Archive for May, 2018
Running a physical training facility isn’t complicated—assuming you find a niche audience, cater to its specific needs, and are able to endure the ups and downs of a ruthless business. On the other hand, doing so successfully for more than 20 years and developing a portfolio of A-list clients is complicated, especially in an industry that moves as quickly as the clients themselves. That’s what Jim Leo, founder and president of PitFit Training has managed to do.
Conditioning racing drivers is a serious business. Every single race of the Verizon IndyCar series represents a grueling war between man and machine, whether it’s challenging road courses where drivers are battered by constant braking and accelerating forces, or high-speed ovals where normal humans would black out due to the sheer speed. Being a racing driver, believe it or not, isn’t an easy task. IndyCAR
Jim Leo is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who was originally tapped by “The Captain” Roger Penske to improve the fitness of his racing team over two decades ago. Since then, Leo and his staff have been revolutionizing the physical and mental conditioning of racing drivers and pit crews from IndyCar, IMSA, Indy Lights, NHRA, Formula BMW, Global Rallycross, and many more.
The Drive recently had the opportunity to visit Leo and his Performance Director Alex Wanee at their facility in Indianapolis, where some of IndyCar’s most famous names can be found sweating and oftentimes cursing at the arduous workout routines they have to perform. During our visit, we caught a glimpse of Schmidt Peterson’s James Hinchcliffe as well as Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi’s workout. The likes of Indy 500 and IndyCar champions like Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are also full-time clients, but they had different commitments that particular morning.
Like most folks in the IndyCar circus, Leo and Wanee are extremely busy during the racing season, but we persuaded them to close their office door and sit down with us for a chat.
The Drive: If I count correctly, there will be eight PitFit Training drivers on this year’s Indy 500 grid. After so many years in this business, what does it feel like to be represented by so many great athletes?
Jim Leo: It’s very cool, for sure. Our drivers have evolved over the years much like our program has. We have some strong guys on the grid and they will be more than ready to win—they will be better prepared to win.
TD: What exactly do you mean by “they will be better prepared to win?”
JL: They will have a special “PitFit Push to Pass” at the end of the race that the others won’t, per se. All of these guys will have more left in their energy and concentration tanks than the rest of the field thanks to all the conditioning they’ve done, and they will use it when it counts.
TD: Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did you realize that racing drivers needed to be better prepared to win?
JL: I didn’t; I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in racing when I was younger. It all started when I was working a corporate wellness program at the Detroit Diesel Corporation, and I noticed that Roger Penske’s racing team would come to our facility in Detroit to get his cars ready for the [Detroit] Grand Prix. The guys would come up and use the gym, so I developed a relationship with them and that’s when I got the idea, but it was only the crew, not so much the drivers. I eventually pitched the idea [of developing the team physically] to Roger Penske and he said, ‘Go for it.’
That’s when I basically started working two jobs for the same pay, my corporate wellness job and training the racing crew. I did that for about three years before I accepted an offer by Pac West Racing and that’s when I moved down to Indianapolis to do this full time.
TD: A lot of people nowadays still think that racing drivers aren’t athletes, and I’m willing to bet that two decades ago some people within the racing community also felt that way. What do you think changed that?
Absolutely. One of the biggest things was the influx of Formula 1 drivers who came over in the ‘90s to race in CART. You had Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi, Mark Blundell, and Mauricio Gugelmin, for example, and they all had the Senna mentality that was shared across European and Formula 1 drivers of that time. Everyone trained over there—all the time. So when these guys came over, thankfully, they started kicking ass.
For me, that was huge confirmation that I needed to get onboard with this [as an independent trainer]. I still remember Bobby Rahal losing weight to perform better. That influx had a huge impact.
TD: Of course, losing weight isn’t the only thing drivers must do in order to be successful on the track. What does a driver in the year 2018 need to be successful in racing?
JL: Drivers nowadays need to be focused on the lifestyle and activities that make them be better athletes in general. They need to look at things that will increase their endurance, their strength, and their overall ability to withstand the stress that the car inflicts on them. Drivers need to be specific and train in cycles that they follow throughout the year. For example, Scott Dixon, he’s been following the same cycles for years, which include an offseason program that’s wildly different from the on-season one. It’s the same thing Olympic athletes do to prepare for a big event. They must get their minds and bodies ready for it.
Alex Wanee: Take for example what Danica [Patrick] said the other day, about the cars being “hard to drive” and the steering wheel being “so heavy” due to the lack of power steering. That shows the difference between being fit and being conditioned to race.
