San Francisco Chronicle: Drag racers — but not all — think being in shape can help them win

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Do drag racers need to be in shape? Look, they just sit there, wait for the green light and then go like hell. The race lasts a little more than three seconds down a 1,000-foot track. Then it’s time for a cold one, right?

In the world of big-time drag racing, though, there’s a lot more to it. Many of the drivers, although not all, want to be good physical shape, for various reasons.

One of them is J.R. Todd, who won the Top Fuel race in the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals two years ago and took the Funny Car class there last year. He’ll gun for a third straight title in the 31st annual Sonoma Raceway event this weekend.

The only other driver who has won both classes there was Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

Todd, 36, swears by physical training. He works with a personal trainer in his hometown of Indianapolis, but as he says, “There’s other guys who sit around and drink beer and don’t work out.”

They can be successful, too, because it’s the souped-up cars, wielding anywhere from 8,000 to 11,000 hp, that provide the muscle to travel more than 300 mph.

“There’s the same amount of stress for anybody who drives a Top Fuel or Funny Car dragster— five-plus Gs when you hit the gas, and then when you hit the parachute, there’s a negative-five Gs trying to throw you out of the car the other way,” Todd said in a phone interview.

“You’re strapped into those things so tight, you can barely breathe. You make a lot of runs or win a couple of races back-to-back, or you make a lot of runs in a couple of weeks, it takes a wear and tear on your body. You definitely start to feel it in areas like your back. To me, it helps to be in shape and work out to try to prevent those types of injuries.”

Todd pilots the 10,000-hp DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports. He’s the first African American driver to win both Top Fuel and Funny Car events in NHRA history. He’s sixth in the standings but is trying to inch closer to points leader Courtney Force.

Most of the hard-core training is done in the winter, although Todd and others try to hit the gym when they can between races.

Jim Leo, who owns PitFit Training, the Indianapolis gym where Todd trains, has developed training programs geared to race-car drivers in every series.

“IndyCar driving is one of the most physical series ever,” he told The Chronicle. “The muscular and cardiovascular demands are extremely high. In NASCAR, it’s not as much muscular strength but much more heat-tolerance. NHRA is a different animal. We train reactions and cognitive functions in all series, but we put a big emphasis on it with the NHRA drivers. We do a lot of reaction-based training with them.”

Reaction-time training is extremely important, and Todd said the key is first getting your heart rate way up — on a treadmill, for example — before doing the reaction exercises. In drag racing, a split-second lost on the start is often the difference between winning and losing.

Why get your heart rate sky high? Because that’s what it tends to be as the green light gets ready to come on.

“The engines are fired up,” Leo said. “It’s loud, and it’s hot. So there’s a lot of stress and stimulation around them. They’re dying to release and go, but you have to know when to do that.
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“So we work a lot on inhibition training. If the wrong light or the wrong number comes on the machine, they don’t respond. That trains the neurological system to recognize: ‘That’s not the stimulus I need.’ You can train the neuro pathways to respond that way.”

Not all the top drivers are on board with physical training, Leo admits. Such as 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, 69, hunting for his 150th event victory this weekend. The eight-time Sonoma winner “is not a physically fit individual by any means,” Leo said. “I think he’ll admit that. It’s not a slam on him, but I don’t think he takes it seriously.

“He’s obviously the winningest driver in Funny Car history. Right now, though, the sport is so expensive that you’re looking for any possible edge you can get. This level of physical fitness makes you faster with reaction times. It’s much more popular with the younger generation.”

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