This Saturday, 100,000+ fans will descend on Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch 43 drivers, 12 of which are competing in the second round of the NASCAR 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The drivers are household names – Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who are as easily recognized by outsiders as they are revered by diehard fans. As all eyes fixate on the high-speed, heart-stopping action on the track, one man will walk nearly a half marathon up and down the sideline treating injuries to keep the whole NASCAR machine – from the pit to the driver’s seat – in motion.
Bill Heisel is a physician assistant and co-director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, a specialty division he created in response to what he saw was a dire need to apply sports medicine principles to an industry that many think isn’t a sport at all.
“These are performance athletes and they need to be treated as such,” said Heisel while making his rounds at Stewart-Haas Racing on Tuesday.
There’s a saying in the industry that there are no secrets in the garage and Heisel’s brand of NASCAR-specific physical care is no exception. He’s taken the same sports medicine principles applied to stick and ball sports and rolled them out throughout NASCAR. What started as an underground side job has grown into a full-blown revolution in the training and treatment of race athletes. “It’s my baby and I take a lot of pride and satisfaction in adding concierge-level service to this sport and treating a population that had not been served,” he said.
Heisel is a trusted name in the NASCAR circuit and for good reason. A brutally long 10-month season demands quick recovery from injuries with little to no down time, and his sports medicine-centric approach delivers. He treated Kyle Busch after a hard hit at the season opener in Daytona sidelined the star driver with a broken leg and foot earlier this year. Busch was back on the track less than three months after the accident, coming in hot with four wins that edged him into eligibility for the Chase.
Back in 2013, Tony Stewart, an owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and driver of the No. 14 car, suffered a compound fracture, breaking both bones in his lower right leg, in a sprint car crash in Iowa. He missed the rest of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series and underwent three surgeries and many months of physical therapy. Bill and his motorsports team coordinated all of Tony’s care and did all of his rehabilitation.
To outsiders, NASCAR isn’t a sport. But what’s seen from a distance as machines simply driving around a track translates into severe conditions that wreak havoc on the human body behind the wheel. Temperatures inside the car can reach 150 degrees causing drivers to lose up to 12 pounds of water weight in a single race. The pressure of the G force applied to the body at turns can be comparable to that felt by astronauts at lift off depending on the severity of the banked incline. And let’s not forget the risk of crashing at 200 miles per hour.
But the risk of injury doesn’t stop with the drivers. Heisel focuses much of his attention on the often-overlooked pit crew, a team as explosively powerful, agile, precise and prone to injury as any traditional sports team.
Pit crew members are often recruited from college athletics and trained for two to three years before they’re ready for a race. There are six crew members for each car – 2 tire changers, 2 tire carriers, a jackman and a fueler – and Heisel says their injuries are usually position specific.
Jackmen see a lot of back and elbow injuries after repeatedly cranking a 3,400-pound car off the ground. Fuelers suffer shoulder injuries from lugging and emptying 90-pound gas cans in about 7 seconds. And the tire changers brutalize their knees dropping to the ground to remove lug nuts. “Biomechanically, moving the way the tire changers move is everything you shouldn’t do,” said Heisel.
And yet the job demands that they move that way over and over and over again, leading to excessive wear and tear on their joints. According to pit crew coach Kevin Sharpe, one crew has completed 4,000 pit stops in practice or at the track so far this year. “Your body just eventually breaks down,” he said.
In a sport where one second stands between first and last place finishers, milliseconds make a difference and they’re gained and lost in the pit. That means keeping the guys on the crew healthy is crucial for success. “For the most part, the cars are on an equal playing field,” said Heisel. “If you’re going to make significant gains, you’re going to make them on human performance.”
Just last weekend, Stewart-Haas No. 4 car driver Kevin Harvick squeaked into the top 12 advancing to the Contender round of the Sprint Cup Series with a dominating win at Dover on Sunday. A second place finish would have edged him out of the running. The only option was to win or be eliminated. “There was more pressure on the No. 4 pit crew that day than when they won the championship last year,” said Sharpe.
Preventing or at least promptly treating pit crew injuries is as important as keeping the cars in good working condition. While speed on the track has increased with advances in engineering, speed in the pit depends on six human beings performing in sync in peak physical condition. With pit stops averaging around 10.5 seconds, the cohesiveness of the crew as a unit is crucial for fast, flawless performance. “Team chemistry is the most important thing we have going for us,” said Sharpe. “So it’s huge to keep the guys healthy so they stay together.”
On Tuesday, Michael “Shrek” Morneau, a rear tire carrier, is in treatment at the race shop training room for Achilles tendonitis. He’s receiving ultrasound phonophoresis to enhance the absorption of topical anti-inflammatory drugs and OrthoCarolina athletic trainer Evan Kureczka expects he’ll make a full recovery. In his 12 seasons as a tire carrier, Morneau says this is surprisingly his first injury.
According to Heisel, there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for crew members to conceal their injuries for fear of losing their spots on the front line. But continuing to work through the pain and thus delivering sub-optimal performance hurts the whole team. Heisel has helped create an environment where preventative care, specialized treatment and rapid recovery mean injuries don’t have to be career-ending obstacles.
Heisel’s workdays are physically demanding (he walks up to 12 miles on race days) and long, often bleeding into the night. And in addition to his NASCAR patients, he still sees patients in office at OrthoCarolina and in Urgent Care. So when does the man who keeps everyone moving sit still himself?
“I rest when the season ends,” he said. But not for long. Heisel’s patients already have 46 surgeries on the books for the off-season, which runs from the end of November until early February. Helping them recover before the start of next season will consume most of his off time.
Heisel is humble about his impact on the sport, always quick to credit other surgeons, nurses, EMTs and trainers who work in the field. “I’m just one piece it all,” he said. But a vital piece at that.