By LUKE MEREDITH
The Associated Press
NEWTON, Iowa — To the outside world, NASCAR driver Matt Tifft was simply dealing with back pain to start last season.
When Tifft was alone, a series of painful and increasingly bizarre symptoms stemming from his brain had started to worry him a lot more than a bulging disk.
Tifft, an Xfinity series rookie in 2016, was suddenly extremely sensitive to light and besieged by pounding headaches. Tifft also fought bouts of paranoia and was stricken with social anxiety, something the affable driver had never experienced.
Tifft would even hear strange voices and music in his head late at night, when he was just trying to get his mind to rest.
“It wasn’t like ‘Oh my God. This is ruining my life. It was just that it was getting really weird. I had no problem dealing with it, but it was just getting to the point where it wasn’t making sense anymore,” said Tifft, who’ll run in tonight’s Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway. “Things just weren’t adding up.”
What Tifft thought might have been the effects of a concussion at Bristol Motor Speedway years earlier turned out to be much more serious.
Doctors discovered Tifft had a low-grade tumor, or glioma, on the right side of his brain — right where all those nasty headaches had started.
The tumor turned out to be benign, and after brain surgery those symptoms subsided. Tifft was even healthy enough to return to racing three months later, when he notched top-10s in three consecutive starts.
But the experience forced Tifft, 20, to think long and hard about his future.
“There was relief of knowing what it was. Terrified of figuring out what the next steps were going to be. Whether it was going to change my career, whether it was going to change my life,” Tifft said. “You don’t know if you’re going to drive a race car again…all those things were such unknowns that you just sit there terrified at the uncertainty.”
The ordeal did come with a price.
Tifft, a junior-to-be at UNC-Charlotte, put academics on hold last fall in favor of racing after doctors advised him to pick one or the other.
Tifft said he intends to eventually earn his degree.
“When I had to come back to racing and school, it was the same week. I was like, ‘Um, This might be a little tough,’” Tifft said.
With racing now his sole focus, Tifft’s next challenge will be to re-establish himself as a driver with a possible future in the Monster Energy Cup series.
Tifft, who has raced stock cars since 2011, was a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing last year. Tifft landed a full-time Xfinity ride with JGR for 2017, but the results haven’t been what he was hoping for.
Tifft, working with new crew chief Matt Beckman, has finished in the top 10 just four times in 13 races, though Tifft believes that he and his team have finally started clicking over the past few weeks.
That cohesion could help Tifft find the redemption he said he’s seeking at Iowa.
The first race Tifft missed because of his tumor was in Iowa — and he watched from home as veteran Sam Hornish Jr. jumped into his car on short notice and won the race.
“I was just thinking ‘I should be in that car and I should be winning this race right now,’” Tifft said. “It’s just more motivation.”