Listen to Winged Nation, Motor Racing Network’s podcast about Sprint Car racing, on any given week. Some driver or other will talk about the program he’s doing at PitFit Training, an Indianapolis gym dedicated to getting race car drivers into shape. A fitness program designed for someone who drives cars for a living? That sounded different. So we gave Jim Leo a call. Leo, the founder and owner of PitFit, got his start working with Roger Penske’s CART Indy team in 1993. The next year, 1994, Penske’s team won 12 out of 16 races, the CART championship and the Indy 500. Leo saw his future. He founded PitFit in 1997 and has worked with race car drivers ever since.
We first heard about you guys after Joey Saldana’s crash last year. He punctured a lung, broke his right arm, and five ribs. Then he went to PitFit for training and shows up back on the track eight weeks later.
I’ve actually had to go through two different programs with him. First, we started working with him a couple of years ago for a concussion. So Joey was in extremely good shape before last year’s crash. Recovery from injury occurs much faster for someone who’s in such good shape.
He came back to us this time and we worked on recovering his range of motion and getting him back in shape to drive his car. Due to the severity of his injury, I expected him to be off for six months. Then I found out after eight weeks every doctor had cleared him to return to the race track.
So what special challenges do race car drivers present? In other words, why are you necessary? There are lots of personal trainers out there.
Making the right decisions under stress as quickly as possible. That’s essentially what we train them to do.
If race car drivers lose strength, if their physical stamina is not what it should be, that can mean everything from a loss of their position in the race to even death. Very few sports have death out there as a possibility all the time.
But guys have been racing cars for years without a specialized gym at their backs. In fact, some race car drivers have been – and still are – in not-so-great physical shape.
Look, it’s an evolution. Every sport out there has been raised to another level. Cyclists didn’t wear helmets – now they do. Certainly drivers back in the day were daredevils. Safety was not as big a factor. Fitness was not as big a factor.
But today, the speed of the cars is greater. The tires have more grip, so the cars don’t slide as much, and more is possible. Plus the sport is far more expensive than it’s ever been. Drivers are looking for every advantage they can find.
The cheapest thing you can invest in is your overall fitness.
What is different about working with a race car driver versus, say, a basketball player?
There are some similarities. General conditioning principles apply to any athletes. But race car drivers in particular see the most stress in their neck, shoulders, wrists, forearms and core, and they have heart rates similar to those of a triathlete.
Also, there’s the cognitive issues: a lot of the skills a driver has to use in a race car are impacted more and more as you get fatigued. Even when it’s hot, even in a long race, you have focus for the entire race. Our drivers don’t exactly get breaks in the action. We try to train them to have the ability to make the right decisions quickly, so their brains are conditioned to think and react as quickly as possible.
How do you do that?
One thing we do is add simulators that mimic driving on the track. They’ll do some cardio workouts, then spend time on the sims, then back to the workout.
We also do visual training. One way is with a light board that’s about three feet by three feet, and they have to hit lights in response to the board’s prompts. So they’ll do 60 seconds on the rower machine, to get the heart rate high, and then it’s over to the board. They can sit or stand and work on visual reactions, peripheral vision, lights and numbers and so on. They’ll go back and forth – one minute on the board, one minute on the rower, then again on the board.
But you have to continuously offer them different stimulation, and change what they see, what they do. Our goal is to make our training outside of the car far more difficult than anything they will encounter in the car. So when they’re in that car, they know what to do, it’s all easy-breezy.
We found a video online of race car drivers wearing helmets while playing badminton at your gym. Really? Impaired badminton?
We started doing that over at IU (Indiana University) Health Center. We’re trying to simulate the environment they race in. In that video you saw, they are actually going back and forth from the soccer field to the badminton court, with the helmets on, running drills with limited peripheral vision, because of the helmet, ten minutes at each drill, for about an hour workout. It’s fun. They get in phenomenal shape. And every day is something different.
So you’re a gym? Or a forced-cognitive-impairment facility? Or….
We offer many things. Our facility itself is 10,000 square feet, but we also partner with IU Health, which gives us access to their 50,000 square foot facility and their network of physicians and physical therapists. We also use a rock-climbing facility and a pool nearby, and we have a rock-climbing coach and a swimming coach. There’s a chiropractor on staff, a boxing coach, a yoga instructor who teaches hot yoga classes. We go outside as well, and do stand-up paddling and kayaking on the lake.
We’re certainly not as expensive as anybody thinks. It’s so varied on the costs. If we get a driver who signs up for a full season, we charge $10,000 for virtually the whole year with unlimited use of the facilities. But we also have online training, with drivers who have the work-out e-mailed to them and they send us back weekly updates with information like heart-rate data. For instance, Memo Rojas, Jr., he’s the current Grand Am champ, we work with him in Mexico where he lives. All his work-outs are e-mailed to him, and he e-mails the data back, then comes to visit us for a week at a time when he’s up in the area.
And now you’re building a facility as well in NASCAR land – Mooresville, N.C. That sounds redundant, though. Don’t the teams all have their own gyms and trainers?
Most of the NASCAR teams focus their fitness programs on the pit crews, their performance and their focus. Fitness for pit crews in NASCAR is huge. One driver told us the trainers for his team only have time to work with him once a week for 45 minutes.
There’s no one down there doing what we’re doing. The technology, the knowledge, the experience, the single-minded focus on racing – it’s hard to find that.