A race driver’s fitness routine was once rather simple: running, cigarettes and alcohol (the running being optional). Call it the James Hunt exercise program, if you will, but it had been commonplace long before the charismatic Englishman became F1 world champion and racing’s most notorious bon vivant. According to 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, real physical training is considered a modern trend in motor racing.
“Fitness?” he says with a laugh. “My career really began in the seventies, and your youth tends to cover up for you, doesn’t it? I didn’t really do too much other than drive.”
As he reached his prime in the eighties, Rahal was slightly ahead of the curve in terms of curbing his vices.
“As time went on, especially as I started to age, I’m talking my late 30s, I did two things; one, I quit smoking and, two, I started to bicycle a lot, which I still do today. And, clearly, it was timely because your youth works for you at some point and age works against you at some point, especially when you’re going against guys that are 10 or 15 years younger than you. So I started doing a lot more weights, a lot more training towards the end of my career. And certainly it made a difference, there’s no doubt of that.”
The late Ayrton Senna was one of the most visible proponents of fitness, sparking a change in attitude on the subject in the late eighties that was felt through most of the F1 paddock, as well as Indy car.
Michael Schumacher took Senna’s fitness dedication to new heights, working so intently on his cardio that the German set a new global standard for open-wheel drivers: having the stamina to set a string of qualifying laps at every race, if not for the entire race itself, without a drop-off in performance. And with the competitive nature that drives most racers, fitness training has become an informal sport among the elite drivers.
IndyCar savant Will Power is known for being the fastest driver in the field and the most intense in the gym, and clearly subscribes to the Schumacher model of training.
“You’ve got to be honest, you can’t push as hard and push in qualifying and every lap in a race, you just can’t physically put in that much energy,” says the Aussie, who’s known for pushing himself to the point of vomiting and then continuing his workout.
“The closer you get to that ultimate place fitness-wise, it basically comes down to the thinner you are, the more clear your mind is and the harder you can push in a race. Especially in IndyCar now with how much downforce we have. It’s very bloody physical.”
The slightly-built Power looks more like a golfer than someone capable of wrestling an Indy car with 5000 pounds of downforce through a corner, and he says today’s drivers, save for 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, who looks like a pint-sized version of The Rock, spend two to three hours in the gym daily, working on muscle endurance rather than size.
“Certainly, two days or maybe three days a week of weights and three days a week of cardio and sometimes both on the same day is what I do,” Power explains. “You need your muscles to last, and bulking up means you’re burning more oxygen to keep them fed. At least for a high-downforce open-wheel car, physical endurance is crucial.”
And with facilities like Pit Fit in Indianapolis and other driver-centric gyms catering to stars like Power as well as the next generation of up-and-comers, the driver-as-athlete dynamic will only continue to evolve.
“Hell, I remember you’d see the French drivers in Formula 2, Formula 1, they’d all have lunch and at lunch they’d have glasses of wine and then go qualify!” recalls Rahal. “And we joked in the old days of Indy that if you couldn’t drive with a hangover, you were nobody.
“You look at football players from the fifties or sixties and you look at the guys now and they’re totally different human beings. It’s the same for racing drivers. It’s all about the understanding of nutrition and everything else and it made the difference or contributed to it. Different times and different places.”