Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Tim Drudge

St. Vincent Sports Performance Center

Just as it has long been for many kids growing up in central Indiana, the Indianapolis 500 was a staple of Tim Drudge’s childhood. So it was only natural for him to dream about someday having a part in one of racing’s biggest events. But it would take him a while to get there.

After graduating from Indiana University in 1991, Drudge worked as a staff athletic trainer at St. Vincent Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis, then as an assistant athletic trainer at Illinois State University, as an assistant athletic trainer at the University of San Diego, and as Head Athletic Trainer at Carmel (Ind.) High School. He returned to St. Vincent, which trains athletes in various sports at the high school, college, and professional levels, in 2003 as Performance Specialist.

Not long into his second stint at St. Vincent, Drudge, LAT, ATC, CSCS, and Ralph Reiff, the performance center’s director, approached Panther Racing, one of the top open wheel racing teams in the United States, about employing the center’s services. When Panther Racing accepted, Drudge became one of only a handful of certified athletic trainers working in motor sports. It also allowed him to fulfill a childhood dream when he stood in the pits for the 2004 Indianapolis 500.

Drudge’s duties with the race team include working with drivers and pit crews to improve their performance while at the same time tending to their sports medicine needs. He also traveled with the team for two full seasons.

Most recently, Drudge has embarked on another career twist. He also handles athletes’ requests for sponsorships from the clinic and makes sure current clients are satisfied with the clinic’s services.

In this interview, Drudge, whose full title is Motorsports and Communications Coordinator, talks about the role of a strength coach and athletic trainer in motorsports, the importance of building relationships, and the ups and downs of working in the sports performance setting.

T&C: How does athletic training fit into motorsports?

Drudge: Athletic training is probably secondary to our strength and conditioning role. The sports performance side of the business got us in the door. Once we were in and established a level of trust, the crew members and drivers felt more comfortable talking with us about nagging injuries and other problems more closely related to athletic training.

What are the most common sports medicine issues you deal with on a racing team?

The injuries themselves are your typical meat-and-potato sprains, strains, and overuse injuries. You do have to deal with some impact injuries, but even they end up being the same kind of injuries you have in a typical athletic training situation–fractures, avulsion fractures, subluxation, and things like that. The mechanism of the impact injuries is different, especially with drivers, but treating them is very similar to what you’d find in a traditional athletic training setting.

Did it take much selling to convince the race team of the value of working with your performance team? Our initial meeting with John Barnes, the CEO of Panther Racing, was probably the shortest one we’ve ever had. We went in there with a sales pitch about what we bring to the table and John said, “I already know what you can do. When can you start?”

After that, the challenge was establishing trust with the guys on the team. We had to convince them we had some insight into how to make them faster or decrease their aches and pains. It was very similar to being a new athletic trainer at any school.

One of the unique things we introduced to the team has been film review. We tape our pit stops from above, then review the video with the driver and crew to analyze their performance. Football coaches have been doing this with their players forever, but at the time it was fairly new in open wheel racing.

How did you go about identifying the racing team’s needs and demands?

Open wheel racing has a history of good research. So, I did a literature review and found some studies I could base our training on. I also started picking the brains of the drivers and pit crews members. I’d say, “I’m making an educated guess that this is what you’re experiencing. Am I missing something?” A lot of good conversations have helped me develop a repertoire of drills and treatments.

What other things do you do at the clinic?

I’m involved with the clinic’s marketing and communications efforts. Some of it involves dealing with sponsorships and contracts and some of it is making sure that our current clients are satisfied. We are very interested in improving the level of service we provide to our athletes and attracting high-caliber athletes to our sports performance center.

How did you get involved with the marketing side of the business?

It’s something I’ve always found interesting, and as I have gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m not always going to be able to do the physical stuff I’m doing now. I also felt that if I had more of an ability to sell our services, it would have a positive impact on our revenue.

Did you have any background or take any classes in marketing or business?

No, although I am contemplating taking classes in the near future. So far, I’ve just spoken with people outside our industry about how they approach marketing and have found a few mentors to guide me. I’ve read a number of books on marketing and find it fascinating how companies like IBM, Coca-Cola, and Google became what they are now. It’s about positioning yourself where you want to be, bringing a high level of quality service to the people you serve, and being a good partner.

