Baltimore’s most famous race is the Preakness. But with the inaugural Grand Prix this weekend, the city will witness a very different kind of horsepower. The three-day event is the first of its kind in the region, and a chance for car-racing fans to get an up-close look at some of the fastest folks in the sport. To turn downtown streets into a two-mile track suitable for cars zooming at speeds of 150 mph took a lot of time and effort.
The same was required on the part of the drivers in those cars, according to Jim Leo, owner of Pit Fit Training, an Indianapolis gym that specializes in keeping drivers and pit crews in good shape. “If a driver shows up and halfway into the race isn’t able to drive, he’s letting down his team and the fans,” says Leo, who’s worked with about 20 of the competitors at this weekend’s events.
The only way to keep up your stamina when you’re behind the wheel is to stay in shape. For drivers, that means working some muscles most of us don’t think of, including the neck. “It’s not like you go to the beach to show off how muscular your neck is,” Leo says. But it takes a beating when you’re whipping around turns and braking quickly, so drivers often use a device called a neck training hat, which resembles a beanie and can be attached to pulleys and weights. If you’re looking to buff up your neck at home, Leo suggests hanging over the edge of a bench while laying on your side or back. You’ll feel the burn just keeping your neck steady, or you can do “yes, no” drills.
When it comes to core training, the key is stabilization. “We don’t have any use for crunches,” says Leo, who explains that drivers who aren’t able to absorb G-forces face a greater risk of injury. He has them stand on wobbly surfaces while catching medicine balls and swinging kettlebells. Another option is to stand on one foot, hold a dumbbell on the same side of the body and perform overhead shoulder presses, biceps curls and lateral raises.
For both drivers and their pit crews, the most critical skill is speed. To quicken reaction times, Leo likes to have his clients hold a tennis ball in front of them in one hand, while keeping the other behind their backs. Then they have to let go of the ball and catch it with that back hand. To more closely mimic the conditions of racing, he’ll have them perform this drill in the middle of a cardio interval when their heart rates are up. “As you get fatigued, your reaction time increases,” Leo says. But with proper training, he adds, you can improve your reflexes, which should help whether you’re driving in the Grand Prix or just on the Capital Beltway.
Before Tony Kanaan zips around the track at the Baltimore Grand Prix this weekend, the 36-year-old Brazilian race-car driver plans to log plenty of mileage in Charm City — on foot. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion isn’t just gearing up for the final events of the racing season. He’s also prepping to head to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, next month for his first Ironman triathlon. “And last,” vows Kanaan, who’s been firing on all cylinders to get ready for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. Here’s an edited excerpt of what he had to say about training, racing and crashing.
How physical is race-car driving?
People don’t realize how tough it is. They relate it to driving to work with air conditioning. Instead, imagine it’s a foggy, rainy day, you can’t turn on your wipers, you’re driving as fast as you can around tight turns and there are 27 cars around you. As you get tired, you lose your reflexes. To drive the racecar the way I want to, you have to be on top of your game. Being in shape gives you one less thing to worry about. There are a lot of other things I can’t control.
Why are triathlons popular among drivers?
It’s because one guy does [triathlons] and starts to win [car] races, and people think that’s why. They also wonder what he’s eating. But we also have to run for endurance and swim to strengthen our shoulders anyway, so it makes sense to do triathlons. I started in 1998. It helps bring me back to reality, because I’ll never be good enough to win. I can’t do both sports competitively. But I keep punishing myself anyway.
What’s your typical workout schedule?
When it’s a normal race weekend, on Monday, I swim for an hour and a half in the morning, then do a light run in the afternoon. On Tuesday, I do a 51 / 2-hour bike ride and I’ll go to the gym to work my back, neck, shoulders and core. Wednesday, I have a two-hour run and a half-hour swim. Thursday is the day I travel, but I usually do an hour run before my flight. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I’m in the racecar. I stretch every day. And I sleep a lot.
Why put yourself through this?
I have a tendency to overdo things. But it makes me much stronger, mentally as well as physically. Exercising for 15 hours straight makes it easy to be in the racecar for two hours. And I think you have to have a goal. I won’t go for a bike ride or anything without a goal.
Can’t exercise also help protect you from injuries?
Right, for two reasons. If you don’t get tired, you crash less. And when you’re strong, when you hit the wall, you’ll break yourself less. Look at my recovery time. I broke my arm in two places and I was back racing three weeks after that. The regular doctor told me it would take six months. I hit the wall at 195 miles an hour, and I just broke one rib. I’m not saying you’re unbreakable. But you minimize it and your recovery time is much quicker. In this sport, you can’t prevent yourself from injury. So the best you can do is to exercise so you’ll be able to push it to the limit.