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Behind the wheel, the heart races too

Sitting down and driving -- as a professional athlete, at least -- can offer as demanding a cardiovascular workout as playing basketball, a study of track drivers finds.

January 20, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Turns out professional race-car drivers can run with the best of them.

For the first time, researchers have measured the heart rate and oxygen consumption of drivers during high-speed sessions -- and have found that their cardiovascular health equals that of premier athletes in traditional sports such as football, baseball, soccer and basketball.

The study challenges commonly held perceptions that sitting down and driving isn't a real sport, said lead author Patrick L. Jacobs, an associate professor at Miami's Department of Neurological Surgery.

"Those of us who work closely with professional racing drivers have, for a long time, known how severe the physical demands are to operate one of these cars competitively," said coauthor Dr. Steve Olvey, medical director of the Championship Auto Racing Teams series. The racing organization sponsors the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. "Racing drivers will now be recognized in the sports world as real athletes and will be accorded the respect they deserve."

The study examined seven professional drivers and recorded their physiological responses while maneuvering raceways at speeds of 120 mph to about 210 mph -- roughly the same speeds as those reached during actual races. Although seven subjects sounds like a small group, researchers say only 28 drivers compete at race car driving's top level, thus their study focused on a quarter of the available pool.

Researchers found that drivers required a great deal of physical stamina to keep their bodies centered, especially when turning corners and braking. To remain competitive, many professional drivers have strict training regimens, which include biking, running to increase endurance, and weight-lifting to provide the upper body strength necessary to handle curves and turns.

The study was published in the December issue of "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise," the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

For a complete picture of the sport's demands, additional studies are needed, researchers said. They don't fully understand the physical and psychological stresses of competition and the performance effects of high temperatures inside the driver's compartment.

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