Exercise physiologist Lara Carlson's research on NASCAR thermoregulation may improve drivers' performances

Lara Carlson made a trip to Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, N.C. to work with pit crew teams on strength and conditioning and pilot future thermoregulatory research.

November 15, 2011

Buckle up. Assistant Professor Lara Carlson is taking the ride of her life, and she wants everyone on board.

Her love for NASCAR is infectious. Did you know motorsports are the second highest viewed sport on television? Did you know it's a family friendly environment? Or that race car drivers make themselves available to sign autographs? And it's really fun to watch.

"It impacts all of your senses. Your hair stands back when the cars speed by, your heart races. You cannot only hear, but feel the roar of the engines. It's really a sensory overload," said Carlson, describing a day at the races as a spectator.

Carlson, who holds a Ph.D., in exercise physiology, has found a way to integrate her love of racing with research associated with her work in the applied exercise science program at UNE's Westbrook College of Health Professions.

ACSM Motorsports Committee

Recently appointed to the 10-member American College of Sports Medicine Motorsports Committee, she has the opportunity to apply her professional expertise to improve performance and safety for the racing community—participants, crews and fans.

They have far to go. High-speed auto racing has been shown to challenge thermoregulation, stress the cardiovascular system, and induce driver fatigue, which is a major factor that can result in injury and death, and there are only a few published studies on the physiological demands placed on motorsports athletes. Not to mention the added G-force stress on the body.

Carlson is researching the body's ability to adapt to changes in temperature—a race car cockpit can reach 140 degrees—and determine how that impacts performance. Ultimately, she wants to implement training techniques that will help drivers and pit crews better acclimate to temperature changes. She is reaching out to race tracks in the region to involve her students in the research.

Her findings will not only benefit drivers at NASCAR, but thousands of weekend racers, like the brother who shared her love of racing.

Growing up in Connecticut, Carlson's brother raced stock cars on the weekends. But it wasn't until they both attended a race in 2005 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama that she became hooked.

She lost her brother to cancer a year later.

"I am so glad I got to enjoy those races with him" she said. "And now I'm carrying on his love of racing."

Hendrick Motorsports

Two summers ago, Carlson made a trip to Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina to work with pit crew teams on strength and conditioning and pilot future thermoregulatory research. Hendrick Motorsports is the home of big name drivers: Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and most recent five-time consecutive Cup winner Jimmie Johnson.

"Working with the NASCAR pit crew is a dramatic change from work I've done with other types of athletes," she said.

An athlete herself, Carlson was a U.S. ranked hammer thrower in Track and Field, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. She has also coached several NCAA All-Americans in various Track and Field throwing events.

"The athleticism and precision necessary when they go over the wall as their racecar pits are impressive," said Carlson. "Fractions of seconds on pit stops can add up to wins and losses."

Like her brother, Carlson's husband also shares her enjoyment of racing. For a recent wedding anniversary, his present to her was a ride around a race track. She was in the driver's seat.

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