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