Maine researcher goes full throttle on new racing study

University of New England Assistant Prof. Lara Carlson is seeking to conduct breakthrough research on the physiological stresses faced by stock car drivers. Carlson is seen here posing with the black No. 3 Goodwrench car of the late NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Sr.
UNE | BDN
University of New England Assistant Prof. Lara Carlson is seeking to conduct breakthrough research on the physiological stresses faced by stock car drivers. Carlson is seen here posing with the black No. 3 Goodwrench car of the late NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Posted Nov. 16, 2011, at 7:26 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 17, 2011, at 7:44 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Try telling Lara Carlson driving a stock car is not an athletic feat.

“It’s not like people imagine,” said the University of New England assistant professor, who teaches at the school’s Portland-based Westbrook College of Health Sciences. “It’s not like merging your SUV onto the highway at 65 miles per hour.”

Carlson, a new appointee to the American College of Sports Medicine Motorsports Committee, is proposing to conduct groundbreaking research into the physiological demands placed on race car drivers like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Much has been written about the physical toll on players of contact football, or about the engineering of the stock cars the aforementioned stars drive every week. But data reflecting what those drivers’ bodies are enduring is sparse, Carlson said.

And what they’re enduring is significant. The UNE researcher got a taste of the fast lane herself when, for a recent wedding anniversary, her husband signed her up for a chance to take a spin around the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the site of two annual NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

“It was physically harder than I expected,” she recalled. “You’re hot just when you put on the double-layer fire suit. By the time you get in the car, you’re already sweating. Then it felt like I was holding out a 25-pound weight the whole time my hands were on the steering wheel. [With the centripetal force going around the oval track at high speeds], it felt like my brain was coming out of my right ear.”

If Carlson can record things like body temperatures, sweat excretion, blood flow and other cardiovascular responses to the stresses of driving a stock car in traffic at close to 200 miles per hour, she can work with drivers and racing teams to develop physical training techniques specific to the demands they face.

Her first foray into the subject came about two years ago, when she traveled to North Carolina to work with pit crew teams at Hendrick Motorsports — home of Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson — on strength and conditioning.

Now she wants to find a Maine-based racing partner to study in the cockpit of a stock car. Carlson envisions planting the driver with electrodes to monitor physiological reactions, and having him swallow a pill-size transmitter that would record and broadcast his core temperatures from within.

Carlson — who said she learned to love NASCAR from her late brother — said drivers face temperatures reaching 140 degrees in the car on race days, and stay caged in for several hours at a time.

“There’s limited research with these types of athletes compared to other sports out there,” she said Wednesday. “This will be a big deal, especially coming out of Maine and a small school in Maine.”

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