By Gary Fitzgerald
James Roe, Jr., who lives with asthma, arrived in the United States in 2018 determined to compete at the highest level of motorsport racing. Already a success in Ireland, his home country, he quickly made his mark on the U.S. circuit, winning races at Watkins Glen, Virginia International Raceway, Road America and New Jersey Motorsport Park.
Roe continues to chase his dream of competing in the Indy 500. He wants to help raise awareness of asthma, a condition he has had since he was 5 years old. He put Allergy & Asthma Network’s logo on his race car to give asthma greater visibility.
Allergy & Asthma Today recently chatted with Roe, 21, for a Q&A interview.
How were you diagnosed with asthma?
Roe: My symptoms were so severe I had to go to the hospital. It was very scary to be diagnosed with asthma because I had an uncle who died of it when he was just 10 years of age. That happened when people didn’t know as much about asthma as they do today. When he had his asthma attack, he could not be saved.
Thankfully, when I was diagnosed with asthma, I was able to work with my doctor on a plan to manage it. I still use the same type of inhaler today that I used when I was 5 years old.
What tends to trigger your asthma?
Roe: Cold weather is one of my main triggers. The climate is quite cold in Ireland and I experience breathing issues in cold, dry air. I try to stay clear of really cold weather. I live in Indianapolis now and the climate is a lot milder here.
As a youth, I played a lot of sports, from football to rugby, and found that overexertion was an asthma trigger. I also have allergies to pollen and horsehair, both which can cause symptoms.
As a race car driver, how do you manage your asthma so that it doesn’t get in the way of your racing aspirations?
Roe: First, you have to listen to your body. You can’t turn a blind eye to symptoms. When asthma worsens, it becomes an issue you have to address.
Next, find the right medication for you and use it to your advantage so you can stop symptoms before they start. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it really is the key. It’s exactly what I did from an early age.
I never want to have the mindset that, ‘I have asthma, I can’t do this.’ I believe there’s nothing that can hold me back if I manage it successfully.
Is there any asthma risk in racing?
Roe: Being around idling cars and breathing in exhaust fumes is something I have to be mindful about, but it’s never stopped me. In motorsports, there are many variables and it’s critically important everyone on your race team is on the same page.
You have to let people around you know you have asthma. There’s no shame in it. My race team knows where my inhaler is if I need it.
Another thing I have to be mindful of is the pressure racing puts on the body. Drivers experience G-forces (gravity forces) when we accelerate, brake or change directions and it can put a lot of strain on the lungs. In some cases, we have 3-4 G’s pulling against us – that’s 3-4 times your body weight pulling you in a given direction.
I spend a lot of time working out to keep my lungs strong and healthy to compete. I focus a lot on opening up the chest or lungs with stretches that maximize lung capacity.
What are some ways you want to raise awareness of asthma among fans and on the racing circuit?
Roe: I want to put together a workshop for children with asthma, complete with an “at-the-track” experience. When I tell children I have asthma, many are surprised. Too many kids believe they can’t do certain things because of their asthma. Then they meet me, they see I’m in a high-adrenaline sport driving a race car 180 miles per hour, and they think, ‘He has asthma too, so why can’t I follow my dreams?’
It’s a way to help people think differently about their asthma – and their lives. I want them to believe their dreams are achievable. When they do, that’s a win for me straight out of the box.
For more information about asthma symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and more: visit our asthma information resources.