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SPECIAL ISSUE: MEN'S HEALTH

Tuned-up cars, toned-up bodies

NASCAR racing takes more than steady nerves. You've got to be in top shape to handle the curves it throws.

October 16, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

IN the NASCAR sendup "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," the drivers eat trays of hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken and Wonder bread. The height of gourmet eating is a nacho fountain. Hero Ricky Bobby is so out of shape he loses a barroom brawl to an effete, Camus-reading, French Formula One driver.

"Please don't talk about 'Talladega Nights,' " groans Bobby Labonte, the only driver to win NASCAR's Cup and Busch series titles. "I didn't even see it, and I can tell you that's not the way it is."

At least not anymore.

Today's NASCAR drivers are in better shape than ever. Maneuvering 3,400-pound stock cars at speeds approaching 200 mph for up to five hours takes stamina, coordination and a strong upper body. Withstanding crashes demands overall muscle strength. And coping with dehydration -- during a race, drivers lose up to 10 pounds in water -- takes extraordinary endurance.

"Some people will say, 'I can drive 500 miles. How hard can it be?' " says veteran driver John Andretti. "But they'd have to drive 500 miles as fast as they could in rush-hour traffic with the heater on and the helmet on and the kids screaming in the back seat to get close. Now tell me if you need to be fit or not."

Many of today's drivers have some type of diet and conditioning routine -- but not to the point of obsession. The drivers surveyed for this story, for example, tended to have sensible, but not extreme, diets (somewhat low-fat) with special attention to portion control. They work out one to two hours a day up to four days a week, alternating weight training and cardio training.

Although they agreed that you don't have to be Charles Atlas to drive a car, they point out that physical conditioning -- even incremental training -- can give a driver an edge.

"When it really helps to be in top physical shape is on the day the car is not right," says Jeff Burton, a top driver in NASCAR's premier Nextel Cup series. "We call it 'getting up on the wheel,' which means you've got to wrestle this car. You've got to fight the car. And if you catch that day, on a day that's very hot or maybe on a day that you're not feeling so well, the better shape you're in, the better you'll get through that."

Because stock cars are driven primarily with the shoulders, upper-body conditioning can stave off general fatigue and provide an occasional advantage -- even for younger drivers such as ultra-buff Carl Edwards, known for celebrating wins with an exuberant back flip off his car.

"The power steering went out at Watkins Glen at a Busch race earlier this year," Edwards says, "and I had to run about 25 laps with no power steering." Maintaining the pace "was as hard as I could work," he recalls.

The neck in particular takes a beating as G-forces in cars going 170 miles an hour or higher force the neck backward. "By the end of 350 or so laps, your neck is just so tired," says Burton's trainer Ken Nazemetz, a martial arts instructor who also works with the Carolina Panthers.

Burton has found that exercises targeting his neck have helped him. "This year, for example, my neck doesn't get tired anymore. There were times last year when I noticed that I was using my head support system to rest my head on because my neck was tired. I don't have that anymore."

The back is also subject to strain as the driver sits in the car for hours on end cinched in by the seat belt, with feet extended. "That's a lot of extension on the lumbar plexus," says Nazemetz.

Andretti, 43, does lots of leg stretches aimed specifically at his back. One of auto racing's most versatile competitors and the first driver to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in the same day, Andretti's workout includes resistance training for his biceps and triceps and interval training incorporating short sprints and push-ups.

Drivers say overall conditioning and cardio conditioning provide the biggest edge. Many bike, jog or play tennis or racquetball, which is particularly good for hand-eye coordination.

Some will supplement their routine by grabbing exercise whenever they can get it. Edwards, 27, who won four Nextel Cup races in 2005, says he works out about four days a week but that just walking around on race weekend provides exercise.

"I wore a pedometer at California Speedway the last time we were there," he says. "At the end of the weekend, I'd walked 12 miles."

Drivers who are well-conditioned have advantages in several ways. Conditioning helps them get through the sport's long season. "We get tired as the year progresses," says Burton. "The better shape you're in, the better you're able to combat that."

Add to that an intense racing schedule. "We race 38 times a year, sometimes more," says Labonte, 42. Conditioning helps stave off the exhaustion of constant travel, he says. Labonte's diet and workout routine have helped him drop 25 pounds in the last four years.

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