IndyCar Drivers: The Ultimate Athletes

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“Oh yay… they went around in a circle AGAIN… how exciting!” That’s the kind of sarcastic commentary we as race fans have to listen to when those who do not follow racing decide to comment on it. One thing you may know about me is that I have an opinion – on just about everything… and I will gladly engage in debates with other educated individuals. Notice how I said educated. I emphasize that part, actually… because regardless of how opinionated I am, I refuse to get into an argument or point-for-point conversation with anyone if I am not confident on my knowledge of the given topic. I guess that is why it frustrates me when I hear people make negative comments about racing – poking fun at it, brushing it off as something anyone could do, or even (my favorite) refusing to categorize it as a sport. When I hear this kind of commentary, I am assured of one thing… the person I am speaking to or rather being forced to listen to because they just happen to be within earshot, has absolutely no CLUE what they are talking about. If you don’t follow a sport (and yes, it IS a sport), then do the rest of us a favor and kindly keep your unfounded opinions to yourself.

I think one of the misconceptions that makes me the craziest is when people make the ridiculous comparison of how they drive a car every single day, so it’s not that hard. Honestly, that’s insulting. Thinking you could operate an IndyCar simply because you have an Ohio Driver’s License and cruise down I-90 at 65 mph in your Kia Soul is a joke. Why? Well let’s look at the facts – during a race, IndyCar drivers experience lack of oxygen, extreme g-forces, high heart rates and constant pressure on their body and mind. All of these elements happen simultaneously and nearly continuously for anywhere from two to three hours of time. Being competitive in a sport like IndyCar is only possible when the driver is in peak condition, physically and mentally.

Earlier this year in Toronto, The Globe and Mail interviewed James Hinchcliffe about this topic. Hinch commented on the idea that he and his fellow open-wheel drivers are not athletes:

“You hear it so much and we all have heard it for years – I mean, people don’t even appreciate how physical a go-kart is – the forces that are put on our bodies [in an IndyCar] are similar to that of fighter pilots.”

Their internal organs are pushed against their rib cages due to the pressure their bodies experience, they have to control their breathing – sometimes by holding their breath in turns, in order to regulate their high heartbeats as well as assuring their lungs don’t collapse from the g-forces when banking. Their core and their necks are two of the most strained and therefore strongest muscle groups in their bodies – training between races on nearly a daily basis as well as continually in the off-season to stay in top condition are essential to their career and their lives.

When an accident occurs in IndyCar, the fitness of these young drivers is also crucial. They’ve learned to control their heart rates and adjust to their environments at the drop of a hat – if you remember the devastating accident that paralyzed Alex Zanardi in Germany in 2001 – there was no medical evidence to show his survival. He lost 75% of the blood in his body when his car was cut in half causing him to lose both legs. The fact that he was a high performance athlete was one of if not THE reason that he did not lose his life that day in September.  Last year, Alex told Daily Mail in the UK,

“They compared my injuries to a NASA study that charts the critical point beyond which a human body cannot survive and told me I was officially a dead man.”

But Alex, with his unwavering love of racing and determination to compete has continued on with human performance training despite his injuries and became a two-time gold medalist at the London Paralympics in 2012 for hand-cycling! He is a true inspiration and living proof that open-wheel racers are not run-of-the-mill individuals… they DEFINE the word athletic and perhaps even redefine what it means to push one’s self to the limits and beyond.

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There are so many facets to the health and performance of race drivers that they have their own training program – with the main facility, appropriately, located in Indianapolis. PitFit Training was something I learned about through Twitter. Many of the drivers I follow including @hinchtown and @josefnewgarden made numerous tweets about it and that got me curious. I quickly found the PitFit website and started reading all about the multi-layer program. It all started two decades ago in Detroit with the support of Penske Racing and has since transformed into THE training and fitness program for racers of multiple series and levels. It incorporates strength, control, mental awareness, pushing physical boundaries and many of these simultaneously in order to mimic what these athletes need to endure and rise above on raceday.

It’s pretty understandable, once you start to understand how much pressure these drivers are under (literally & metaphorically) why they might be annoyed by the nay-sayers that still think it’s okay to question or make light of their athletic prowess.

“After a race, you are so exhausted because of what you have been through, and for someone to come and tell you that you are not really an athlete, you kind of just want to slap them across the face and say, ‘Oh, you think so? You go try it.” – James Hinchcliffe

If you want to find out more about PitFit Training and their facility in Indianapolis, which by the way is open to the public, please check out their website. Also, make sure you take a moment to watch this recent broadcast from WISH-TV… it gives you a glimpse into how hard these drivers work to do what they love… and entertain all of us!

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