College of Health and Human Performance

A Driving Force

HHP researchers explore auto racing physiology

A Driving Force

by Manny Rea

Because of the limited literature and research on the auto racing industry, drivers are often considered lesser athletes when compared with athletes in the big four sports. But behind the steering wheel, drivers are enduring their own unique set of physical challenges.

Under the helmet visor and fire suit lies an athlete with a special set of skills and circumstances. Yet sports fans often underestimate the work racecar drivers put in. For example, NASCAR and Formula 1 racers partake in competition while facing invisible trials: loads of g-force, heat stress and carbon monoxide exposure.

Because of the limited literature and research out there on the auto racing industry, drivers are often shelved as lesser athletes when compared with the more visually evident big four sports. But behind the steering wheel, drivers are enduring their own unique set of physical challenges. The mechanical strength of the racecar paired with the quirks and turns of racetracks make for its own needed athleticism.

Researchers David Ferguson, Ph.D., and Michael Reid, Ph.D., are collaborating with the FastMD Racing Team to open the conversation of auto racing physiology; by exploring the conditions racers endure, their research is highlighting these underestimated athletes.

Video credit: Caleb Lanteigne/FastMD Racing

Ferguson is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University.
He studies early life nutrition’s effect on cardiorespiratory fitness but has also made the plunge into researching the relatively untapped physiological stressors of racecar drivers.

Auto racing stands as one of the biggest spectator sports next to soccer. Unlike the latter which receives about 400 sports medicine papers published a year, racing has only had 30 ever — half of which Ferguson has contributed to.

He’s loved cars for as long as he can remember, but the research aspect didn’t come into play until about 15 years ago. Ferguson witnessed a Las Vegas racer suffer from heat illness on the track leading the driver to see triple; his finishing position at fourth suffered because of the heat stress.

“There’s all this engineering and technology that goes into the car,” Ferguson said. “Is anyone looking at the driver?”

Reid is the dean of the College of Health & Human Performance and professor in applied physiology and kinesiology at the University of Florida. His interest in the sport began as a kid racing slot cars before progressing to time and distance rallies in high school. He would take this devotion further as an autocross racer in college, a competition in which racers test their handling skills on tightly wound courses.

He’s since taken part in High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) in which enthusiasts work to improve car control skills and learn to drive at speed safely.

“It has given me the opportunity to experience first-hand the challenges of driving tracks like Daytona, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio, and the Nürburgring,” Reid said.

Reid and Ferguson met while Reid was a visiting professor at Texas A&M. They both would go on to serve on the Motorsports Task Force for the American College of Sports Medicine and are both members of the International Council of Motorsport Science. Their research collaboration, however, began only last year. Now they’re out to provide knowledge that represents the physicality involved in racing.

“The data makes it very clear that fatigue predisposes drivers to making mistakes, to having wrecks and to being hurt,” Reid said.

The research is also vital to the safety of amateur drivers who race as a hobby on the weekends but reach the same speeds and dangers as professionals, he emphasized. “Those folks, they don’t have their own track doctor,” Reid said. “They don’t have individual fitness trainers, they don’t have people constantly monitoring them.” But racers can also expect to up their game based on the findings — even a second per lap makes all the difference.

“Understanding the factors that limit performance is ultimately going to improve the performance of the drivers and more importantly keep them safer,” Reid said.

Reid and Ferguson had this goal in mind and brought it out to the track for the Motul Petit Le Mans sports car endurance race in Braselton, Georgia on Nov. 13. Partnering with the FastMD Racing team from Brooksville, Florida, the duo was able to monitor physiological data of three racers over 36 hours.

The Motul Petit Le Mans is a 10-hour race that sees teams alternate between three drivers in about 45-minute intervals. The drivers perform 394 laps for a total of about 1,000 miles on the Road Atlanta course. As competitors in the IMSA SportsCar Championship, FastMD Racing finished fourth in their Le Mans Prototype 3 car class and offered invaluable data to the researchers.

Professional drivers James Vance, Max Hanratty and Todd Archer were fitted with high-end sportswear with monitors originally developed for F1 racing. The monitor fits under the driver’s fireproof undershirt and measures biometrics such as heart and breathing rates. And just like in all other human research, Ferguson and Reid made sure to obtain informed consent from each of
the racers.

“I am ecstatic to understand the happenings of my body whilst driving the car but even more so excited to continue working side by side with Dean Reid and the incredible folks at UF,” Vance said. “We see the benefits and the big picture of this program, and we are so grateful to be a part of it.”

Reid enjoyed the ins and outs of the pit crew perspective while at the event. He recalled the cold of that night forcing spectators and team members alike to bundle up in layers of jackets and hats. But when the racers stepped out of the car to switch with the next driver, their faces were drenched in sweat.

Much of that heat is generated from the car’s roaring engine. “If the heat management is not well thought out, drivers have said that they cannot keep their foot on the floor,” he said. “It’s like putting your foot on a frying pan.”

Months later, the researchers are working on reporting the data to FastMD Racing and its drivers. This initial work will contribute to a databank of more biometrics just as larger organizations like NASCAR are focusing on driver safety and heat stress.

“Driver science is an emerging field,” Reid said. “Biometrics are going to provide an increasingly important source of information for the motorsports industry and for driver athletes in particular.”