We [PitFit Training] aren’t in the driver fitness business, we are in the driver conditioning business. Danica is quite fit, but she’s not conditioned, yet. That’s what other drivers don’t get when they train somewhere else. We condition our drivers to face every stressful situation they are going to face in the car.
TD: Let’s talk about someone like Tony Kanaan. TK has been one of the fittest drivers on the grid for many years, just looking at his physique is intimidating, yet he recently committed to PitFit Training full-time. What do you do to take someone who is already extremely fit to a higher level?
JL: Tony has always been in great triathlon shape. He’s been in CrossFit and can absolutely kill it on the [road] bike. If you put him on a bike or in a pool, he’s a beast. For the longest time he felt that more was better, and in his youth, he could get away with that, but not so much anymore. When he came to us we had to step him back and slow him down. We had to address the issues with his shoulders [injuries] and find out what’s causing it rather than ignoring it like he’s always done. It’s not often that we have to slow down a driver to take him to the next level, but that’s where he is now.
Alex [Wanee] is working with him one-on-one and showing him that it’s not always how hard can you work, but more of how controlled can you be during your workout routine. Alex is showing him scenarios that will be replicated in his car during a race: How he can keep his heart rate down, how he can maintain his reaction time strong despite fatigue kicking in?
TD: Would you say that what you’re doing is helping him focus on quality workouts rather than quantity?
Jim: Absolutely! Focused training, that is it. The difference between Scott [Dixon] and Tony [Kanaan], is that Scott has been following this system for a long time and it’s been ingrained in him. Tony is just being introduced to it on a regular basis. You’re seeing him be a more competitive driver this year, but I think he’s also a happier person because he feels better physically and mentally.
Following our chat, we had the opportunity to walk around the facility and witness the PitFit Training concepts in action with several drivers, some who were quite literally drenched in sweat, and others who were sharpening their reaction times on an interactive screen.
I could see Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th running of the Indy 500, work on his arms, shoulders, and neck on a machine that resembled a racing seat and steering wheel. The steering wheel was connected to a weighted rod, and Rossi had to move the steering wheel and react to the lights being activated by Wanee. By the time we made it out onto the floor, James Hinchcliffe had finished his daily program, so he simply sat on a treadmill and tooled around on his smartphone.
Wanee walked me around the facility, showing me the specialized equipment that drivers train with on a regular basis. Many devices were neck-specific, but there were others like the Jacob’s Ladder, a sort of never-ending wooden ladder that exercises hand-eye-foot coordination. Others, like the Senaptec Sensory Station, resemble a high-end game of arcade whack-a-mole, which aims to improve reaction time, a skill that could literally save a driver’s life. Just imagine having to react when the car in front of you crosses your path at 230 miles per hour.
Lastly, I asked Leo one final question: What differentiates a PitFit Training driver from the others on the grid?
“Their body, their mind. The fact that they can look around the grid almost with disdain and say ‘You don’t deserve to be out here with me, I am at a higher level than anyone out here.’ They hope it’s a hard race, they hope it’s a hot race, and they can’t wait for the last few laps because they know they will be at a higher level than the guy who is running purely on talent. That’s the difference, and that’s why we go above and beyond during training—and we do it intelligently.”
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – With the Indy 500 quickly approaching, drivers are scrambling to prepare, not just on the track but also inside the gym.
In a high-rise building overlooking downtown, St. Vincent Sports Performance offers drivers and other athletes top-notch technology geared toward power.
“We can have an athlete come stand on the force plate and do a vertical jump. We can get peak power, peak force production, rate of force production,” said Chase Campbell, a St. Vincent strength coach.
There, tools like the vertimax test resisted jumping. It helps build leg muscles and has been proven to prevent knee, ankle and hip injuries.
“Adding a little extra force they have to drive against on the landing or resist on the landing is a really good way to improve performance but reduce the risk of something happening,” Campbell said.
The tendo unit has an attached accelerometer that shows how quickly a person is picking the bar up off the ground. It tracks movement and can tell whether an athlete can work even harder.
Across town, drivers are flocking to Pit Fit for physical and mental conditioning.
“This is all we focus on is racing. That’s it,” said Tim Leo, president of Pit Fit. “We do drills that incorporate a lot of reaction training, a lot of cognitive training. They use the same muscles here that they use in the car.”
On the same day that CBS4 visited the facility, big names like Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe were training. They did a circuit-style course that included a synaptic sensory board, rowing and playing ping pong with a Fit Light. The ping pong exercise helped test peripheral vision.
“We make them perform these motor skill tasks while they are under stress and going crazy. That’s why the music is on, the lights are on, we’re talking to them. There is always something going on so when they’re in the race car, we want that to be as close as possible,” Leo said.
