INDIANAPOLIS — Driving a race car through turns at speeds above 200 m.p.h. is not only hazardous, it is physically demanding.
The forces of gravity involved approach those that test pilots and astronauts must endure.
And driving a race car at high speed in traffic for 500 miles takes extraordinary concentration and stamina.
Still, few people think of race drivers as athletes.
One dictionary defines athlete as: "One trained to physical exercises, feats or contests of strength."
A good case can be made for drivers on each of those points.
To wrestle an ill-handling race car, whether it is a 1,550-pound Indy car or a 3,700-pound stock car, around a race track definitely is physical exercise, and it certainly takes above average strength. And piloting a race car at the speeds they reach today on race tracks built before World War I must be considered a feat.
"Driving keeps you in shape," said Bobby Rahal, who has had a seat in virtually every major driving series in the world. "But you have to have tremendous stamina. It's like a marathon runner. You have to be physically strong.
"The other thing is mental ability--the ability to concentrate. That's very difficult to train for.
"What's the definition of an athlete? Is a jockey an athlete? We don't go running up and down like a football or basketball player, but in terms of the physical demands of our sport, it takes every bit as much athletic ability, in my opinion."
Rahal, 32, rides a stationary bike for about half an hour a day and also works out with Nautilus weight equipment--a favorite of many of the drivers.
Danny Sullivan, a slim, handsome 35, has taken a further step to stay in proper condition for driving a race car. He has hired a personal fitness consultant and trainer, Dan Isaacson, who is a partner in John Travolta Dance and Workout in Los Angeles, trained Travolta for his demanding role in the movie "Staying Alive" and works with dozens of show business people.
"Danny works out at least an hour a day six days a week," said Isaacson, who spent the first week of practice for the May 26 Indianapolis 500 at Sullivan's side. "I don't usually do this (travel with his clients), but this is so unique and such a major event, I wanted to see what it is we had to deal with.
"What we're trying to do for Danny is make him more conscious of his whole body. His workouts and diet are designed to give him an improved cardiovascular system--get more oxygen to his system when he needs it--and make him more flexible."
Isaacson, a compact, muscular man of 35, said now that he has seen race drivers up close, he certainly considers them athletes.
"I do. Danny was a track star in high school and an athlete is very proficient at whatever sport he does. And they (drivers) are involved in what they do psychologically, mentally, physically and spiritually. The one difference is that, with race drivers, a lot of their activity is internal--stamina, concentration, being ready psychologically.
"But they need to be in the proper physical and mental condition to prevent fatigue and create a great amount of energy when they need it."
Sullivan said, "Of course, I feel better being physically fit, but there are definite demands for it in Indy-car racing. A 500-mile or 500-kilometer or 300-mile race is very, very tough. The cars generate more downforce than ever before and the 'G' forces in the corners are up.
"I didn't drive a race car 20 years ago, so I don't know if they're easier or harder now. I only know that if you're physically drained, you're not going to be at your peak."
It's rare to see a race driver who doesn't appear to be in shape.
"The older guys know they have to keep in shape to keep racing and the younger ones know they must stay in shape to handle the pressures," Sullivan said.
"Look at a guy like Mario," he added, referring to 45-year-old Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1978 Formula One world champion. "He keeps in shape mainly by driving, which is the best way to do it. He's constantly testing or racing and that alone can help you maintain your conditioning because it's very hard. But, when he's not driving, Mario is playing tennis or water skiing or doing something active. That's just the way he is, and that's the way most drivers are."
There also is the theory that conditioning has saved the lives of many drivers in crashes over the years.
"There's no question that someone in shape is more likely to get through a severe impact in better condition than someone who isn't," said Johnny Rutherford, 47, a three-time Indy winner. Rutherford, who still pilots jet planes as a hobby and has remained trim.
"I worked a little harder over the winter and took off some weight," said Rutherford, who has a full-time ride for the first time in two years. "You have to be ready for whatever happens when you're in a race car, and one way to get yourself ready is to be physically fit."