Some people may think NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes. Drive your car fast, turn left … what’s so athletic about that? But Physical Therapist Ken Breath, OrthoCarolina‘s manager of motorsports outreach, strongly disagrees. Ken’s worked with hundreds of drivers (and pit crew members) on everything from post-wreck rehab to chronic pain management and more. We asked him all about the physical toll NASCAR can take on drivers and their crew. Here’s what he had to say.
They are true athletes. It’s more than just a leisurely drive — most races last for hours and involve drivers pushing with their legs, turning the wheel with their arms, swiveling their head to get a good view and more. “If you think they aren’t athletes, go do the NASCAR Racing Experience or join them on a ride along,” Ken says.
Chronic conditions are just as common (if not more common) than trauma from wrecks. Drivers commonly suffer headaches, back pain, neck pain and chronic hand, wrist and thumb problems from turning the wheel. A car consistently going 200 miles per hour also exerts lots of force on the upper body, which can cause problems.
The left side of their body takes a beating. When a driver is experiencing several Gs every lap during a multiple hour race, it can take a toll. Ken said drivers often get “lopsided” because they’re constantly turning left (the problem is common with golfers also).
When there’s trauma, there’s no way to avoid getting injured. Ken says a driver can be in the best shape of his or her life and still suffer lingering issues from a traumatic wreck on the track. But there is hope in rehabilitation — Ken’s helped rehab both Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch after accidents.
Drivers’ “extracurriculars” can wreak as much havoc as driving. Ken commonly treats drivers for injuries they get away from the track — basketball injuries, tight legs from running and more.
Pit crew members are athletes too. Could you change a tire in a matter of seconds? Pit crew members do it several times a race, which can cause problems for their neck and shoulders. Many pit crew members played football or baseball in college, and their continued athleticism shows on race day.
How Can You Train Like a NASCAR Pro
Just like with all sports, NASCAR drivers and pit crew continue their training away from the track to keep themselves in tip-top shape for race day. Here are a few ways you can train like a NASCAR pro:
Focus on the core. Get ahead of that lop-sided issue we talked about earlier by strengthening your core. But…
Crunches won’t cut it. Drivers need lots of help from their endurance or slow twitch muscles. You could take up yoga like Danica Patrick, who Ken says works hard to stay ahead of injury and overcome some of the occupational hazards that come with having a smaller frame. Ken also often rehabs drivers by having them complete exercises while standing on an unstable surface.
Keep the upper body strong. Drivers need that strength to turn the wheel of essentially a giant projectile hurdling down the track. Pushups and weight training are a good way to start.
OrthoCarolina Motorsports, overseen by Director of Motorsports William Heisel, PA-C has formal relationships with Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. OrthoCarolina has conducted epidemiological studies to track trends in NASCAR athletes in conjunction with OrthoCarolina physicians who treat the teams, including examining musculoskeletal forces on the bodies of motorsports athletes. More information: https://www.orthocarolina.com/motorsports.
Meet our expert
Ken Breath serves as the Manager of Motorsports Outreach at OrthoCarolina’s Huntersville location. He’s the former head physical therapist and athletic trainer for Joe Gibbs Racing. In addition to treating patients, Ken stays current in the latest research by frequently attending continuing education courses and reading journals. He stays busy after work watching his two daughters play soccer and occasionally playing golf.