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You think race car drivers are not athletes?

Jim Leo, Interview by Mark Boudreau
Thursday, April 29, 2010

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Editor's Note:  This interview was originally conducted by F1Prospects.com and is reprinted here by permission.

Jim Leo of Pit Fit

Race car drivers have to be in shape. Like fighter pilots, the supreme amount of exertion expended in manhandling a race car through numerous high speed corners or at over 200 mph on a high banked oval requires them to maintain a level of fitness few of us can imagine. Gone are the days when Keke Rosberg after a shunt casually pulled out a pack of smokes while waiting for a lift back to the pits. Race car drivers these days are extraordinarily fit, as they must be to stay competitive in the dog eat dog world of motorsport.

There is no better person who can testify to this than Jim Leo of Pit Fit Training. As the owner of a company that specializes in driver training, Leo has both the experience and training to know what it takes to get a driver in shape and how. He recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to F1 Prospects about driver training, diet and what Pit Fit has to offer drivers from all forms of motorsport.

F1 Prospects: For somebody who doesn’t follow motorsport there is the misguided belief that drivers are not athletes.

Jim Leo: This perception has been something I have to explain less and less over time. The view of the cigarette smoking, drinking oaf was based more on drivers from the 60’s and 70’s, when physical fitness was less of a science for drivers. But Senna introduced the correlation between fitness and racing success in Formula One in the 80’s, and it gradually took hold in North America in the 90’s and the current day. There has been quite a bit of research showing the physical stress on the racing driver. Excessive G-loads, heart rates ranging between 140 and 180, heat stress, increases in blood lactate levels, and mental fatigue are some of the more noticeable finds. But the stresses of racing are well-documented, and it’s the norm in today’s racing that training is a standard component of every driver’s preparation.

F1P: Explain to us a bit of what a driver goes through during a typical open wheel race.

JL: It really depends on the type of track and car. Research done by Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Patrick Cohn in the early 90’s showed that drivers racing on a road course in a formula-style car showed the same oxygen update, heart rate levels, and metabolic workload as an athlete riding a bicycle 22 mph or running 12 km/hour. At PitFit, we have measured increases in blood lactate and found a driver’s blood lactate rose 300-400% when driving 3 laps in an Indy Lights car around the Mid-Ohio race track.

F1P: What kind of exercises should a young driver concentrate on? Where is the most stress on a driver during a race?

JL: From a strength standpoint, every driver should focus on dynamic, whole-body exercise using a variety of tools. Kettle bells, cables, medicine balls, and dumbbells are the best bet. From a stamina standpoint, the key is balancing activities so you don’t get too focused on one training sport. Triathlon training (swim/bike/run) is great as it focuses on different muscle groups thus never really allowing the body to completely adapt. Varying your intensity also has a tremendous benefit, mixing intervals throughout sessions to simulate the elevated heart rate in the race car. Training of the core, shoulders, arms. Forearms and neck are key areas for a driver.

F1P: What about diet? How important is diet to a young racing driver?

JL: At PitFit, we follow conventional eating habits that focus on higher carbohydrates, moderate protein, and lower fat. Stay as close to natural and organic food as possible and avoid processed food. It’s important to develop in training that you can duplicate on race day. Never try something new race weekend and stay clear of soda and energy drink as they offer little more than excessive levels of sugar.

F1P: How did Pit Fit come about? What services and training do you offer drivers?

JL: It started when I was working for Roger Penske at one of his plants running a large corporate wellness program. I inquired about working with his IndyCar team and he thought it was a good idea. This was 1994, and the team won 12 of 16 races and the Indy 500. I saw there might be more to this direction, so I started and have never stopped.

We offer a very diverse program for drivers and pit crews. Our clients range from junior-level karting racers to Indy 500 champions to middle-aged sports car drivers. We also work with pit crews on performance for pit stops. A recent direction is providing training classes daily to the general population, in which we use some of our same unconventional training methods we use with our professional athletes. Some drivers are based in Indianapolis, and some fly in for sessions or use our online training program e-PitFit, which allows me to coach drivers all over the world.

F1P: What do you think, from a fitness point of view, is the most important thing that young racers should understand and apply?

JL: They need to understand that as part of being a driver they must prepare themselves as well as possible outside of the car. This sport is dangerous, which I know first-hand because I have lost two very close friends who were clients to on-track incidents. If they fail to be prepared physically, they are possibly letting down everyone who supports them or depends on them for a job. One thing I learned from Roger Penske was his phrase “Effort = Results”.

F1P: Anything else you would like to add?

JL: I think the only thing is that we are expanding our program outside of Indianapolis and the U.S., with programs in Mooresville, NC and in the UK. This will give drivers the opportunity to work with our program without making the trek to Indianapolis. We have a fairly large presence with social media networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter, so check out these options or go to our web site at www.pitfit.com.

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