Open wheel racer Lynsey Tilton...
Open wheel racer Lynsey Tilton finds rock climbing to be an effective exercise. Courtesy of PitFit Training
Look at it this way: A Nextel Cup team practices Friday and Saturday, then races once on Sunday. Short trackers run multiple races in one night, many times racing multiple nights in a row during the week. A short track racer's body goes through a lot of abuse in one weekend of racing, especially when you consider most of us are wrenching on our own cars without the benefit of 20 highly paid Cup crew guys. So, as short trackers, we need excellent stamina and endurance and enough upper body strength to wheel a race car around a variety of tracks.
To get some tips on good training habits for short track racers, we caught up with Jim Leo, founder of PitFit Training, the official trainer for USAC. Leo's company offers a range of services, from the basics to full-on custom workouts with one-on-one trainers. It even has an online training program called ePitFit. Formed in 1997, PitFit has gained many of the NASCAR and IRL drivers in the country as clients. But about 2-3 years ago, his clientele began expanding to include short track drivers, such as Josh Wise.
To keep yourself hydrated...
To keep yourself hydrated on race day, go for water or a sports drink. Stay away from soda and energy drinks.
"A lot of short track drivers were saying to us that they felt good for the first one or two races, but by the end of the night or weekend, as the case may be, they were barely hanging on," explains Leo. "They wanted to feel as good at the end of the night as they did at the beginning."
Think about this for a minute: The average racer's heart rate during a race is 160-170 beats per minute. That's just like running a 5K. Who says drivers aren't athletes?
PitFit trainers began designing programs tailored to the short tracker. One common thread among all the programs is the focus on high-intensity activities such as interval training on a rowing machine and working out on a baseball field where you run and jump to keep the heart rate up, like it is in a race car.
Leo's programs focus on three primary areas of fitness: core strength, shoulder strength, and something he calls RFS, or reaction in a fatigued state. RFS consists of two parts. During high-intensity training, you stop every five minutes to do a reaction exercise, such as catching a workout ball that someone throws at you or trying to catch playing cards before they hit the ground. These exercises are designed to boost your reaction time, a critical ability for any race car driver.
Naturally, any physical training is something that you need to discuss with your doctor and then a professional trainer before starting a program.
"The Jersey Jet" Joey Payne...
"The Jersey Jet" Joey Payne and his family showing the results of proper preparation and staying loose in the off-season. It was his second win in the Gambler's Classic indoor Midget race held in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. Photo by Jim Smith
Beyond training, Leo clued us in on something else that every racer needs to consider-food. "The most important things are pre-competition nutrition and post-competition nutrition," says Leo. It's the old adage "you are what you eat."
On a day that you are racing, you should have a big-carbohydrate, moderate-protein breakfast and lunch. Then, two hours (not two minutes) before the green flag, you should again go for the big-carb/moderate-protein meal (e.g., pasta with grilled chicken). Remember, you're looking for lean protein, not a hunk of fatback.
On race day, you should increase your fluid intake. The best thing is water, although sports drinks such as traditional Gatorade and Powerade are good. Leo says that you should stay away, far away, from soda and energy drinks. Their high sugar and caffeine content will rob your body of the stamina and endurance you need for the race.
About one hour before the race you should have a bottle of Gatorade, then don't drink anything 20-30 minutes before the race. Drinking too much fluid too close to race time can make you have to go to the bathroom during the race, and worse, cause cramping or other gastrointestinal problems. If your mouth gets dry, take Leo's advice and chew on a cup of ice.
Finally, as soon as the race is over, grab a bottle of Gatorade to replenish the electrolytes and nutrients that you sweated out during the event.
If you have to race again, say an hour later, Leo says its ideal to grab a snack to keep the energy up. He recommends a banana and a PowerBar or yogurt with some type of fruit. Leo stresses to all racers who take his course to always pack their own food. With apologies to the concession stand, track food is very fatty and hard to digest, which can cause problems during the race. Soup, energy bars, lean all-natural beef jerky, and fruit are all great snacks.
Leo's goal is a simple one: "We want to make sure that we are part of the puzzle to get our drivers to Victory Lane." That said, good nutrition and good exercise should be a part of your racing plan.
Stayin' Loose Lastly, stay loose. Many drivers race other types of cars during their typical off-season to stay mentally sharp and avoid letting rust accumulate. Nextel Cup driver Ken Schrader is well known for doing this, racing his dirt car almost every weekend through December and January.
Guys like Tim McCreadie and John Blewett even take to the indoors for events like January's Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or the Gambler's Classic in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Blewett raced in this year's Gambler's Classic and finished Third behind Second-Place Lou Cicconi and winner Joey Payne. All three drivers are regulars in other sanctions (Blewett NASCAR mods, Payne and Cicconi ISMA and NEMA) but keep their skills sharp while having fun by racing in the "off-season."