Twenty years after athletic trainers and nutritionists began making inroads into NASCAR racing they have become status quo with Sprint Cup drivers and race teams. When physician assistant Bill Heisel saw a need for more, he created an OrthoCarolina motorsports team.
Heisel and physical therapist Ken Breath, both Huntersville residents, and athletic trainer Angela Sneed of Mooresville, take care of their personnel in the race shops during the week and at the track on the weekend.
They are faced with keeping the competitors – especially those who go over-the-wall to service the car on race day – healthy in a sport that has the shortest off-season in professional sports. It also has the shortest turnaround time of any sport, Heisel said.
“Basically, we have Monday and Tuesday to make the diagnosis, to formulate a treatment plan, (and) to initiate a treatment plan, because on Thursday they’re leaving to go to the next venue,” said Heisel, a 24-year OrthoCarolina employee.
Mike Lepp, the athletic director for Joe Gibbs Racing, said the OrthoCarolina group serves two roles.
“From a proactive standpoint, they keep everybody healthy,” Lepp said. “We have a team that works on nutrition and hydration, but they make sure they’re warmed up properly. On the rehab side … they have cutting edge science and protocol for getting people back from any kind of minor injury. On the extreme end, if we ever have a serious injury, there’s the medical staff in terms of surgery and things like that.”
Heisel, who spends six to seven hours a week at Joe Gibbs Racing, says the most prevalent injuries for tire changers are knees and elbows, while they see primarily back and shoulder injuries on jackmen. Tire carriers, Heisel said, have right hip issues. In the dirt track days and before the current encapsulating seats were created, drivers dealt with back, rib and shoulder blade injuries. Now, however, Heisel said drivers receive more injuries from off-track activities.
Heisel, who wasn’t a race fan, formulated his idea for an OrthoCarolina motorsports program nearly 10 years ago. He first pitched it to Joe Gibbs Racing because of Gibbs’ familiarity with such services from his years of coaching in the NFL.
Heisel established a relationship with the person who was then serving as the Joe Gibbs Racing trainer. When he left, the team approached Heisel about OrthoCarolina providing its services for Joe Gibbs Racing employees on a contract basis. At the same time, Sneed was pursuing a similar program with her own company.
Today, Heisel co-directs OrthoCarolina motorsports with Dr. Walter Beaver, OrthoCarolina’s medical director and Hendrick Motorsports’ head team physician. In addition to Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick, the other teams participating in the OrthoCarolina program are Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, as well as the organizations RFR provides with pit crews: the Wood Brothers and Front Row Motorsports.
“A lot of my guys do Nationwide and Cup along with working in the shop four to five days a week,” Sneed said. “Just trying to keep them healthy for the whole year and get them well so they can keep doing their jobs is a challenge. But when they can go out and do an awesome job, that’s rewarding.”
Since the Tony Lama Sports Medicine truck traveled the Cup circuit in the early 1990s, NASCAR has created its own medical liaison team and Heisel works closely with it. He checks in with the NASCAR medical team when he arrives at the track, updates them on any issues and then touches base with all of the program’s teams. Breath, who has been with OrthoCarolina for 24 years, works with the Joe Gibbs Racing over-the-wall crew, taping and stretching them. Sneed concentrates on Roush Fenway and Richard Petty Motorsports personnel.
“They’re going to have the same (issues) that any other shop employee or mechanic would have, but then you are asking them to do very high speed, power activities that in and of themselves can cause problems,” said Breath, who spends four hours a week at Joe Gibbs Racing. “So you get overuse combined with your normal strains and sprains from being an explosive athlete.”
In addition to working with the race teams, Heisel and Breath also see patients at various OrthoCarolina facilities. All three have worked with other professional athletes, including the Indianapolis Colts, the Carolina Panthers, the original Charlotte Hornets, the Carolina Cobras and minor league baseball players.
One thing they agreed on was the motorsports athletes were the most appreciative of the services they provide.
East Lincoln adds division
East Lincoln Speedway officials said that due to popular demand, a Front Wheel Drive division has been added to the track’s racing program on June 14 and 28, and July 5. The purse will pay $150 to win and $40 to start.
Currently, eight divisions race at East Lincoln – Open Wheel Modifieds, Late Models, Renegades, Limited Sportsman, Super Stock 4s, Stock 4s, Legend Modifieds and Micro Sprints.