Crazy things happen when you’re driving 300 miles an hour.
You’re driving on the highway and check your mirrors to make sure the coast is clear, then floor it. It’s exhilarating, and maybe you think, I would be a pretty decent race car driver. Think again.
Brittany Force, the appropriately named 29-year-old who was Racer Magazine’s 2013 Rookie of the Year describes what it’s like to compete in drag racing, where drivers go head-to-head on a quarter mile straight shot. “On a run, you’re going 0 to 100 in less than a second, so we have to be strong enough to withstand that force, all while driving and reacting to everything going on.”
So we went to the experts—and one legend—to find out what happens to the body when it’s in a car, on a speedway, traveling hundreds of miles an hour.
The physiological effects of being in a car going more than 300 miles an hour are similar whether you’re a professional driver or just a reasonably fit person, generally. Sympathetic activity (the fight-or-flight response) increases, causing a release of the chemical epinephrine (adrenaline) that raises your blood pressure, making you more alert. It's your body telling you to fight or flee. Someone who hasn’t undergone the mental and physical training these drivers put themselves through might actually pass out from the stress, says John P. Higgins, M.D., sports cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at the McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Mario Andretti, the only man to have won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula One World Championship, says in the past, when he’s given rides in a two-seater to civilians, they often get dizzy after a couple laps and certainly wouldn’t be able to hang in for 498 more, which is a day on the job for Andretti.
“Physically, you use every ounce you can give to deliver, because a race car can be a lethal beast,” he says. “The challenge is to take that beast to the limit but still have control of it.”
The stress racing puts on the body can be equivalent to vigorous exercise; older research conducted in Austria that looked at race car drivers found that their average heart rate was nearly 175 beats per minute, which, for many, is similar to a challenging workout. And like vigorous exercise, the higher level of fitness you have, the better you’re able to handle the stress of the situation. The fitter racers put less stress on their hearts and metabolism while driving. But rather than the strain of running up a hill, it’s withstanding G-force.
“Essentially, the more gravity you’re dealing with, the harder the heart has to work to get blood circulating around the body,” Higgins says. “And the muscles in their arms might be very tight so it’s harder for the blood to get out to their extremities, which puts stress on the heart. This high stress and reduced blood flow to the head can lead to dimming of the vision and even a black out.”
Over time, professional drivers can adapt to the stress. Through experience, they learn their strengths and weaknesses, which informs their training. And drivers develop their own training regimens.
“There’s no textbook to tell you exactly what to do," Andretti says. "If your arms give out, you work on that. Or if I gave up four positions because I was tired, a sense of pride won't let that happen again. Generally, the more prepared you are, the more relaxed you are.”
This type of preparation is crucial in such a dangerous sport to make sure you're as comfortable as possible making split-second decisions. Whereas the uninitiated would see a race in real time, "moments for these car drivers can feel like hours," Higgins says.
Both Brittany Force and her sister Courtney, also a pro drag racer, say that although a typical drag race is counted in seconds, those seconds seem to stretch out. Courtney's first drag race was a complete blur, but the more she practiced, "the more my eyes caught up with my brain."
Certainly all sports have a mental aspect, but car racing is unique in that the specter of death hangs over the competition. The crux of what makes a person cut out for the sport isn't that they lack fear, says Frank Farley, professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University in Philadelphia, and former president of the American Psychological Association. It’s that so-called “thrill seekers,” which he calls “Big T” types, frame situations differently than other people do.
“Whether it’s jumping out of a plane or rushing into a burning building or whatever, Big T types may feel fear, but they kind of reframe it as ‘thrill,’” Farley says. “Instead of being paralyzed by fear at the door of airplane, big Ts frame it as ‘Wow, this is different and exciting. Can I overcome this challenge?’”
This is something therapists often encourage patients to do, Farley says – reframe an experience in their minds as a challenge they can handle rather than something that’s debilitating and limiting.