there is the crash [after the race].”
Leicht knows all too well about the adrenaline, hope and then the crash.
“That was part of the eating disorder and the drinking a little too often was me trying to fill that adrenaline-rush void,” Leicht said. “I’m not the type of guy that can sit and do nothing all day. … When you are racing since you were 5-6 years old, every week, 40-50 weeks out of the year, it’s not like you can just turn that off.
“Your brain gets used to that and craves that.”
Leicht still struggles to sleep. He still wants to race, having competed full time this year for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“I didn’t want to admit I had a problem. … It took me a long time to be OK with [therapy],” Leicht said. “It’s been an up-and-down 10 years for me. And things are looking up again.”
Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
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