July 2018


Racing for a cure for blindness

by Liz Hillman EyeWorld Senior Staff Writer

Dr. Sohn with his team at the SCCA Blackhawk Farms Majors in early May
Source: Elliott Sohn, MD


Dr. Sohn sets sights on taking first place and making it to his next national championship

When Elliott Sohn, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, retina fellowship director, Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa, Iowa City, steps on the pedal of a vitrectomy machine, his senses are acute, he’s varying the rate of vitreous removal and the machine’s power depending on the pathology he’s seeing within the eye. When Elliott Sohn, amateur race car driver, steps on the gas pedal of his Formula Enterprise, open-wheel, single-cockpit race car, he’s doing essentially the same thing, modulating the throttle based on what he sees and feels on the track ahead of him.
Dr. Sohn barely gave competitive racing a second thought, until about 4 years ago when he started going to driver’s education (DE) events for fun at his friend’s invitation. At these events, Dr. Sohn said, you bring your street car and learn how to drive it safely and effectively at high speeds. It’s something he said can actually improve your normal driving on the road. He never intended to take up amateur racing as a hobby, but on what was to be his third and final DE event at the historic Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, something changed for the retina surgeon and researcher at the University of Iowa Institute for Vision Research.
“I fell in love with tracking the car. It started to become something where it was more than just the thrill of the experience. It was more, how do I get better at this, how do I hone my skills?” Dr. Sohn said.
Dr. Sohn enrolled in a 3-day racing school in Savannah, Georgia, where he learned to drive open-wheel, formula-style cars. Last year, Dr. Sohn bought his FE class car, found a team, and completed his first year of races, which culminated in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Championship Runoffs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In this type of racing, Dr. Sohn said there are multiple turns, right and left, simple turns to complex ones and elevation changes. At the SCCA Runoffs, Dr. Sohn’s average speed was 93 mph, and that’s on a course that had 14 turns, he pointed out. The top speed he hit was 139 mph. To put that into perspective, a Boeing 747 needs to go about 184 mph for takeoff.1
“At this point … I’m not only thinking about how fast I’m going, I’m thinking about how I’m going to do the next lap better, how I’m going to do the upcoming turn better than the last time I did it, or if I did it just right, trying to replicate it. The idea is to enter and exit the corners at the maximum speed at which you are controlled so you can get onto the next straight and pass the person in front of you—and not get passed yourself,” Dr. Sohn explained. “On those straights, at first, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is really fast. My helmet is coming off because of the drag.’ But now on those same straightaways, it’s more like it’s time to relax. I’m relaxing my hands, relaxing my body, and thinking about how I am going to do the next lap better, the next set of turns better.”
Out of the races he did last year (five to six weekends where there are usually two races per weekend event), Dr. Sohn said he was able to “get podium,” or place within the top three, in three races. One of those was a SCCA Majors race, which he said generally attracts more intense competition.
Getting to Indianapolis for the SCCA National Championship Runoffs was his goal last year.
“It was the first time in the organization’s history that the runoff had ever been held there. It’s a special place that the vast majority of racers don’t get access to, so it was extremely special to be there for 10 days and be on track for 6 of those 10,” Dr. Sohn said.
Unfortunately, Dr. Sohn said his finish was disappointing as he came down with a flat tire in the second lap.
“Once the tire is changed, you’ve been out for several minutes of that race, and the race is only 30 minutes long,” Dr. Sohn said.
There are a lot of factors that add up to a good finishing time.
“Your crew makes a huge difference in terms of how you do in a race. The driver, no doubt, is the biggest variable, but little things like tires and other things on the car, if they go bad, can take you out of a race,” Dr. Sohn said.
During the off season or between races, Dr. Sohn practices using a virtual reality system, race-simulation seat, force-feedback wheel, and the iRacing simulator where he races against others virtually and in real time.
“It’s kind of like doing eye surgery where you can watch videos of doing surgery, you can hear lectures about it, you can read books about it, but there is nothing that replaces actually doing it,” Dr. Sohn said, explaining that the virtual reality system at least allows him to prepare mentally. “A beautiful thing about it is you can learn tracks you haven’t been to before you actually race on them. You can also learn some art forms in racing that are difficult to get without actually racing, such as the art of passing.”
He also found increasing his physical fitness regimen upped his racing abilities.
“I remember the first time I was in the race car that I bought last year,” Dr. Sohn said. “My whole body was sore—my back muscles, my arms, one of my legs, I had soreness in my thumbs because of the way you grip the steering wheel. Even though I had done some stuff to keep physically fit before, I upped my workouts after I started racing. I noticed that my physical fitness played a role in trying to handle a 20- to 30-minute session where you are pushing yourself. You have to be in complete mental focus, you have to get your body to do exactly what your mind wants. Having good reflexes, strength, and endurance plays a role in that.”
Dr. Sohn said he and his team will do a couple of test sessions throughout the year where they test new tires or technology. Before every race, there is also typically a test day where there are four to five sessions of 10–20 minutes, which is where Dr. Sohn can get a feel for the car again and the conditions of the track, which allows him to determine if there are any changes he needs to make before the qualification round and the actual race.
With the Institute for Vision Research logo on his car and the tagline “Racing to Cure Blindness” on his social media accounts, Dr. Sohn plans to participate in five races during his 2018 racing season and hopes to make it to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs, which are being held in October in Sonoma, California, again.
“I want to place first in some races this year,” he said. “I hope people come out to the races and hear about some of the work we’re doing at the University of Iowa in terms of vision research.”
There is a lot of overlap between racing and ophthalmology when it comes to mental focus, reflexes, and dexterity, Dr. Sohn said.
“The mentality of trying to do the very best that you can and learn from every single encounter, every single experience is something that translates well between racing and other experiences in life,” Dr. Sohn said. “Every time you take a turn, the speed that you enter the corner and the speed you come out of the corner, when you turn in, when you brake, when you come off the brake—all of those things can be the difference between first place and second place. Trying to analyze those things in a way where you can change them and make them better is something I’m trying to apply to my life as an academic physician, whether it’s trying to write a paper better, a grant better, trying to teach residents and fellows better, trying to discover something or make a process more efficient. I think there are a lot of similarities between racing and academic ophthalmology in that aspect, too,” Dr. Sohn said.


1. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. How Things Fly. howthingsfly.si.edu/ask-an-explainer/what-minimum-speed-needed-airplane-runway-takeoff. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Contact information

Sohn: fb.com/sohnracing

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