“I moved to Indianapolis 10 years ago because of Pit Fit training,” Hinchcliffe said. “Physical fitness inside a race car is a huge benefit. It’s a huge advantage for a driver.”
Even though he was exhausted from the circuit, Hinchcliffe told CBS4 he is feeling good going into the Indy 500.
“Being physically fit inside the car keeps the brain from fatiguing and making mistakes which obviously you can’t afford at 220 mph.”
INDIANAPOLIS — Just 10 laps to go. Race-leader Robert Wickens is 10 short laps from making history, joining a short list of drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 on their first try. He’s survived the first 475 miles, now he just needs to conjure the strength and the will power to hang on for the final 25. If he can, he’ll be remembered forever, his face immortalized on racing’s most iconic trophy.
His heart is pounding over 160 beats a minute. The adrenaline is pumping and he’s dripping sweat. It’s been a long day. A long month. But now is not the time for tired. Living legend Scott Dixon is breathing down his neck and 2016 champ Alexander Rossi isn’t far behind. Exhaustion isn’t an option. He needs to be sharp, calculating how many more laps it’ll be before Dixon tries to make the pass in Turn 1. He needs to keep focused, on the wind, on how much fuel he has left, on how quickly his tires are degrading and on where he can find the best grip on the constantly evolving track.
“Being able to think straight late in a race, it’s everything,” said the 29-year-old Verizon IndyCar Series newcomer. “Racing is a chess match. You have to be mentally there, listening to spotters, listening to the team, listening to the car, looking ahead, planning your passes. There’s so much to the mental side of the sport that people don’t take into account. After you’ve been driving for three hours with your heart rate over 160, it’s pretty easy to lose concentration. Everything has to be sharp for those last 10 laps, because those are the only ones that count.”
Nine laps to go. One tiny slip up, and it’s all over. Wickens knows that. He’s known that for months. Fortunately, he’s prepared for this. Exhaustion won’t be getting the best of him. Fatigue won’t force him into a mistake. He’s made sure of it. He made sure of it months ago and in the weeks leading up to the 500, spending hundreds of hours ensuring his body and mind won’t let him down in his greatest hour of need.
The place he, and nearly a third of this month’s 35-car 500 entrants, trusts most to prepare him for this moment is PitFit Training, the now-famous northwest side Indianapolis facility that caters almost exclusively to racing drivers.
“I don’t know much about other training companies out there, but I think PitFit is the best,” Wickens said following an intense 90-minute workout earlier this month with fellow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe and Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser. “You just feel like you’re training for your sport.
“My whole career, I never felt like I was training to be a racing driver. I was just training to be fit. Here, they have so many coordination drills and mental things where you’re doing it at a high heart rate. It’s awesome. I feel like my hand-eye coordination is better than it’s ever been and my cardio threshold is better than it’s ever been. I feel like my strength is miles better than it’s ever been. It all comes down to their structure and how they do it.”
The man behind that structure is Jim Leo, the president and head trainer of PitFit Training.
A fitness guru, Leo concocted this business more than two decades ago after working with Roger Penske’s teams and realizing that there weren’t many — if any — training facilities specifically tailored to the needs of racing drivers. So he started his own.
Dixon was among the first major clients to trust Leo with preparing his body and mind for the rigors of Indy car racing. The pair started working together in 1999, and there is perhaps no better testament to the program’s fitness than the four-time IndyCar series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner.
“A driver like Dixon is a barometer for many drivers for a long time, and I’m very blessed to call him not only a close friend but someone who is a well-respected driver who’s been with us for a long time. When you look at Scott, he’s a driver who seems to have it all. He’s successful and competitive, but he’s also working as hard as anyone in here if not harder on a daily basis.
“He’s always trying to be as good as possible on everything in here. That motivates other drivers (who look up to him) to try to achieve off the track like Scott does.”
Since Dixon signed on, PitFit has attracted drivers from all racing disciplines, including NHRA, NASCAR, IndyCar and Indy Lights. PitFit clients competing in this month’s 500 include Dixon, Wickens, Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Pippa Mann, Stefan Wilson, Kaiser, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot and Charlie Kimball — giving him potentially one-third of the field. Injured Dale Coyne Racing driver Pietro Fittipaldi is rehabbing at PitFit, while Will Power and Josef Newgarden each used to work with Leo before they moved to Charlotte, Penske’s base of operations.
What makes PitFit so attractive to IndyCar drivers is that Leo’s program enhances the skills and muscles drivers need to flourish inside the race car. That means building up their core and neck muscles, so they can withstand the heavy G-Forces being thrown at them as they whip around the track. That also means a heavy focus on the strengthening and stabilizing of their shoulders, forearms and hands, so they can control the car.
