Racing before brain surgery
By Dave Tomar
Jim Lowe couldn’t decide whether he wanted a career in brain surgery or rocket science, so he just did both. Okay, so driving the Daytona isn’t exactly rocket science. But some knowledge of ballistics is probably useful when your tire blows out at 175 miles per hour.
At the age of 49, Jim Lowe, MD, is a full-time neurosurgeon in Cherry Hill. He spends much of his time in the operating room, working with trauma cases, brain injuries and other neurological maladies. Unlike his medical colleagues, when he has the chance to step away from the intensity of his day-to-day routine, he attempts to break the sound barrier.
As owner of the JLowe Racing team, the neurosurgeon has embarked on two simultaneous career paths that each alone would seem ambitious enough. To the point, Lowe advises that unless you can’t live without performing brain surgery or racing cars professionally, he wouldn’t recommend either one. This underscores just how passionate, dedicated and driven – bad pun intended – Lowe is. He concedes that his lifestyle does not leave a lot of time for goofing off.
Indeed, his advice in the event that you do choose either (let alone both) of these highly specialized careers is, “Work harder than everyone else, and don’t let anything deter you from your goal.”
Obviously, Lowe knows a thing or two about hard work, focus and determination. You must if you want to enter racing for the very first time at the age of 32. Most professional racers were piloting Go-karts in their diapers. Lowe would most certainly qualify as a late bloomer.
Still, long before he had any expectation that he might take part in the sport, he was a fan.
As a kid, he watched racing greats, like Jackie Stewart, with his dad. He hardly imagined as he watched the Monaco races and the Daytona 500 that he might one day attain those dizzying speeds himself.
And of course, the more practical concerns of his medical career beckoned. For much of his young adult life, his focus was dedicated to becoming a neurosurgeon. Indeed, Lowe would spend the better part of the ’80s and early ’90s in Philadelphia completing his undergraduate and medical studies. He departed the city for New Jersey upon completing his residency in 1995 to begin practicing neurosurgery.
But just four years later, Lowe found himself back in school. Only this time, it was the Jim Russell Racing School in Sonoma, Calif. The first time he got behind the wheel in 1999, he was mostly checking off a line item on his bucket list. Twenty minutes of driving, though, told him this was no mere passing fancy. He needed more.
He credits a lot of his development over the subsequent six years to his mentor and teammate Jim Pace. Under Pace’s tutelage, Lowe would gain enough experience and knowledge to go professional in 2006.
And as if his two professions were not demanding enough, the decision to become a team owner suddenly imposed a whole new set of challenges on Lowe. From the peculiarities of performance-grade auto mechanics to the economics of managing a driving team to the complexities of navigating the field of racing sponsors, Lowe noted in a 2009 interview that, “None of this is particularly natural to me. I didn’t take any economics or marketing classes in college. I was studying to be a surgeon, so I’ve had to learn it all on the fly.”
In 2009, an unfortunate turn of events showed Lowe just how difficult learning on the fly can be. A fierce competitor and rising star, Lowe endured a frustrating series of setbacks just as his driving career was taking off. Following third- and fourth-place finishes in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the previous two years, Lowe went into the 2009 season with justifiably high expectations for his team.
In an interview just before that year’s race, Lowe told reporters that “first and foremost, we’re here to win the Rolex… it’s the race everybody wants on their resume…you don’t wanna be that close anymore. You want to win it.”
That would not be Lowe’s year, however. Mechanical problems forced his team to the sidelines just a few hours into the race. A “Did Not Finish” result cost the team its sponsorship and forced Lowe to park his car for much of the season. The ordeal was tough on Lowe, who until that point had generally used racing as a way to diffuse the considerable stress caused by his day job.
He buckled down, doubled his efforts, reorganized his team and gradually found his way back to the racetrack. The rebuilding process required about two years of work however, all undertaken alongside his work in the OR.
In some ways, in fact, it was his work in the OR that helped him rebound. Lowe points out that, of course, “there’s a whole lot more at stake in the OR than at a sporting event.” Still, there are “some traits that overlap – ability to focus, nerves under pressure, tolerance for risk.” These are the traits that helped Lowe’s racing team get back on track.
Clearly, Lowe is a man who gets what he wants. But this is not without strong support from those around him. Of balancing his time between medicine and racing, he admits that “something, or more accurately someone, always suffers. My wife and son are very understanding and supportive; my partner, Dr. Joe Zerbo, works overtime when I’m away at the track.”
Beyond that, Lowe is a man who lives in two very different worlds. Many of his colleagues in medicine either don’t understand racing or simply think he’s crazy. As for the guys at the track, Lowe describes them as “a bit mystified about the whole neurosurgery thing.”
But his patients love it. Many of them even tune in to watch him race. He hopes that one day, they will watch him step to the top of the podium for a first-place finish. More importantly, though, he hopes for a long, healthy career in the OR.
In spite of his uncommon cross-section of skills, Lowe remains at once humble about his racing abilities and in awe of his heroes. The first time he got behind the wheel of a race car – an open wheel, single-seater, Dodge-powered formula car that Lowe describes as “great fun and probably pretty dangerous” – he hardly imagined he was only a few years off from sharing the road with Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon.
He says of both racing and surgery that “you can be taught to do both reasonably well, but there’s got to be some genetic ability to do either really well. Both require intensity, dedication and practice, but the surgery part of what I do certainly is more demanding overall. That being said, no matter how hard I try or how long I continue to race, I’ll never be as fast as those racers I admire.”
Lowe’s thrills on the racetrack are many, highlighted by his third-place team finish at Daytona in 2007. And as it compares to his work as a surgeon, he acknowledges that, “nobody claps and cheers in the OR.”
Ultimately, though, Lowe would tell you he’s a good driver, he’d like to be a great driver, and he was born to be a surgeon.