DRIVERS TRAIN LIKE ANY ATHLETE FOR THE BIG RACE
Hondy Indy Toronto: Drivers train like any athlete for the big race
July 6, 2012
On most weekends between March and September, Scott Dixon stuffs his 160-pound frame into an Indy car cockpit, fastens himself to the seat with three belts and speeds around a sweltering asphalt track for two hours at more than 330 kilometres and hour, braking and hitting corners with more gravitational force than a space shuttle launch.
The New Zealander has, maybe, two litres of water in his car, a heart pumping roughly 170 beats per minute, a left brake pedal that requires 1,500 pound-force per square inch just to budge and constant vibrations rattling through his spine, caused by his car’s suspension systems.
And, of course, the inerasable knowledge that a single ill-timed manoeuvre can easily lead to death-by-flaming wreckage.
While public perception still leans to a somewhat dated notion that race car drivers are not athletes, it has gradually changed in the last decade or so as high-performance training becomes the norm for many drivers on the motor sports circuit.
“(Drivers) don’t require the power and personal speed of a sprinter or the strength of a weightlifter or the endurance of a marathon runner,” said Jacques Dallaire, co-founder of the Motor Sport Research Group at McGill University, “but they require the eyes of an eagle, they require reaction time, the ability to focus, they require a great deal of physical stamina; flexibility is important to them. They have to have tremendous muscular endurance.”
Indeed, a study in the year 2000 by two University of Miami researchers, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that drivers’ oxygen uptake at race velocity was more than three times what was needed when running on a treadmill, leading the researchers to conclude “the physical demands required in high-speed road racing are similar to those encountered within traditional sporting settings.”
“I think it’s very easy to do a 30- or 45-minute race mentally and physically, but doing that three or four times over is the tough part,” said Dixon, currently ranked third in the IZOD IndyCar Series heading into Toronto’s Honda Indy on Sunday.
“If you look at the physical aspect of it, the amount of weight you have to pull and down with the steering wheel and the g’s you’re getting at the corners, it’s like doing a triathlon for two hours.”
And so, Dixon trains like a triathlete, running, cycling and swimming six days a week near his Indianapolis home. Since joining the Series in 2003, Dixon has competed in two half Ironmans and at least 40 triathlons.
Consider the difficulty he faces when simply pushing the brake pedal, which is comparable to applying 200 pounds of pressure. Dixon may brake 15 times per lap in the Honda Indy’s 85-lap race — that’s the equivalent of 1,275 200-pound leg presses over the course of two hours.
“Pressing down on the brake pedals is kind of like trying to crush a can soup with your foot,” said Jim Leo, an exercise physiologist and president of Indianapolis-based PitFit Training.
Elite drivers must finesse split-second decision-making while facing intense exhaustion, cramping muscles and mental stress, a trio of discomfort that must be overcome oftentimes under severe summer heat.
“When you physically become tired, then mentally you become tired, too,” Dixon said.
So in addition to tried-and-true endurance training, he incorporates incremental weight lifting, plyometrics, aerobics and hybrid drills that combine high-intensity cardio fitness with mental puzzles. In one exercise, he sprints two-minute intervals at 23 km per hour, jumps off the treadmill, picks up a medicine ball and uses it to deflect a barrage of tennis balls while answering basic math questions flashed on placards in front of him.
Drivers experience about four g of force on turns and five g on braking, or up to five times body weight, an extreme sensation that ramps up heart rates to between 160 and 170 beats per minute and can jolt a driver’s head like a pinball.
According to Leo, the key is heart-rate recovery, coaxing down a pulse to stable levels. Dixon, for example, has trained his heart rate to drop to 105 beats per minute in about 30 seconds during less-intense portions of the race.
“If a driver runs at a high heart rate on very intense portions of a track, say a high-speed corner, or they’re running neck-and-neck with another driver on an open oval, what will happen is over time it will fatigue the driver; their energy levels will start to dissipate and they may not have enough energy to perform at their best at the end of the race,” said Leo, who trains Dixon, current Series leader Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Oakville native James Hinchcliffe.
Leo’s unique training regimen puts drivers under physiological and mental pressures that attempt to mirror what they experience on the track, everything from maintaining core strength — on an Indo Board balance trainer, for example — to withstanding excessive heat.
The drivers work with hot yoga instructors to improve their balance and flexibility in 40-degree heat. They use Dynavision D2 light boards — essentially a constellation of rapidly-flashing bulbs that the athletes must locate and tap — and other reaction-training equipment, such as automatic ping-pong machines, to sharpen their reflexes.
French driver Sébastien Bourdais points to the neck, shoulders, and legs as the three most important areas for muscle development.
“You need a strong upper body to really hold yourself, so your neck is not getting in the way,” he said. “If your head starts to club around, it’s very tough to see.”
Unlike athletes in other sports, there are no significant rest breaks for the Indy driver. In a race, physical and mental stress happens simultaneously, full-bore and non-stop for at least two hours.
“If an individual requires the ability to sustain a heart rate of somewhere in the neighbourhood of 163 beats per minute for almost two hours non-stop on the edge of control, where precision is required, and if they mess up they could die, would you qualify that as athleticism?” Dallaire said.
His answer: An unequivocal yes.