Full Speed Ahead—With Asthma

In spite of his chronic respiratory condition, racecar driver James Roe, Jr., has risen to the top of his sport.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

At age 22, James Roe, Jr., has already had quite the impressive career. The Indianapolis-based driver began competing in motorsports in 2014 in his home country of Ireland. Since arriving in the U.S. two years ago, Roe has won three races and placed on podiums seven times at six different tracks, ultimately taking second in the F2000 Season Championship. He dreams of competing in the Indianapolis 500, a goal he’s hoping to accomplish within the next few years.

What’s remarkable about Roe’s success is that it’s come with a backdrop of chronic disease. Roe has asthma and has battled the condition since his childhood. If there’s any place an asthma patient might not want to be, it’s inside a sweltering hot cockpit, a helmet restricting airflow, surrounded by fumes of other racecars, with a heart rate hovering near maximum capacity for hours on end. Talk about triggers for an attack!

But Roe has continued to thrive as a driver. Despite setbacks and moments of frustration, he has risen to the top levels of his sport. He is now a spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, putting the organization’s logo on his car and working to raise awareness for this invisible but extremely challenging condition.

We talked with Roe about his journey as an athlete, how he handles competing with asthma, and what message he hopes to impart on kids with this condition who dream of being involved in sports.

HealthCentral: When did you receive your asthma diagnosis?

James Roe: I was very young, back in Ireland. In the winter, I’d be coughing and wheezing, and in the summer, I had really bad allergies. When I was five years old, I had to be admitted to the hospital for few weeks after my chest tightened up, and I was diagnosed with asthma. I was put on a nebulizer to open my airways and I started carrying an inhaler. I had to take different steroids. From there, it was a matter of trying to manage it and understand the causes.

HC: Did you know much about asthma at that point?

JR: Asthma runs in my family—I had an uncle who died from it at a young age. So, as you can imagine, I was worried at first. There were a few really bad instances when I was a kid. I remember sitting in a hospital bed and thinking, “I’m never going to be able to play soccer again.” But I’ve always been the type of person not to let those thoughts get to me. In the long run, I never let asthma stop me from doing anything—I grew up playing football, rugby, soccer, and golf. Finding out what worked for me from a young age was a huge help.

HC: What treatments have you found that work for you?

JR: I have more inhalers than a pharmacy store! I carry them with me everywhere I go. I’ve taken steroids, too, but I try to stay away from them. I use inhalers preventatively, not waiting until I actually need them, especially when I have a race coming up. Even just one or two pumps throughout the day can open up your airways a bit, so when it comes to the race and the pressure starts coming on, you’re not in a tense environment. You don’t end up needing a big dose of medicine on the day of the race.

James Roe
Courtesy of the subject

HC: How does asthma factor into your racing career? What are the biggest challenges?

JR: You might think, “You’re just driving a car, how much work could it be?” But the reality is that in motorsports, you’re around fumes a lot. The air quality isn’t as good as if you were out playing football in the fresh air, so that triggers some asthma.

Apart from the fumes, there’s another thing that came into comes into play: During the course of the race, which can last several hours, the driver’s heart rate averages between 170 to 180 beats per minute. When your heart rate is extremely high, I’ve found that it tends to create tightness in the chest and airways. I was racing in Austin, Texas, recently, and my average heart rate was over 180 bpm. It’s a workout.

HC: Do you worry it will affect your racing career?

JR: Living with asthma is not easy, and there’s a great deal of management to it. There were times, for sure, when I wondered if it was holding me back. I’d get out of the car and be more tired than others or need my medication really quickly. But it comes down to using the right products at the right times. In the Austin race, for example, I was taking a pump or two more of my inhalers in the week leading up to the race, which occurred on Saturday and Sunday.

I’ve gotten to a stage where I can feel the asthma coming on, so I try to stay ahead of the curve. I make sure people on my team know where my inhalers are, so in the worst case if something happens, they’ll be able to bring whatever I need to me within a matter of seconds.

HC: What should kids with asthma know about playing sports?

JR: I started doing advocacy work because asthma plays a huge part in my family and my life. I was told that I might not be able to do as much as other kids, but I just never listened. In the back of my mind, I still thought, “I’m going to try.” And thankfully, it never held me back.

I know a lot of people who are asthmatics, and it keeps them from doing anything. It can be extremely daunting when you have an asthma attack and feel like you can’t breathe. But now that I have this platform, I want to translate a message to the younger generation that I have asthma and I’m still here accomplishing my dreams. I played all the sports every kid played when I was younger, and it didn’t hold me back.

If I can give that little bit of inspiration to even one kid and change their outlook and way of thinking about asthma, that would be a win for me. There are 25 million people in this country who have asthma, and if we change 10% of their mindsets, that’ll be a huge success. That’s what I want to do—help change mindsets and educate people by sharing what works for me.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.