Automobile racing is one of the largest spectator sports in the world, with a viewing audience equal to that of soccer, and most people, regardless of their interest in the sport, can name famous race events like the Daytona 500 or Indy 500 and drivers like Jeff Gordon, Mario Andretti or Lewis Hamilton. The popularity of automobile racing has also grown in recent years thanks to the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive and the feature film Ford vs Ferrari. Yet if you were to ask, “Are race car drivers athletes?” most responses would be “no.” Many people think drivers just sit in the car while the vehicle does the work. However, racing drivers routinely compete at heart rates of 160-180 beats per minute, can lose up to seven pounds sweat during a race and are exposed to gravitational forces that rival those experienced by fighter pilots and astronauts.
For the past fifteen years, my laboratory, Spartan Motorsport Performance Laboratory, worked to dispel the notion that race car drivers are not athletes by documenting the stressors they are exposed to, their physiological responses to these stressors and the overall fitness requirements for driving race cars. In the short term, we seek to identify evidence-based training and nutrition practices that will optimize driver health and performance—efforts that have contributed to drivers winning the Daytona 500, 24 hours of Le Mans, Baja 1000, and Monaco Grand Prix, as well as several NASCAR, Formula 1 and IMSA championships. In the long term, we want racing drivers universally recognized as the athletes they actually are, increasing their access to the sports medicine practices enjoyed by their peers in more traditional sports.
If you were to tour a traditional professional sport’s team training facility, you would encounter a state-of-the-art sports medicine clinic with modern equipment and certified professionals (e.g., physician, athletic trainer, sport psychologist, exercise physiologist, strength and conditioning coach, dietician) dedicated to optimizing athlete performance and rehabilitating injuries. However, if you were to tour a professional race team facility, you would discover a venue equal in cost and personnel expertise focused on the performance of the race car, yet lacking sports medicine support. Certainly, there are highly skilled medical personnel (e.g., the IndyCar Safety Team) present at the racetrack who respond to and treat drivers during a crash, but establishing a day-to-day health and training regime is often the sole responsibility of the driver. In many racing contracts, it is up to the driver to source their own physical training/nutrition advice and sports medicine care, often at their own cost.
To document how drivers manage their sports medicine care, I worked with Drs. Abigail C. Bretzin and Julia N.D. Hines to evaluate racing driver knowledge, attitudes and reporting behaviors regarding concussion (published in The Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine in 2022). Like most contact sports, concussion is a concern in motorsports and a serious injury if not properly treated. We used validated surveys to assess knowledge, attitudes and reporting behaviors in 59 professional race car drivers and determined that most drivers were aware of concussion symptoms and the dangers of improper management of concussion. Alarmingly, though, we learned that only half the drivers reported a concussion to their team, the reason being that they did not want to let their race team down by being unable to drive the car. Placing the responsibility on the driver to direct their own health care and training cultivates a culture of drivers choosing between their health and their career.
Auto racing has seen substantial improvements in driver health and safety in recent years, and the next step is to increase the presence of sports medicine health care teams within motorsports. Drivers and race teams should be taught about the physical stressors of and physiological responses to driving, along with how a sports medicine team can mitigate these issues. Sponsors should be taught that, in addition to funding the race car and driver salary, they should consider funding health care professionals within the race team. For their part, sanctioning bodies should be taught about the importance of sports medicine and encouraged to consider regulations that would increase drivers’ access to such critical resources. Lastly, sports medicine physicians, athletic trainers, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and sport psychologists should turn an eye toward motorsports and consider whether their expertise could benefit this underserved population.
David P. Ferguson, Ph.D., FACSM, is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Michigan State University. With over 15 years of research experience in professional auto racing, Dr. Ferguson focuses on helping racing drivers improve their performance while staying safe. He began his journey by earning a B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Following this, he earned an M.S. in Clinical Exercise Physiology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Texas A&M University and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Nutrition and Cardiovascular Physiology at Baylor College of Medicine. He has published multiple scientific papers on racing driver physiology and served as author and editor for a book, “The Science of Motorsport” on the topic. His expertise supported drivers in the winning of three NASCAR Cup series Championships, an IMSA Sportscar Championship and two Formula 1 World Championships. He has also helped drivers win notable races such as the Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, and the Baja 1000.