Are there things from your sports medicine and performance-training experience that help you in marketing? I think it all comes down to fostering relationships. Athletic trainers know how to connect with their athletes, and that’s helped me establish successful business relationships. If you’re able to build a good relationship with a potential client, it goes a long way in establishing a long-term business deal.

For all that athletic trainers bring to the job, are they reluctant to toot their own horns? The profession has always lent itself to being in the background, but we should be proud of the work we do and the professionalism we bring to a school or organization. It’s tough for us as a profession beat our chest and say, “Hey, look at us,” because we’ve never really been that way. As a result, we sometimes sell ourselves short with the salaries we accept and the hours we’re willing to work. It’s great to be humble, but there are times where you have to stick up for yourself, too.

What do like most about being an athletic trainer?

We recently had a retreat with our staff sports psychologist. He said, “I want you guys to reflect on athletic training experiences that have changed your life in a positive way.” I immediately thought about this high school football player who fractured his radius and ulna as a freshman. I remember splinting him on the field and helping him through the recovery process. Recently, I watched him play in a college game against Indiana University and sat with his family. I still have a great relationship with his family, and to see him now as a grown man is very special. Our sports psychologist challenged us to tell these people that they’ve had a positive effect on our life.

I left that meeting, called his mom and told her how I felt. Relationships like that really mold you, not only as a professional, but also as a person. And it’s those kinds of relationships that really make me thankful I’m an athletic trainer.

As somebody who has worked in so many different settings, what are some of the misconceptions that athletic trainers have about the profession’s different levels? I think the perception of clinic athletic trainers is that they don’t always get to use their education quite as much as they should. Because of some states’ licensing acts, that may be true in some locations, but it’s certainly not true here at St. Vincent. There’s also a perception that it’s a 9-to-5 job. Sometimes it is. However, you often leave at five to cover a Friday night football game.

The misconception about college athletic trainers is that it’s all glitz and glamour, especially when you look at the big BCS-type schools, but there’s a ton of work involved. When I was a student athletic trainer at Indiana University, I looked at Kip Smith, who was the head football athletic trainer at the time, and thought, “What a great job he has.” Then I saw the time that he put in. He was at work by 6:30 in the morning and didn’t leave until 7:30 or 8 at night.

Now that I’m in motorsports, people always say, “What a cool job.” I’ve certainly been afforded some great opportunities, but when we raced in Japan, we flew 14 hours there, and then drove a couple of hours to the track. Then we just went from the track to the hotel and ate at a nearby McDonald’s almost every day.

I have friends in all of those different settings, in both athletic training and strength and conditioning. Perception is not always reality and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. I have the utmost respect for whatever setting someone chooses. It just depends on where your passion is.

How do you view the relationship between athletic trainers and strength coaches?

In some situations that relationship is very confrontational, which doesn’t serve anybody well because both professions can learn from each other. I attribute a lot of my growth as an athletic trainer to Robert Lindsey, the former strength coach at Illinois State. I really credit Robert for having an open mind about athletic trainers and giving me an opportunity to learn more about strength and conditioning.

The same thing can also be said for physical therapists. There’s longstanding tension between physical therapists and athletic trainers that doesn’t need to be there. We’re located next to a physical therapy clinic and our staffs could not be more cohesive or have a better relationship. That’s the way it should be.

What should athletic trainers understand about strength coaches and vice-versa?

It needs to be a two-way street–both sides need to let their guard down and learn to appreciate the nuances of the other’s profession. Strength coaches need to know that athletic trainers are not there to inhibit the progress of an athlete’s strength and conditioning program, even while they’re rehabbing from an injury.

By the same token, athletic trainers should be comfortable knowing they can talk to a strength coach and say, “Here’s what his limitations are. Can you work around that?” Most strength coaches will reply, “Sure, he can do X, Y, and Z while the others are doing A, B, and C.”

It’s a matter of communicating and understanding what each profession’s knowledge base is. We all come from a very similar background–it’s just that some people have chosen treatment and rehabilitation and others performance. We have too much in common not to work together.

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