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Studies prove racecar drivers are excellent athletes

08/13/2017, 1:22am EDT
By By KYLE ROWLAND BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Ohio Northern prof spells out exceptionalism


NASCAR Cup Series driver Erik Jones says auto racing is an extremely physical and mental sport. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

ADA, Ohio — When Donovan McNabb opined in 2013 that Jimmie Johnson wasn’t an athlete, it set off a cavalcade of responses, reigniting the age-old debate of whether race car drivers are in the same echelon reserved for football and basketball players.

McNabb, a former NFL quarterback, created a firestorm in this hot-take society, where robust opinions are omnipresent. 

NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick responded with a pointed tweet.

“Cardio day in the gym today… Felt like @donovanjmcnabb in the 4th quarter… #sluggish,” it read.

The NASCAR world’s responses, as well as support from those outside the racing vortex, signaled that McNabb’s comments — “He sits in a car and he drives. That doesn’t make you athletic. What athletically is he doing?” — were wounding.

The work of Ed Potkanowicz is proving that McNabb’s statement was erroneous.

Potkanowicz, an associate professor of exercise physiology at Ohio Northern University, specializes in environmental physiology and how athletes perform when exposed to extreme environmental conditions.

Potkanowicz, one of the foremost authorities on unique physical stress levels faced by race car drivers, is on the board of directors of the International Council of Motorsport Sciences.

He is also a member of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Motorsports Safety Committee. 

Imagine sitting inside a car for four hours with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees while wearing a firesuit and helmet. And in those conditions, you’re piloting a race car at speeds nearing 200 mph with numerous split decisions being made. 

That’s what will occur this afternoon during the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

“We’re trying to figure out what the driver is experiencing from a physical perspective while he or she is in the car. What is the toll of driving a race car,” said Potkanowicz, who has extensively researched temperature regulation in drivers. 

“The reason behind that is very simply this, if you look at sports, traditional science has gone in and torn apart every aspect of what a player does. A golfer can dissect every specific part of their swing. What we’re trying to do is something in motorsports that’s never been done before — to actually measure what the driver is experiencing while he or she is racing, and take that information and develop training programs, intervention programs, which are intended to make the drivers safer and more competitive.”

The research and results have been staggering. Drivers are getting hot, which Potkanowicz describes as the “duh answer,” but the extent of the body temperatures is alarming. Drivers are getting core temperatures that are more than 102 degrees. It’s not abnormal for athletes to face extreme heat.

Racing, however, does not have timeouts.

“You can argue that a 10 to 12-second pit stop is a break. But even in the course of that stop, the driver is still engaged,” Potkanowicz said. “What you have is an athlete that’s subjected to great thermal stress for a long period of time.”

Core body temperature and heart rate response are two main areas of research. From those two variables, the physiological strain index can be calculated.

As the body gets hotter, it puts more strain on the cardiovascular system. At that point, accumulated thermal stress becomes an issue.

“It’s pretty taxing on your body,” said Cup Series driver Erik Jones. “We sweat a ton. We lose a lot of water weight. I’ve seen guys lose as much as 10 pounds. I’m definitely worn out. Physically, you’re drained and dehydrated and, mentally, you’re taxed out. The focus that it takes to run races is a really high level. The amount of focus it takes to hit your marks over three or four hours is high. It’s a more physical and mental sport than people give it credit.”

A similar study by Lara Carlson of the University of New England, David Ferguson of Baylor University, and Robert Kenefick from the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found almost identical results. They conducted tests at a short track in Maine, and they discovered the same extreme heat issues and even problems related to the fumes.

The blood pressure of drivers decreased because they were vasodilated from the heat.

Carlson, also a member of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Motorsports Safety Committee, which formed after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, serves as a consultant for Stewart-Haas racing, working with the strength and conditioning staff to complete physiological testing and improve pit crew athlete performance.

The significant increase in core body temperature for long periods of time cannot only impact a driver’s performance — possibly lessening their capacity to win — it can also compromise their safety, Potkanowicz noted.

This was illustrated in April when seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson became dehydrated during a race in Texas. He experienced intense cramping that required three bags of intravenous fluids after the race, which he won. Johnson was also treated for dehydration in 2014 at Richmond, and he’s perhaps the fittest driver in the sport, completing 10 triathlons.

“I got out of the car, and I was really hot,” Johnson said. “And then I was doing an interview, and I felt my back lock up, and then my chest and my arms. I was starting to cramp everywhere.”

The body tries to shed the accumulated heat, sending heat to the surface of the skin, which is why people feel flushed. It puts a dual load on the heart, asking it to move blood to the skin for thermal regulation and supply the exercising muscle with blood, which has oxygen, nutrients, and is responsible for removing accumulated waste.

“As the physiological stress continues, one or the other has to give,” Potkanowicz said, “the heart is going to continue supplying blood to the exercising muscles or it’s going to shunt blood to the periphery to reduce core body temperature. What we find happening is when you get into the later stages of a race, the body says, ‘Well I can’t do both of these things at the same time and do them well.’

“We see changes in cardiovascular function. The heart starts working harder, which can cause fatigue.”

Researchers have discovered that running marathons puts significant stress on your body. There  are similar opinions regarding the health effects of racing. Drivers are continuously challenged physiologically for an extended period of time. The heart rate is near maximum, and drivers are sweating out tons of water. One big difference is that marathon runners aren’t subjected to G-forces.

There are 800 G cycles in races, sometimes as many as three, four, or five Gs in a corner, putting significant strain on the cardiovascular system. At Daytona, Talladega, and Michigan, the G-forces can exceed what astronauts experience on launch — and it lasts for three or four consecutive hours.

“With the help of science, we can create a more targeted approach to training,” Potkanowicz said. “As soon as the body is removed from the stressor, our body does a fantastic job of recovery. 

Drivers are back to normal about 30 minutes after a race. It’s not just about recovering from a body temperature perspective, the important part is refueling yourself in the appropriate manner.”

For Jones, Gatorade and water are his go-to hydrators. And it actually begins on Thursday.

“Hydrating before races helps,” he said. “As long as you do that and focus on your hydration, the recovery comes along with it.”

When McNabb made his comments, Potkanowicz was aghast. How, he wondered, could a professional athlete disparage one of their brethren, especially in a sport where death is literally right around the corner.

After years of research, Potkanowicz’s convictions have been fortified. 

“Drivers are athletes,” he said. “I would suggest they are, in fact, elite athletes.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110 or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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