Well Being: Auto racing? A no-brainer

Neurosurgeon Jim Lowe at Millennium Surgical Center in Cherry Hill, removing a ruptured disc from a patient's neck.
Neurosurgeon Jim Lowe at Millennium Surgical Center in Cherry Hill, removing a ruptured disc from a patient's neck. (KURT EILBACHER)

Neurosurgeon gets his kicks and a burning aerobic workout driving a car really, really fast.

Posted: March 26, 2013

In his early years as a neurosurgeon, after a long day of operating, Jim Lowe would come home grumpy and irritable. The former running back at Cardinal O'Hara and Harvard was out of shape and overweight and missed the adrenaline rush of competitive sports.

One day in the mid-1990s, Lowe saw an ad for an auto racing school in California. He signed up and enjoyed the experience so much that he took the advanced course. Then he learned of the Skip Barber Racing School in Connecticut, which sponsors amateur races at storied tracks across the country. Lowe enrolled and began developing his skills against "Type A doctors, lawyers, and bankers" with visions of checkered-flag glory.

Lowe was never a "car guy" in the typical sense. Growing up in Springfield, Delaware County, he was more keen on athletics than turning wrenches under jalopies. But he was always a fan of auto racing, regularly watching the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix on television.

From 2000 to 2005, Lowe continued racing on the amateur circuit. He loved the psychic relief, even though he usually finished last. Discouraged, he discussed it with his wife, Ginny. Her advice: "You either need to drive more or drive less." In other words, fully engage with the sport or quit.

In 2004, Lowe hired a coach, Jim Pace, a noted sports-car racer. Under his tutelage, Lowe began racing six to eight times a year, driving five to six stints during each race (a stint is as long as a tank of gas lasts, about 30 laps). He began to improve and enjoy more success.

"I learned how to drive a race car," says Lowe, 49, of Villanova, who hands out business cards at racetracks (not to prospective patients) calling himself "the world fastest neurosurgeon."

"It doesn't resemble driving a road car in any way," Lowe says, "and it took a long time to get the feel. In a race car, you always have your foot on the gas or you're braking so you can get back on the gas. The goal is to go as fast and far as you can before you absolutely have to apply the brakes to make the turn."

Now he conceived a loftier ambition: to drive in a pro race.

Pace believed Lowe needed more practice, but TRG, a team in California, was looking for a team to test a Porsche race car in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in January 2006. Lowe got his chance.

Familiar with the sport's physical demands, he knew he had to shape up.

"It's like a bike race," Lowe says. "The aerobic demands are strenuous. You're battling heavy g-forces, struggling to hold the steering wheel steady. It's intense exertion for your arms, legs, and core."

By adopting a no-carb diet and visiting the gym daily, Lowe shed 35 pounds. On race day, he was electric with excitement. Unfortunately, during his first stint, speeding at 130 m.p.h., he spun off the track and into the tire wall, damaging the car. Happily, the TRG team repaired it, and the Porsche reentered and finished.

Lowe and team competed in five more races that year, finishing in the top 10 three times, including sixth at Watkins Glen in New York. By now, Lowe was so hooked he decided to buy his own race car, a Porsche GT3 Cup Car, No. 64, white with red racing stripes. He launched his own team, J. Lowe Racing, enlisted three other pro drivers, and entered the 2007 24 Hours at Daytona. Amazingly, the team made the podium, coming in third. The next year, he bought another Porsche, and at Daytona the team came in fourth.

Financing and campaigning a racing team are enormously expensive, so Lowe decided to seek sponsors, a consuming, ultimately fruitless task.

Since then, Lowe has been invited to race with other teams. In January, driving for Doran Racing of Ohio, Lowe proudly blazed through his fastest lap ever at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. But disaster struck when a teammate overshot a turn during the 10th hour, veered onto the infield, and ripped up the car's underside on an exposed water pipe.

"Jim is a great driver and teammate," says Kevin Doran, owner of Doran Racing. In an endurance race, "it takes a unique person to be able to meld with five Type A personalities. Jim does a fantastic job of fitting in."

The damaged car is being repaired, and Lowe intends to keep driving this year and beyond. "I'm too old to challenge the 20-year-olds, but I don't see any reason to retire."

"He doesn't think of himself as the next gift to the motor-sport world," says David Donahue, a pal of Lowe's and the son of the late famed auto racer Mark Donahue. "He's a racing junkie who likes the thrill of it. He really loves the learning process of challenging himself in a visceral way."

Neurosurgery and race-car driving are similar, Lowe says. Both demand great concentration, with little margin for error. "You're working without a net, and it takes a certain kind of mentality to operate with that kind of stress," says Lowe, who has a private practice based in Linwood, N.J., and heads the spinal surgery division at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Mainland Campus in Galloway.

Lowe's medical "niche" is reoperative spine surgery. He does many second- and third-time procedures for people who had past surgery that worked for a while but who are now in pain. Many are active baby boomers. "It's not uncommon for me to see 70-year-olds who have hurt themselves playing basketball, body-surfing, or skiing," he said. "The more active they are, the more likely they are to get injured."

Lowe faces similar risks in a race. Ginny is always grateful when her husband returns from the track unscathed, but she would never forbid it. "It makes him focused, happy, and healthy and has brought balance to his life," she says. "Racing is the only thing he's ever done that completely excites him."

"When I'm at the racetrack, out of my scrubs and in my race suit, I feel like I'm wearing a Superman suit," Lowe says. "My focus is always to try to go faster, to be as close as I can to the guys who are racing for groceries.

"When I'm driving a race car, the last thing I'm thinking about is the stress of my day job. It's completely cleansing."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com.

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