Vintage motor racing is very unique in the world of motorsport. Many of us like to believe this rarefied racing environment allows us to enjoy most of the benefits of “mainstream” racing without many of the detriments. However, there is one curious downside to vintage racing that very few people ever give any consideration to. This is the fact that, while our old cars are periodically renewed to perfect racing condition, we, as drivers, are not always as lucky.
“What the hell does that mean?” you ask incredulously. Well, while it’s never a popular point of view, none of us are getting any younger (though many of our cars are!). While this doesn’t necessarily pose a direct problem, with increasing age comes the increased likelihood of health problems. This is unfortunately true for racers, just like everyone else. Without doubt, there has never been any point in time in motorsport history, when there have been as many older, active drivers as there are right now. As a result of this, racing has never seen as many age- and health-related on-track problems, as we have seen in the past few years. If you have been racing even a modest amount over the past five years, then the chances are good that you have either seen or at least heard of someone having a heart attack at the track. The truth is that the act of racing (even vintage racing) is just as physically arduous now as it was 20 or more years ago. But how many of us can say that we are in as good a shape as we were 20 years ago? It doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t race, it just means that we should take a few extra precautions.
Up until now, most organizations have not been in a position to address this issue. Well, I’m extremely pleased to report that one club, CSRG, has taken a leadership role in this contentious area. Late last year, CSRG funded a very important pilot study to both evaluate the heart rates of a group of randomly chosen racers and to implement a very easy and basic workout program to help improve their heart’s performance on the track (see last month’s Race Prep section of Vintage Racecar Journal for a detailed description of the program). The group that is conducting this study includes a highly qualified physical trainer and emergency medical technician, an MD, who is director of emergency room medicine at a major metropolitan hospital, and our own lifelong racer and artist, Wally Thomason.
Since we published the basis of their program last month, some very interesting preliminary results have come to light. First, was the finding that of the 14 drivers randomly selected to wear heart monitors during their race, 42% showed signs of their hearts reaching exertion levels which are considered to be dangerously high. (Coincidently, one driver, not in the study, but racing that weekend, suffered a major heart attack – fortunately he’s recovered and is well today.)
But, perhaps even more interesting than the 42% that showed dangerous heart rates was the finding that almost everyone’s heart rate shot up at the start, presumably as a result of elevated adrenaline levels in their systems. The potential problem from this last finding is really two fold. First, adrenaline will raise a heart rate already elevated by physical effort and can potentially push a poorly conditioned driver into that dangerous level of increased heart rate which greatly increases the potential for heart problems or black outs (again see last month’s article for details.) Secondly, when we go to the doctor for our EKG test to renew our racing license, adrenaline is not a factor in the test (unless your doc wants to spice things up with a cattle prod). Therefore, the borderline heart could appear fine in the doctor’s office but potentially be in a more serious state out on the track.
The good news from all of this is that early results from the part of the CSRG study that looked at the effects of walking for 30 minutes, three times a week, at a heart rate just below your aerobic threshold are very encouraging. Several of the drivers in the study quickly showed positive improvement, which is expected to translate into better stamina on the track, a safe heart rate while racing, and maybe even better finishing results! This is a program that we should all take a serious look at. The vintage racing community as a whole owes a lot to the foresight of CSRG for bringing this program about.