Consider the case of Danica Patrick, said Leo. Patrick is probably one of the fittest drivers in motor sports, a CrossFit fiend with her own workout and wellness book. But in her first couple days back in an Indy car, she confessed to struggling with the steering weight required to wheel the car. After six years of driving stocks cars with power-steering, Leo said, she needs to rebuild the strength in her shoulders, forearms and hands required to wheel an Indy car at 200-plus mph around a superspeedway. That’s understandable, Leo said, but it’s also not a problem his drivers experience. He’s made sure of it. He and his team crafted specific workouts and even rigged their own machine to target those areas needed to pilot the car.
They call it a “Race Trainer,” where a driver simulates sitting in the cockpit of a car and cranks a weighted steering wheel to and fro as quickly as possible, trying to keep up with a flashing light.
“We put about 10 pounds of additional weight on that steering wheel,” Leo said. “Drivers love this (because it makes piloting an Indy car that much easier).”
Usually though, Leo’s drivers don’t sit down at the “Race Trainer” until after suffering through a series of other exercises designed to raise their heart rate and fatigue. That includes long runs on the rowing machine or enduring the exhausting full-body workout that comes with a stint on the ski machine.
That’s the other primary goal of Leo’s program. He wants to drain his drivers physically before challenging them mentally.
After intense, CrossFit level workouts, Leo and his team of trainers drag the drivers to a number of activities that test their mental acuity. Among the most unique — and newest — is the Senaptec Sensory Station, a state-of-the-art sensory evaluation and training machine.
Dripping with sweat and exhausted from their stint on the rower, drivers approach a large touch-screen panel and play a multitude of games that test their reaction time, perception, focus, hand speed and hand-eye coordination. Though there are different iterations of the game, the basic concept is that dots light up rapid-fire all over the screen, and drivers have to hit them as fast as they can.
“It’s insane to watch the drivers get on this, then watch the common person, like myself, get on there,” Leo said. “Their hand speed is amazing. Just unbelievable.”
Drivers love testing their skills on the Senaptec, but what they love more is that it records all of their data, which they can compare to their fellow drivers. It gets very competitive, said Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, a Senaptec phenom. In fact, he and Alexander Rossi have something of a rivalry going for the right to be called Senaptec king.
“It’s a little bit lower stakes,” Kaiser said with a chuckle. “It’s a little more friendly in here than on the race track … (but) I’m keeping those records as long as I can.”
Leo and his staff record bests for many of their other training regiments in order to keep their intensely competitive clients engaged and striving to improve. But Leo also wants to make sure they have fun. PitFit isn’t meant to be a boot camp, he said. He wants his drivers to look forward to coming. That’s part of the reason he put a ping-pong table in the gym.
It’s a fun way for drivers to improve their hand-eye coordination and visual acuity, said Leo, who introduced an interesting wrinkle to the game to make it a bit more challenging. Before picking up a paddle, drivers put on a strobe glasses that go dark every other second. Playing ping-pong with impaired vision improves their eyes’ ability to hyperfocus quickly, Leo said, an invaluable skill on the race track. When the ball disappears, they have to be able to relocate it quickly and return the volley. In their cars, drivers look down at their steering wheels to adjust a setting, then must refocus their vision on the track.
“The term multi-task is not true,” Leo said. “You can’t focus on two things at the same time, but you can switch from one to another to another rapidly. You can take in the information, process it and make a decision. React to it. That happens in a split second. So even if we make them a millionth of a second quicker, that makes them a better driver and safer driver.
“See?” Leo adds with a laugh. “There’s a method to our madness.”
Wickens, who worked with Leo more than a decade ago when he was a Formula BWM driver, said he didn’t even wait until he had signed on the dotted line with SPM to reunite with PitFit. While traveling back and forth to Indianapolis during negotiations to join the team, he frequently stopped into the gym for workouts. Once the deal was done, he became a full-time member.
“It was a no-brainer for me. Common sense,” said Wickens, who added that though he’s never experienced 500 miles at IMS before, he feels his mind and body are ready for the challenge. “These guys get you ready for that starting in the winter. … In the month of May, we’re on the track almost every single day, so actually trying to get to the gym is next to impossible. So any moment we can to get in a short run or come in here is key, but I feel like I’m already ready for the 500. Sure, it’s going to be a longer race, but we train hard here over the winter. I feel great, and fitness hasn’t been a problem in a race this year, and I don’t expect the 500 to be any different.”
Follow IndyStar Motor Sports Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello