'UNIQUE ADAPTATIONS' FOR NASCAR PIT CREWS
High Heart Rates, but No Rise in Body Temperature—Despite Fire-Protection Gear
Newswise — Philadelphia, Pa. (August 1, 2011) –NASCAR pit crew members are highly trained athletes with unique physical adaptations that help them tolerate the high temperatures and stresses of working on the race track, according to a study in the August issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, official research journal of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). The journal is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.
During races, pit crew athletes show high heart rates but relatively low body temperatures—despite wearing extensive fire protection gear. The results suggest "distinct physiological adaptations among pit crew athletes that aid in performance and tolerance of the race environment," according to the new study, conducted at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte by David P. Ferguson, M.S., R.C.E.P., and colleagues. Ferguson is currently a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University.
New Insights into Physical and Psychological Stress in NASCAR Pit Crews
The researchers evaluated heart rate and body temperature in seven pit crew members during six NASCAR Sprint Cup races. The measurements were obtained using special ingestible sensors, which transmitted wirelessly transmitted physiologic data. Heart rate and body temperature were measured before each race, every 15 minutes during the race, and after each pit stop—12 to 20 times per race.
Surprisingly, body temperatures were lower in pit crew athletes than in non-pit crew controls at the same race. The researchers had expected that pit crews would have higher body temperatures because of their required fire-resistant suits (including socks, gloves, and underwear) as well as helmets. Body temperatures differed by pit crew assignment—tire changers/jackmen had lower body temperatures than tire carriers.
Pit crew members had higher heart rates during races on asphalt tracks, compared to concrete tracks. There were also significant differences in heart rate by position: higher in tire changers/jackmen than in tire carriers.
"The study is the first to measure the physiological responses of elite pit crew athletes in the race environment, an environment that is characterized by high temperatures and requisite fire-protection clothing," Ferguson and co-authors write. The results suggest NASCAR pit crew members have special adaptations to the harsh and stressful conditions on pit row.
The higher heart rates in pit crew athletes may provide a clue to the lower body temperatures: a faster heart rate may more efficiently shunt blood to the skin, thus helping to dissipate heat. This likely results from extensive training—including frequent practice pit stops wearing full fire-protection gear—leading to high-level athletic conditioning and heat acclimatization.
The authors note that some of the races studied were associated with unique psychological stresses—for example, one team needed a strong performance to qualify for NASCAR's "Chase for the Cup." Especially after they've attained top physical condition, training under conditions of anxiety might help pit crew athletes to further improve their performance. In this situation, "The use of a sport psychologist in addition to continued training could prove useful," the researchers write.
Ferguson comments, "There is a general perception that pit crew members are not athletes, but the physiological adaptations documented in this study show this to be an inaccurate statement." He adds that the new research is the first and only study to be done with the full permission of NASCAR and the Sprint Cup team Earnhardt Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.