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Scorching Science

New undergraduate research is helping motorsports athletes beat the heat.

Imagine racing a motorcycle in a head-to-toe leather suit for more than two hours on a 100-degree day. How hot would you get? How fatigued would you feel? How dehydrated would you become?

For motorsports athletes, fatigue caused from heat can be very dangerous, even deadly. That is why researchers at Ohio Northern University are analyzing the ways the human body responds to the extreme conditions encountered on the racetrack.

Before graduating from ONU at the end of summer 2015, Dan Colvin, BS ’15, spent a week in the Arizona desert with one of his professors performing undergraduate research to find out just what happens in scenarios like this.

“Racecar drivers are a different breed of athlete. All they want to do is race,” says Colvin. “They will say everything is fine concerning their own physical condition, even when it’s really not.”

Colvin went on to explain how, in sports, where the athlete is the primary factor of performance, he or she is more likely to tell you when they can no longer perform. But with motorsports racing, a car, truck or motorcycle is the primary factor of performance. If a driver is mentally or physically exhausted, the race team can always find a new one.

“Drivers just don’t want anybody else to drive the car,” he says.

Colvin collected data for Dr. Ed Potkanowicz’s R.A.C.E.R. project at the Inde Motorsports Ranch in Willcox, Ariz., over one week in July. Potkanowicz, an associate professor of exercise physiology, started the R.A.C.E.R. (Real Assessment of Core and Environmental Responses) project in 2011 to make motorsports racing better, safer and more competitive by improving driver performance by countering the physical stress they endure while racing. As an undergraduate researcher, Colvin monitored the physiological responses of drivers during competitive racing and performed experiments to test which current in-car cooling methods are the most effective.

In addition to data collection, Colvin had the opportunity to test racecars and bikes on a real course and to submerse himself into the realm of motorsports. This full submersion allowed Colvin to really understand what he needed to look for and why he had to pay so much attention to little details.

Currently, Colvin is helping analyze the raw data from this research so that further predictions and suggestions can be made to keep drivers in optimal performance condition. He also has found time to return to ONU to present his findings to current students and to encourage them to get involved in undergraduate research.

“I want to talk about some of the experiences and key points about undergraduate research that I wish I had known when I was a student. I would like to see undergraduate research throughout campus because we have so many great colleges and schools that have the people and the tools to do it,” he says.

Now, Colvin is especially thankful for this opportunity, as it has made clear to him where he wants to take his career. “I began looking at grad schools after the research trip because I started asking, ‘What do I need to do to keep doing this?’”

All of this racing out in the desert has certainly pushed Colvin full-speed toward a red-hot and promising career.


Sophomore marketing major Miranda Buschur contributed to this story.