Associate Professor David Ferguson is the first ever to receive an exercise physiology-related grant from NASCAR. The grant, awarded in January 2023, is expected to address the growing concerns of heat exhaustion a race car driver may experience during competition.
Ferguson and his team of Kinesiology undergraduate and Ph.D. students will spend the next year attending high-profile NASCAR races around the country collecting data.
“It’s going to be a very large data set. We’re going to learn a lot about how drivers respond to heat,” said Ferguson. “NASCAR is involved, which means our data can influence safety of all the cars. Large-scale problems can be fixed now.”
With close to 15 years of motor sports research under his belt, Ferguson is utilizing the fine-tuned technology and equipment that is needed to conduct research at the highest level. “We’ve finally got to the point where we’ve optimized the technology and we’re taking advantage of every technological advance we have so that we can actually and quickly improve health results.”
NOT JUST DRIVERS
From Fluid Logic’s helmet hydration system to Pratt Miller’s ear thermometer, the advances being made in motor sports technology are making it safer for the world’s best drivers—who on average burn 2,000 to 3,000 calories and shed seven pounds of sweat during a two-hour race.
Despite temperatures ranging from 110 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit in the cockpit, heat and dehydration aren’t the only strain placed on the driver. According to Ferguson, a turn of the steering wheel in either direction is 20 pounds of pressure weighted on the forearms, while pressing the brake pedal can equate to as much as 75 pounds of force.
Drivers also experience G-force of about two-to-five times the force of gravity at the turn of each corner, which defies NASA’s pilot protocol of limiting G-force exposure to four times the force of gravity for a maximum of 15 minutes.
The debate on whether NASCAR drivers are high-performance athletes has been put to rest with the help of Ferguson’s research.
With that, he has developed diet and exercise regimens for both closed cockpit and open wheel (not enclosed) drivers.
In the cockpit, the small amount of air circulation calls for an emphasis on cardio training in hot environments to prepare drivers. These drivers can experience a heart rate of 160 to 180 beats per minute according to Ferguson. In open wheel racing, a larger emphasis is put on strengthening the neck muscles, specifically scalene and trapezius muscles.
Both types of athletes, however, are continuously building and maintaining strength throughout the season, while replenishing with a carb-heavy diet.
PAVING HIS OWN PATH
As his senior year wrapped up as a Kinesiology major at University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), Ferguson, who had planned on applying to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon, decided his passion lied elsewhere.
“My passion and hobby was always cars. I loved working on cars. I loved racing cars. I loved driving cars,” he said. “I had taken the MCAT and was at the finish line, but I talked to people who were in medical school, and they all sounded more excited than I was.”
After Googling the simple phrase, ‘kinesiology and motorsports?’ Ferguson landed on blending his love for exercise physiology with race cars, which led him to email Tim Lightfoot, an exercise physiologist at University of North Carolina Charlotte whose research was focused on race car drivers.
Lightfoot responded to Ferguson’s email with an invitation to pursue a master’s degree in exercise physiology, which Ferguson did, and shortly after he began building relationships with race car industry experts.
Ferguson experienced bumps in the road, but like most success stories, persistence has been the key in allowing him to unlock new paths. He encourages any student that is passionate about physiology and high-performance vehicles to send an email—just as he did 16 years ago.
“My lab is open to everyone—we can use the help,” he finished. “Don’t be afraid to show up. I started this by emailing a guy and moving to Charlotte, so if you’re interested in this stuff, come over to IM Circle and we can have that conversation.”