New York Times features story on UNE physiologist Lara Carlson's research on stock car racing stress

July 09, 2013

University of New England Assistant Professor Lara Carlson's love for NASCAR is infectious. 

The New York Times is the latest to catch the bug, featuring Carlson's stock car physiology research in its Wheels section on July 8, 2013.

Titled "Research Shows the Physiological Stresses of Stock Car Racing," the column by Ronald Ahrens looks at research conducted by Carlson, a physiologist in UNE's Applied Exercise Science Program, and David Ferguson, Baylor College of Medicine.

They conducted tests during races at Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, Maine, for what was the first scholarly study of the physiological forces facing stock car drivers.

Times columnist Ahrens explains that stock car bodies are designed to eliminate drag, keeping air from circulating in the cockpit, where temperatures can reach 140 degrees.

Carlson and Ferguson's findings, which are being prepared for publication in an academic journal, show that drivers endure significant stresses from high temperatures and extreme gravitational forces.

Carlson, who is also president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine New England Chapter, told the Times that the research could raise concerns about the prolonged effects of these forces upon NASCAR  drivers. Read the entire New York Times feature.

The New York Times column comes a year after Maine media became interested in Carlson and her stock car research, which were featured in the Bangor Daily News and the Journal Tribune (Biddeford).

And that media attention is no surprise. Motorsports are the second highest viewed sport on television. It's a family friendly sport, and race car drivers even make themselves available to sign autographs.

"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.

Although Carlson's primary academic research centers on the expression of genetic information stored in DNA, she became interested in the physiology of NASCAR racing when she became a fan of the sport in 2005.

ACSM Motorsports Committee

Two years ago Carlson was appointed to the 10-member American College of Sports Medicine Motorsports Committee. As a committee member, she has had the opportunity to apply her professional expertise to improve performance and safety for the racing community - participants, crews and fans.

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's research is focused on 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.

Her research 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

Four 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 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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