Driving a racecar at the professional level is not like taking your street car to the grocery store. It is a very demanding exercise that takes not only a lot of mental discipline, but a lot of physical endurance. You have to deal with many factors: the physical demands of lateral and longitudinal gravitational loads, extreme heat, mental and physical fatigue — all for extended periods of time. Each racing series has different demands, but they all come down to the same factor: A driver needs to be in top physical condition to be competitive in a modern race car.
In my type of racing, endurance sports cars, it is critical to have the stamina to be able to endure long periods of physical activity. Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series races last from two hours to 24 hours. We always have at least one co-driver for these events, and sometimes several, simply because one person cannot handle the demands of a full race. A typical “stint,” or the amount of time that we drive the car without a break in any given race, is approximately one hour. Occasionally we will do a double-stint, but it is rare for us to race for more than two hours at a time.
Here’s a little background on what we have to deal with. The outside temperature is a big factor inside the car because in addition to heat we must endure humidity. Our race cars have closed cockpits and very little outside air flows in. As you can imagine we wear a lot of safety gear and it doesn’t help as far as cooling. Our driving suits are made of several layers of Nomex, a fire retardant material. We also have to wear a layer of Nomex underwear. Add in the helmet, shoes, and gloves and you have an outfit that would serve you well in winter conditions! To maintain the cars’ performance we try to keep them as light as possible, which means they have little or no insulation to keep the cockpit cool. The interior of the car averages over 100° F and can reach temperatures of up to 120° F. Add in the physical work it takes to control a race car traveling at high speeds and you have a tough situation.
To prepare for these extreme conditions, each driver follows his or her own physical fitness program. I have worked with several trainers, doctors, and physiologists to try and stay in top shape to be able to handle the demands of modern racing. For our longer races we always have a doctor on staff. He or she is there to make sure that we stay in proper condition to continue driving by keeping tabs on our core temperature and our sweat rate and by supplying meals and fluids for hydration. From monitoring my sweat rate in the race car, I have learned that I can lose up to five pounds per hour in sweat alone! Recovery after each stint is critical and is not just limited to eating well and hydrating. For the 24-hour events, we have even gone as far as sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, which aids in recovery by increasing the oxygen levels in our blood.
I currently have a personal trainer and physiologist that I work with. My workouts can get compromised during the racing season with all of the traveling and odd schedules we have to keep, but in an average week I try to exercise six days. My workouts often consist of cardiovascular exercises — I switch between cycling and running. My main focus is on the amount of time that I can sustain a level of intensity, so I exercise for one hour on a regular basis to simulate the length of time I am in the car, although sometimes the lengths of my workouts vary. I average about 20 miles on my road bike and, depending on the intensity, I average about 7.5-minute to eight-minute miles during my runs. I also use a heart rate monitor to establish different thresholds of intensity. Sometimes it is low and steady, like going for a long jog, and sometimes it is high and intermittent, like sprinting in intervals to reach my peak threshold. To help counter muscle fatigue I follow a strength program with weight training and other activities.
I have also worn the heart rate monitor in the race car to get a good idea of what my heart rate is driving on track; it is surprising how hard we work in the car! What I have found interesting is that changes in my heart rate are directly related to and different for each track that I drive on and specific to certain sections of each track. Earlier this year we were testing the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype at Virginia International Raceway and my heart rate stayed fairly constant through the majority of each lap. But as I entered the uphill esses it instantly climbed to a pretty high level – for me this is anything above 150 beats per minute, a range I reach as I progress through more intense running workouts. Then as I left that section it dropped back down to a moderate level until I got back to it again. It was almost like doing interval training with my heart rate rising and falling every lap.
The final – but just as important – part to my fitness program is how I hydrate and what I hydrate with. There are many thoughts on the different substances that can be used for hydration whether it is drinking plain water, sports drinks, special drink mixes, or a combination of the three. Around a year ago I read an article in a cycling magazine about a seminar on thermoregulation of the body’s core temperature and proper hydration that was presented by Dr. Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist at Stanford University who is also known for working with top-flight athletes. After reading the article I eventually got in touch with her and we have since been working together. She has spent a lot of time studying how proper fueling of the body and maintaining core temperature and hydration affects athletes’ bodies when they exercise in extreme conditions. She provides me with both a pre- and post-race drink mix to help maintain proper hydration before my races and proper recovery after getting out of the car.
All of this may seem like a lot of work just to drive a modern race car, but there’s more to racing than what meets the eye. Professional race car drivers must treat their job like any successful professional athlete does and work to stay in top physical condition.