How Physical Therapy Resembles Top Fuel Drag Racing

Physical Therapy and Top Fuel Drag Racing…

…have much in common.  That has probably never occurred to you, so let me explain.

The past few months have been a physical adventure for me. Various and increasing ills sent me to the doctor and selected specialists for a variety of procedures. These included an MRI of my right knee, a second of my lower back, and a third for my… head. Out of all of these tests came a list of issues, some of them serious.

The failing hearing has been helped by very high-tech hearing aids. After years of waiting for my friends to install their ear plugs before a ride (I have always hated them, and my hearing loss does not seem to be related to my not using them), now my friends will have to wait while I take my hearing aids out, as they are not to be worn inside my helmet due to feedback issues.

The other health problems are more interesting in terms of solutions. I have, evidently, some significant arthritis in my right knee.  This may or may not be related to two operations on that knee. A missing right anterior cruciate ligament is now 1/3 of the tendons that go over the top of the knee. This goes back a long time. The major operation was in 1982 to correct the shredding of the ACL in 1977 during a basketball game, where my right knee decided that the abrupt stop I attempted exceeded its strength. I also have what is termed a “Baker’s cyst” in that knee, which is evidently fairly common, and “acts up” from time to time. In addition to that I have one bulging disc in my lower back and one herniated disc. I had evidently been working around these issues for quite some time, with the result that my inner core posture and walk were all screwed up.  I was having a lot of pain in my right thigh and knee, could not walk rapidly or without a limp, and numbness in both feet was a constant.

In short (too late?), I have a multitude of issues, and the treatment would be somewhat involved, as some solutions would collide with other problems.  A first attempt was made with an injection of steroids into the right knee, which helped for about a week.  After that it was off to Physical Therapy, where I have had a fascinating time and learned a great deal.

This is where the comparisons to top fuel drag racing became apparent.  These days a top fuel engine makes over 10,000 horsepower. That is not a typo. At that level the amount of power available is not a concern.  Getting it to the ground in a useful manner is.  A crew chief armed with a lot of computer data makes myriad decisions between each round of a drag race.  Get it right and your car is on to the next round.  Off by a tad and your race day is over.

Top fuel entrants race from a standing start to a finish line 1,000 feet away. The distance was shortened from a full ¼ mile about ten years ago in the name of safety. The cars are now going faster in 1,000 feet than they used to do in the full distance, but that is a topic for another time.

After each run, the engine is torn down to its bare bones and re-built in less than an hour by a highly skilled crew, often working in cramped quarters at a race track with an engine that is retaining enormous heat, as top fuel cars have no cooling systems.  To prepare for the next run the crew chief makes a great many decisions from the options at hand. The compression ratio can be changed by altering the thickness of the cylinder head gaskets. A thicker gasket lowers compression, which lowers power. A thinner one will increase the power. The rules limit the % of nitromethane used to 90%. Most teams use 85%, and an increase of a couple of percent will increase power.

Even the design of the exhaust headers can alter aerodynamics and weight balance affect the performance of the car.

The crew chief can also specify a different pulley for the supercharger, increasing or decreasing the rpms and the power. The centrifugal clutch is engaged by timers, and the release of those timers can be changed by small bits of seconds.  And there are others.

Teams collect data on the temperature, both air and track surface. They know the altitude, and measure the humidity. If the sun goes behind a cloud it changes the precise tune needed, quite literally.  The condition of the track changes due to heat and the passage of cars during the day. The crew for the car with the lowest time for the preceding round gets to choose the lane they want, and this decision can be reversed at the last minute if the pair just in front does something to alter the perceived available traction.

Some of these decisions are made while the engine is being put together, and others are made in the staging lanes, or even at the starting line.   It is extremely complex, and fascinating to me.

If the crew chief makes the right choices and the driver leaves the start correctly (which is also complex) the result is an elapsed time of less than 4 seconds at a speed well in excess of 300mph. Wow.

If things are not perfect, all sorts of things go wrong.  If you are a bit “soft” on the set-up, you will lose. Day over. If you are too aggressive with the clutch application, it is likely that the tires will lose grip and immediately spin up into an angry cloud of tire smoke. This often results in the engine revving too high too fast, and a spectacular explosion may result. If too much fuel is fed to the engine too soon it may fail to ignite, and a plume of unburned nitro will shoot into the air. Since each cylinder is producing 1,250 horsepower (!), one of them not working will slow the car down and may force it toward one wall or the other.  In any of these scenarios, losing the race may be the smallest problem.

At MTI, which is where we are going for my therapy, I have been working with three people.   The first was an intern working under the close supervision of Therapist A, and then there was B for a few sessions and now back to A.  Susan made the appointments based on the availability of A and our own schedule, and apologized for the multiple therapists. 

I think this has been an advantage.  Like most teachers, I am a poor student, and hearing things said three different ways increases the odds the content may slip through the cement of my skull.  All three therapists have been fantastic, and I actually look forward to each visit.

Like a drag racing team, the therapists have a goal.  That goal is to restore me to full function, or as close to it as they can get.  The progress they have made so far is stunning.  Yesterday was our 9th visit. Each time copious notes are made on a computer, and Susan keeps notes for our use later in our sessions at the YMCA.

Like drag racing, the data in the computer helps keep track of where we have been and where we are headed. It is often very much a two steps forward and one step back deal.

Also like drag racing, the therapists are working with constantly changing conditions.  On one occasion my right knee might be having none of it, and on other days it is bring it on time.

The choices available are mind-boggling. In racing the bottom line is “did you win?”  In PT, it is “does that hurt?”  If it hurts the therapist will try a different combo of weights and straps and whatever in an attempt to get at the same muscle group while not causing pain.  Bear in mind that this question applies to my own specific plan for therapy. There are others, I believe, where some “discomfort” is part of the process. Your results may differ.

Each week the PT puts together some new exercise involving different equipment or a different combination of variables. I usually come out of this with a drastically decreased assessment of my own coordination, but each exercise gets easier when repeated.

When I started into this, I could bend my right knee, while prone on a table, to 105 degrees.  Yesterday it was 125 degrees. When we started I was walking with a limp, my right foot was numb all the time and my left foot at partially numb most of the time. My right thigh hurt to some degree all the time, and my right knee was usually in some sort of pain. I could go up the stairs or down only one step at a time.

One month later I can go down the stairs almost normally, my thigh does not hurt, and my left foot is no longer numb.   There is a trace of numbness in my right foot remaining, and stepping up with my right foot is painful in the knee.

In drag racing the driver gets most of the attention and the “star” treatment, but it is the crew chiefs who actually bear the responsibility for getting the driver a car that can do what it is capable of.   In PT, the patient is the focus, but without the brain trust of the PTs the progress would be minimal, if any.

I had pretty much resigned myself to enduring some pain in my right leg for the rest of my life.  I was willing to accept that as one of the prices of being alive for almost 70 years.  Fortunately, my “crew chiefs” have much higher aspirations, and under their care things get better every week.  I am becoming aware that we are nowhere near exhausting the options their expertise can provide.  They are just getting started with what they can do.  As the “driver,” I am responsible for doing my homework at our house and the YMCA, and getting myself to the appointments, where I give feedback as to how things are going. Susan does an amazing job of keeping great notes and providing me with a lot of encouragement.

Not sure how far the team can go, but I am positive about one thing.

We are winning.

Copyright 2016                                David Preston

About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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