by Robbie Allison
A common misconception with auto racing is that it doesn’t require the same athleticism and preparation as other professional sports. Advertisements and sports channels are filled with NFL stars lifting weights and running drills, or fighters hitting heavy bags, or soccer players on the treadmill. Usually the only preparation broadcast for NASCAR drivers is the scheduled practice a day or two before the race. Some drivers may not look like they’ve worked out a day in their life. But a complete driver approaches his or her day as any professional athlete would, and there are a few key fitness concepts that breed success and prevent injury or exhaustion.
There are a few different ways drivers approach strengthening their neck, but all will agree this is imperative for stamina and injury prevention in NASCAR. Imagine this: if the average head weighs fifteen pounds, and a driver is turning at a force of 3 G’s, that means (roughly) 45-50 pounds are pulling that driver’s head to the side in each turn. Now imagine doing this for 500 miles.
Jamie McMurray strengthens his neck by attaching 35 pound weights to his helmet and racing a high speed kart around a road course all day, followed by a well-appreciated trip to the chiropractor.
Downhill mountain bikers and dirt bike racers will often describe forearm exhaustion as a reason for late-race collisions. When the driver’s body is pumped full of adrenaline, they have a hard time feeling the signs of muscle fatigue until it’s too late. NASCAR drivers experience this exhaustion as well, especially with shoulders. By strengthening the forearms and rotator cuffs, the driver will be able to compete longer before exhaustion hits, and feel the signs of exhaustion early on.
Flexibility plays a large role in shoulder stamina as well. Many cup teams hold weekly yoga classes in the shop for this exact reason, as yoga both strengthens and promotes healthy flexibility.
Core muscles are probably the most important (and require the most exercise) in motorsports. Turning those G forces turns a 150-pound body into 450 pounds. The core muscles (the abdomen and lower lumbar) hold up all that weight above the legs, and allow the driver to maintain control of the car under such weighty conditions. As the car rotates at a high speed rate, the core functions and a stabilizing device and allows the driver to focus on the task at hand. Core stamina is important to keep lifting the legs off the brakes and throttle over the course of the race as well. The most important function of strengthening the core, though, is that it mitigates damage to the body in severe crashes. A strong core allows the body to brace itself without causing over-tension and has very likely saved lives of fit drivers in dangerous circumstances.
Carl Edwards is a big advocate for planks and arm-leg raises to strength his core and stability muscles, which allows him to maintain focus and energy throughout the race. If you don’t think core strength helps endure the impact of a hard crash, see Edwards’ 2009 Talladega crash. The driver plowed airborne through the catch fence before landing back on the track with a demolished car, and finished the last 100 yards of the race by foot.
Perhaps as important as core strength is cardiovascular and endurance training. Commonly, professional drivers possess a slender physique. This is due, in part, to extensive cardiovascular training. Heart and lung health keep the mind and body focused throughout those lengthy races, and help the body maintain homeostasis during times of extreme pressure and/or heat. Distance running, elliptical machines, and kickboxing are commonplace among drivers’ daily routines.
Just ask 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who enjoys competing in full distance marathons during his free time.
This may seem an obvious practice for a driver from the casual observer, but there is an incredible amount of focus on a racecar driver’s reflexes in their daily training. Imagine getting brake checked by a car on the interstate, and now imagine that at 200 mph. Shifting, lap consistency, braking, throttle control, and avoiding collisions are all made possible by near super-human reflexes that only a driver can possess. The only valid explanation for how well the top drivers achieve this is pure talent, honed by years of practice.
Many teams will have a “batak wall” in their workout room, which is a series of buttons that light up and judge one’s score on how quickly those buttons are tapped. This is a new-age form of whack-a-mole that seems to have made strides in the way of honing reflexes. Drivers will also take advantage of their free time to go race shifter karts, motorcycles, or other high speed activities to keep their minds and eyes accustomed to such a high rate of speed. Many drivers will even take up boxing or martial arts, as the timing required to dodge a strike helps tune the eyes as well.
The absolute most important piece of a driver’s health is their fluid level. Dehydration is a condition that leads to dizziness or fogged thinking, muscle exhaustion, cramping, or even loss of consciousness. It’s not uncommon for drivers to pass out after a race, and dehydration is the culprit for these scary episodes. A component of hydration that is so often overlooked is that it doesn’t happen the day of the race. Hydration happens throughout the week leading up to the race. For a driver, pushing heavy amounts of fluids is a daily occurrence. Sometimes, drivers will even have IV’s to help this process.
Kasey Kahne, who weighs 145 pounds, has been known to lose multiple pounds in a single race from sweating. Kahne is a frequent recipient of hydration IV’s to protect his body as it loses all that water weight. Bubba Wallace made his Cup debut at Pocono this year, and although he performed well in the race, he could be seen losing consciousness soon after exiting the vehicle.
Although there are many other factors that help determine a driver’s performance on race day, one thing is clear: their daily training is a clear indicator that racecar drivers are truly and uniquely gifted athletes.