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Gearing Up : Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, above and left, credits a personalized diet for his increased stamina and renewed success on the racing circuit.


PHOENIX — So you think that being a successful race car driver is just a matter of climbing into the right machine, driving fast and not having to worry about speeding tickets, right? What could be easier?

Some sports fans, in fact, share this attitude. To them, race car drivers don't quite qualify as true athletes.

But maneuvering a 720-horsepower Indy car for two to three hours at speeds that can exceed 200 miles per hour is a physical ordeal that would test the stamina of most long distance runners. Temperatures in the car's cockpit can reach more than 120 degrees and drivers commonly lose as many as 10 pounds during a race.

No wonder Emerson Fittipaldi, winner of last year's PPG Indy Car World Series championship, follows a diet and exercise program fit for a marathoner.

Fittipaldi must be in top physical and mental condition when he climbs into his car for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He will drive a distance equal to a trip from Los Angeles to Santa Maria in only two hours, constantly changing gears while making an average of 11 turns every minute--all with just two 12-second stops.

Providing Fittipaldi with the same level of attention that a pit crew of 16 will give his car is a smaller personal fitness team--diet/lifestyle consultant Gary Smith and trainer Jim Landis.

A two-time Formula One world champion, Fittipaldi, 43, retired in 1982 then returned to racing two years later, this time driving Indy cars. Looking for any way to improve his race results after a disappointing 1987, the Brazil native took a friend's suggestion and began modifying his diet with Smith's assistance.

"Before starting the diet, I used to eat everything," Fittipaldi explained during an interview prior to the Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. Under Smith's direction he began eliminating saturated fats, dairy products and sugar.

Today, the driver's diet is composed of approximately 70% to 75% complex carbohydrates (whole grains, barley, whole-wheat pasta, vegetables and fruit), 12% protein (beans and small amounts of fish and poultry) and 12% to 15% fat (from vegetables, grains, fish and poultry). (The diet was designed specifically for Fittipaldi and is not intended for use by the public.)

Three to four days before a race Fittipaldi reduces his fish and poultry intake and begins "carbohydrate loading"--a method of storing two to three times the normal amount of glycogen in the muscles. Glycogen, a complex carbohydrate, is changed into glucose as the body needs it for energy.

According to Walt Evans, author of "Sports Nutrition" (The Keats Sports & Fitness Library, 1989: $2.95), "a high-carbohydrate diet is associated with both a higher muscle glycogen concentration and a greater time to exhaustion than either a high-fat or mixed diet. . . . Athletes involved in events lasting (one to 1 1/2 hours or more) may benefit from carbohydrate loading."

However, it should be noted that not all sports nutritionists agree on the benefits of carbohydrate loading. Some cite dangers in the process and recommend it not be done too frequently.

Fittipaldi's diet differs from a marathoner's in that the driver consumes carbohydrates solely through grains rather than by eating pasta, a method often used by runners, Smith explained. The diet is modified depending on the length of the race, weather conditions and other factors.

Prior to shorter races and before and during longer races, Fittipaldi drinks a tea made from a mixture of Chinese herbs. Smith claims that the infusion "picks up metabolic activity and adds mental focus."

Dietary calcium is derived from leafy greens and sea plants such as arame, kombu and niziki, according to Smith. Recipes are developed by his associate Nancy Meze, who has trained Fittipaldi's cook, Lourdes Maeiei, in the necessary preparation methods and to shop for the proper ingredients.

The diet uses organic foods whenever feasible, which can mean transporting shelf-stable items when the Fittipaldi family travels to race tracks throughout the United States and Canada. Maeiei also has adapted some of the family's favorite Brazilian recipes using the diet's techniques.

"It took about two months (after starting the diet) before I began to see and feel the difference," Fittipaldi said. His cholesterol level lowered as did his weight. And he started to win races again, including last year's Indianapolis 500.

When the Championship Auto Racing Teams season ended last October, Fittipaldi had racked up enough points to take the CART PPG Indy Car World Series championship. This year he is defending the title as a member of the Roger Penske racing team, which also includes former Indy 500 winners Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan.

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