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NASCAR Star Jeff Gordon’s Healthy Life on and off the Track

What drives this champion to win on the racetrack, as a husband and a dad, and in his quest to help kids with life-threatening conditions?

Jeff Gordon’s Racing Future

Even after three decades of racing, Gordon is not yet ready to talk about retirement. Life on and off the track is simply moving too fast right now to speculate about that. And while many things have changed in his life, especially over the last year, some aspects have remained constant.

“What got me into racing was seeing that checkered flag,” Gordon says. “When I first saw that flag waving, I said to myself, ‘I love that.’ And that hasn’t changed.” Then he adds, a bit wistfully, “But competition is so high at this level, you don’t see it as much as you’d like.”

How Safe Is Car Racing?

A NASCAR race is no Sunday drive, but what does it take to pilot a car to victory -- or at least to the finish line?

“Many people think the drivers are just sitting there, but it’s quite aerobic,” says John Melvin, PhD, a bioengineer at Wayne State University in Detroit and longtime safety consultant to NASCAR. He says racers push their heart rates to near maximum levels for hours at a time. “You don’t have to be particularly strong to race cars,” Melvin says, “but you have to have a lot of endurance. These drivers burn oxygen at the same rate as soccer players.”

According to Melvin, drivers feel a g-force (the force of gravity on the body during acceleration) of up to 3 g’s around the banked curves common on NASCAR tracks, where speeds average 180 mph or more. Isn’t that dangerous?

Race Track Improvements

Yes, says Melvin, but not nearly as risky as it was just a few years ago. Following a series of deaths, including that of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, a number of safety improvements to cars and tracks were put into place, vastly reducing injury rates.

The most important was the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device inside race cars. Melvin describes it as a carbon fiber collar integrated with restraining belts. It locks the driver’s head in place so that in a crash it moves with the body rather than whipping forward or to the side. That prevents the most common fatal injury: a fracture at the base of the skull.

For race tracks, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers were introduced in 2002. Square steel tubes filled with crushable foam, these barriers absorb some of the impact when drivers crash into them, reducing the severity of the crash.

Both safety measures seem to be working. There have been no deaths or serious injuries since these safety upgrades were introduced, says Melvin, but “we cross our fingers, because it’s still a very dangerous sport.”

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Reviewed on May 28, 2008

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