The Importance of Physical Fitness in Motorsports

The Importance of Physical Fitness in Motorsports

A large portion of my online activity is focused on two interests: fitness and motorsports.  I write about both for this blog and motorsports for My Life at Speed.  However a few months ago I got it into my head, to bring those two great loves of mine together in this article.  One of the coolest parts of my job at My Life at Speed is my colleagues.  A bunch of them are or have been professional race car drivers and I’ve come to realize that fitness is very important to them – but there are a number of people who may wonder why.  For the most part, they compete in a seated position, so why is physical fitness important to racers?  This requires a little insight into the world of auto racing.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson on the cover of Men’s Fitness

Driving and racing are related but different activities.  Driving a car is like playing with a kitten, while racing a car is like taming a lion.  You may find the former quite relaxing, but possibly lose your life with the latter…even if you’re the best in the whole, wide world.  The physical and mental acuity required to drive a race car are far beyond what you need for your daily driver.  Primarily racing vehicles aren’t street legal.  You can take a minivan onto a racetrack (preferably when it’s not in use), but you sure as heck can’t take a stock car for a spin downtown.    Race cars don’t have creature comforts like air conditioning and comfy seats.  Pods for the driver are designed to protect the body – nothing more.  Endurance racers (including NASCAR) are in their seats for hours at a time non-stop.  There’s no pulling over to stretch your legs, stopping for snacks or powdering noses.  They’re fully focused on finishing the race first and safely, from the moment they get into the car, until the checkered flag drops.  So it’s not “just driving around” as some would say.

Jordan Taylor 26Sep2013

Formula 1 drivers are famous for their rigorous fitness programs, for e.g. Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.  Button has competed in a number of Ironman competitions and hosts his own charity triathlon.  Mark Webber’s Swisse Tasmania Challenge is 5-day race that covers 350km by mountain bike, running, trekking and kayaking.  He’s proficient at all events…naturally.  Then there’s Fernando Alonso, who’s not only the highest paid driver in the world (as of the 2013 season), but may just be the fittest.  Perhaps a Crossfit throwdown with IndyCar’s Tony Kanaan may be the only way to know for sure?

Okay, okay, I’ve told you enough about racers.  It’s time to hear from them.  I dipped into my address book and asked some of my friends to tell what they do to stay fit for their chosen sport.  Robb Holland of Rotek Racing and part of the winning team from this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, used to be a competitive bicyclist and that’s remained the anchor of his fitness routine.  However, he also hikes, swims and works out in the gym “in the winter when it is too cold outside.”

Robb Holland 2012

Robb Holland at the 2012 25 Hours of Thunderhill (Photo Credit: Ken Stouffer / My Life at Speed)

Greg Tracy who has an enviable collection of trophies from the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Hot Wheels Double Loop Dare and is one of the best stuntmen in Hollywood likes mixing up his workout regime.  He likes to spend time on two wheels in order to train for four.  He said, “I liked spending time on my mountain bike in the hills.  I also loved riding in sandy creek beds for balance training.  Today I bench press my five year-old and BMX with him.”

Greg Tracy

Greg Tracy (far left) in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Hot Wheels Double Loop Dare (Photo Credit: My Life at Speed)

Sidecar racers face very different demands.  Gina Gottlieb of Team Johnny Killmore is a sidecar passenger.  If you don’t know what that is, here’s an onboard video of one of their races.  Gina’s in all-black and yes, she is hanging off the side on the turns.  Sometimes, her head is very close to the asphalt that they’re speeding over.

Her routine includes rock climbing, yoga, and running.  “ … I’ve been out of it for a while,” she said.  It shows on the bike; methinks, in lack of body control when transitioning.”  Although their roles are quite different, Johnny feels the pressure on his body too.  “Yeah my forearms and inner thigh muscles are the only ones that get truly worked out.  On an F2 sidecar like mine you are not locked into the bike, making you work pretty hard to stay in position.  Cardio is affected, but at age 35 it is not something a person of average health needs to worry about.”  He went on to say, “The main thing is that, with the passenger on your back, you need to be able to hold their body weight in position as well as yours. This engages specific muscles in an awkward way and it will over power them no matter what. Grim determination is as important as fitness training. When I was a passenger it was a full body thing… Everything from neck muscles to the tips of your toes would be sore, and cardio was a big deal, along with mental toughness.”

Last but not least is someone who’s instantly recognizable to Octane Academy fans.  Savannah Ivanitski and her husband Valentin are Fingers Crossed Racing.  They are very dedicated to their sport.  In fact, racing is what brought them together and the young couple works very hard to get better at it, every step of the way, together.  They also spend a lot of time working to strengthen their bodies, as well as their skills behind the steering wheel.  Ok, that’s probably the past tense of ‘working’ these days because they’re expecting their first child in 2014.  I’m absolutely thrilled for them and can’t wait to gush over cute baby pics on Instagram!  Things like Baby’s First Firesuit, Baby’s First Ear Protection, etc.  It will be awesome.

Fingers Crossed Racing

Savannah and Valentin Ivanitski (Photo Credit: Fingers Crossed Racing)

What do (did) you do to keep in shape for racing?
One thing that Valentin and I found to be very useful this past season, as using Bikram Yoga as training for the endurance racing.  The 1.5 hour classes were exactly the length of the stints we were typically running in the car; and the heat (105 degrees F) was great for us to practice keeping our physical strength and mental stamina up for that long period of time.  Other forms of training I have used in the past is basic cardio (Swimming is my favorite!) and elliptical.  Also, weight training… things to strengthen neck, upper body, and core mainly.  But full strength is really important everywhere.

Does that include a special diet?
During the race season, or prepping for big races, I usually try to eat healthy food. Nothing terribly specific. I’m a big fan of salmon and brown rice though (always my go-to meal to cook at home!) and lots of fruits and veggies. I make sure to always hydrate super well in the weeks leading up to a big race as well. That way my body is ready to handle it.

Do you believe that a driver’s fitness level affects their ability to perform well on the track?
Absolutely! The healthier you are, the better you’ll be at the track for so many reasons. The obvious reason is that it’s typically easier for a person to lose a few pounds than it is for the car to do so. Eliminating excess weight while racing can always save a few hundredths of a second! Also, the less fatigued a driver gets when they’re behind the wheel, the more they’ll be able to focus on driving well. It’s always better to be thinking about that turn coming up, as opposed to how hot you are or how much your shoulders hurt. Another huge thing for me is that being healthy usually keeps you in tip-top shape all weekend. Race weekends are exhausting! You’re usually up so early, not getting enough sleep, traveling, sleeping in tents or trailers, in a different time zone, working on the car all night, etc. Then you’re changing tires all day, running around figuring our registration, all those things can really wear a person down. The better your body is able to handle all of those things (by being healthy, in shape, and feeding it well) the easier it will be for a driver to focus on driving when it’s actually time to be on track.

A Final Word

The word ‘athlete’ gets thrown around handily nowadays.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes an athlete as “a person who is proficient in sports.”  In my mind, to question the athleticism involved in motorsport, also questions its status as a sport in general.  Does an activity qualify as a sport even if there’s no running, jumping, hitting, throwing or catching involved?  Do Michael Jordan’s six NBA Championships hold more value than Jimmie Johnson’s six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships?   Is Tiger Woods more of an athlete with his four PGA Championships than Sebastian Vettel with his four Formula 1 World Championships?  Honestly, we can have this argument until the cows come home to find us asphyxiated from being blue in the face.  So let’s just say that when it comes onto the importance of physical fitness in motorsports, I’m going to go with my friends and colleagues.  Yes, it’s important and that’s more than enough for me.