Common Tread

The other doctor in motorcycle racing sets out to change the sport

Oct 05, 2017

Can a woman who has only been riding motorcycles for a handful of years produce the next generation of American roadracing champions? Will her training methods, which involve examining riders’ brain activity, prepare future Raineys, Lawsons, Schwantzs and Roberts?

While motorcycle racing teams focus on improving the machines, and riders push themselves to attain top physical condition, Dr. Laura Ellis has brought other advanced training techniques that are used in other top-level sports, such as the U.S. Olympic cycling team, to motorcycle road racing. If her approach is different, it’s because her path into the world of motorcycle racing has also been an unusual one. Not that many years ago, Ellis didn’t even ride a motorcycle. Now, she runs a professional race team.

The road to the track

Laura Ellis
Though she just began riding in 2011, Laura Ellis has immersed herself in motorcycling. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of her favorite rides. Photo provided by Laura Ellis.
Dr. Ellis was a medical practitioner running a successful private practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 2011, while in Italy for work, she saw motorcycles in a new light and immediately became interested.

“Seeing it a little differently, I thought, ‘God, that looks really cool’,” she said. In the months that followed the trip, she got her motorcycle endorsement and bought her first bike.

Diving into motorcycling, she got some coaching at East Coast tracks and eventually did some club and endurance racing. That’s where she met then 12-year-old Jackson Blackmon, who she would eventually back in a handful of 2015 KTM RC Cup races in MotoAmerica. The following year, she would pull the trigger and officially start the Axcess Racing team, a two-rider effort with mechanics, support staff, and truck and trailer rig. Ellis signed Brandon Paasch to ride alongside Blackmon in 2016, Axcess’s debut season, and Paasch would be crowned the series champion.

Brandon Paasch and Team Axcess
Brandon Paasch celebrates his KTM RC Cup championship with Dr. Laura Ellis, team suspension engineer Dave Behrend and Crew Chief Frank Shockley. Photo provided by Laura Ellis.

“I love racing,” Ellis said. “I love being in the pit, I love the smell of the race fuel, the sound of the bikes, the adrenaline of just being there and being a part of it without actually going wheel to wheel myself. Having a team allows me to do all that. More importantly, this is the most effective way for me to do what I can to help the sport as a whole.”

Innovative approach to training

Because Dr. Ellis entered racing as an outsider, she views things differently and doesn’t settle for the status quo. One of her projects to advance motorsports is medAge for athletes, which she describes as “A cutting-edge peak performance program using biometrics and specialized training for elite athletes.” 

“While all the other guys out there are setting up the bikes, I come in and I focus on the rider,” she said. “I test them like how you’d test a bike and I find where they need to be tuned.”

“One of the things I look at very critically is a rider’s neurophysiology and reactions, how they perform as an athlete in training, in practice, and then in competition. They can do differently in each one of those areas. Some riders do great in training and practice but then when competition time comes they get this synthetic response and they have performance issues, just like stage fright. It’s very, very common, more common than not, in fact, and it can seriously impede a young rider’s ability to compete.”

Dr. Ellis works with riders to learn how to control their responses and maintain a relaxed state that allows them to stay focused and perform better.

Dr. Ellis gives racers an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a test that detects the brain’s electrical activity via electrodes. She tests them when they are relaxed, to establish a baseline, and then puts them through stressors, such as a math test or having to push a button as fast as possible when a light comes on. She compares the results, looking at data that includes metrics such as heart rate variability, skin conductance (sweat), temperature, muscle tension, and even carbon dioxide levels in the subject’s blood. Looking at this information gives Dr. Ellis an indication about how a rider responds to stress.

“Sometimes they will respond to a stressor but then never come back down to baseline when it’s time to relax,” she said.

Dr. Ellis trains the riders to shift their attentional states at will. On race day with the audience, the announcers, photographers, more senior riders and sponsors around, a young rider can understandably become anxious. Developing control over their attentional state can yield marked results.

brain wave analysis
This is a spectral analysis of the rider’s brain waves. The bifurcation in the graphs noted in the temporal region of the brain (red area in the back of the head) likely indicates a past concussion and thus a slower rate of processing information. Dr. Ellis designed “exercises” that improved the rider's performance, likely due to shorter reaction times. Image provided by Dr. Laura Ellis.

“There are tests and exercises that riders can do that help their brainwaves become more coherent,” she said. “They are able to use the biofeedback I give them to create a coherent state of mind. It’s made a better rider out of a lot of the guys.”

While these techniques are used with other elite athletes, they are new in motorcycle racing. Dr. Ellis said it takes about 12 weeks to get a young rider “really dialed in.” Once the racer learns the exercises and techniques, he or she can practice them alone.

CO2 levels chart
One of the many things Dr. Ellis measures is the rider's carbon dioxide levels, which are affected by breathing depth and rate. Image provided by Dr. Laura Ellis.

Racers have to learn to do more than ride a motorcycle fast. Another way Dr. Ellis tries to help young racers is by organizing seminars — not just for her own riders, but open to all the KTM RC Cup racers — in which experienced current and former racers such as Josh Hayes, Aaron Yates, and Roger Hayden provide advice. They cover topics such as how to speak to the media, how to represent your team, family and sponsor, what good sportsmanship is, and what it means to be a professional. They also talk about more race-oriented advice, like how to judge a clean overtake and what it means to respect race direction. Ellis personally extends invitations to her competitors and they are held in the KTM tent — what the doctor semi-jokingly refers to as “neutral ground.”

Promoting the sport

Ellis said the big-picture view is all about improving the sport, which is why she focuses on preparing young racers. Another activity she promotes at the MotoAmerica rounds are mini-moto events that show parents how easy (and relatively safe) it is to get their children involved. Often, a few hundred dollars is all it takes. She hopes these little races will usher in the next generation of pros.

“My primary goals are to help young riders develop their talents and help the North American pro series succeed,” she said. “If it does, I can see Axcess being more of a consultant for other teams than a team itself, but it will always be there to financially support young riders in need.”

In that, Dr. Ellis’s efforts are a smaller version, using different methods, of the work done by the more famous “doctor” in motorcycling, Valentino Rossi with his VR46 Riders Academy. There’s more than one way to train a racer and room for more than one kind of doctor in motorcycle racing.