Maneuvering a 1,600-pound race car around a two-and-a-half-mile track at more than 200 miles an hour for 500 miles is not for the weary. Business of Health Reporter Kylie Veleta has details on the high-tech tools drivers are using to stay in shape.
You’ve probably heard this one before, and maybe you’ve even wondered it yourself: Are race car drivers really athletes? After all, isn’t the car doing all of the work? And how much different can it be than driving down the interstate, if only a lot faster?
Anyone in the business of motorsports will answer unequivocally “yes” to the first question and a resounding “no” to the second. So, too, will just about anyone who has spent time driving a race car or go-kart at speed on a racetrack.
Jim Leo, the founder and owner of PitFit Training in Indianapolis, is one of those who wholeheartedly endorses the fact that race car drivers are indeed athletes; however, his arrival at that answer came in a very methodical and hands-on way.
Leo has a degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics and early in his postgraduate career set up a health and wellness program for the employees of Detroit Diesel (now Detroit) in the early 1990s. At the time, the majority shareholder and CEO of Detroit Diesel was one Roger Penske of Penske Racing fame and an 18-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner. At the time, Leo was not involved with motorsports and had only a passing interest in them when he approached Penske about creating a fitness regimen for his race teams—specifically, the pit crew members.
Soon after, PitFit Training was born, and Leo found himself training not only the Penske Racing crew members but crew members from other teams as well. This coincided with an increased emphasis on athletes across nearly every sport training more scientifically and specifically for the demands of their particular sport. It wasn’t long after that that drivers were coming to Leo for advanced fitness training.
Now, after more than 20 years in the sector, Leo has honed and refined the techniques he uses to keep drivers physically and mentally performing at their peak. “There’s no question that race car drivers are athletes,” said Leo. “But I’ll take it one step further and say that they are more akin to fighter pilots.”
“If you look at a driver’s physical requirements, such as the elevated heart and breath rates, enduring g-forces (the force of gravity or acceleration on a body) and near-instantaneous reflexes in addition to the high demand on cognitive ability, they align closely to the traits of combat pilots. Every athlete has to make split-second decisions on the field of play that have ramifications that may end in a game-losing situation, which is true of race car drivers as well. But drivers have the added weight that their decisions can not only affect the outcome of their race result but could also cause themselves or a fellow competitor potentially grave harm or their team hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of car damage.”
Added Leo for further clarification: “Physiologically, we know that a driver’s blood lactate levels rise while in the car as well as cardiovascular demands that are similar to running a 10K at an elite pace.”
Jim Leo likens the cognitive prowess, aka mind conditioning, of a race car driver to that of a combat pilot. It makes sense. Like a fighter pilot, a race car driver must be able to withstand the effects of sustained g-forces on the human body for long periods of time. Consider: An Indy 500 race can sometimes last up to five hours, with drivers often experiencing g’s spiking to three or more. And these drivers, like those pilots, consistently need to have unbelievably quick reaction times and sensorimotor functions, not only to succeed in their mission but to survive.
Imagine yourself having to react to a car that crosses your path at more than 200 miles per hour or to be constantly battered by continuous braking and accelerating forces in a cockpit where temperatures are likely above 100 degrees. Due to the high speeds and g’s alone, the average human on a racing oval would black out.
Where PitFit takes its motorsports training to the next level, and further parallels combat pilot training, is with its approach to incorporating neurocognitive (having to do with the ability to think and reason) elements with physical fitness. PitFit’s brain training is three-pronged, targeting vision, reaction time, and sensorimotor functions to give racing’s athletes the greatest developmental improvements that will lead to success on the tracks.
That means workouts are often a combination of neck-centric strengthening exercises matched with ladder-type movements to improve hand-eye-foot coordination that are then paired with high-end virtual- and augmented-reality games and tasks based upon advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.
PitFit has a custom-built sensory station, for example, created by Oregon-based Senaptec, a startup that’s bringing new visual training technologies to market that are specific to improving eye-to-brain connectivity. (Senaptec has the New York Yankees, Red Bull, and the Air Force on its client list.) PitFit’s station requires drivers to interact with moving images on a screen through activities that an article on thedrive.com compared to the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. Skill levels are then measured to help indicate the driver’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
Race Trainer, another PitFit exclusive, is a homemade steering-resistance machine centered around a weighted steering wheel paired to pedals. A lighted control board behind the wheel prompts the driver to simulate a turn on the track, which then prompts the trainer to pull on resistance bands strapped to weighted headgear worn by the athlete. The exercise, according to PitFit, mimics the effects of those lateral g’s.
There are also low-tech training exercises. For instance, a trainer drops playing cards from chest height, and the driver has to try and grab one before the card hits the ground. The cards may fall in different directions, and this builds reaction-time skills that result in better, safer results on the track.
Mind + Matter
To get a sense of what a race car driver deals with, imagine this: You are out in the parking lot of your local shopping center in full sun at high noon in July wearing a pair of thick flannel sweatpants and sweatshirt, with gloves, shoes, and socks, atop an exercise bicycle that you must pedal hard enough to maintain a heart rate above 130 beats per minute. On your head is a helmet that has bungee cords attached, pulling your head randomly in four directions. With your left hand, you’re doing 15-pound bicep curls, while with your right hand you are throwing darts at a board every two seconds and each must hit the bull’s-eye. Meanwhile, a tennis ball machine is firing balls at you from 10 feet away, so you must duck out of the way to avoid being hit. To top it all off, through a set of earphones, you are being fed complex math problems that you must solve instantly or face the possibility of an electric shock if you answer incorrectly or if you miss the bullseye.
Taken as a whole, this hypothetical may border on the absurd, but each element gives us a sense, through ordinary tasks that we can all identify with, of the physical, reflexive, and mental rigors of driving a race car, along with the physical jeopardy that can result from bad decision-making.
“Drivers are always analyzing what they see on track or what information they are being fed from a spotter about track position or an engineer about strategy,” said Leo. “We spend a lot of time training a driver’s neuropathways to better cope with the physical and cognitive demands of racing by having them train at specific intensities, immediately followed by a cognitive skills test like repeating a pattern on a light board or visual recognition test, even sometimes adding some kind of auditory distraction to really create a chaotic environment while their heart and breath rates are still high.
“The idea is to have them practice focusing on the task at hand to push beyond the physical stress,” elaborated Leo. “This trains a driver to cope with both the physical and mental demands they are required to exercise on track in competition.”
Consistency Is Key
That kind of focus may not be apparent to the spectator trackside or on television, but one need only look at the consistency of a top driver’s lap times to get the real picture. Over the course of a race, discounting laps where there is a yellow flag or a pit stop, it’s common to see a string of 25 or more lap times that never vary by more than half a second—the equivalent of throwing 25 darts in quick succession all within the bullseye.
While the romantic lore around a race car driver may be of a brazen daredevil driving by the seat of his or her pants, the reality is far from it. Drivers are highly fit athletes with astounding cognitive ability—meaning there is far more to winning a race than standing on the gas.
A Fitting Connection
Early in 2019, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation for The Henry Ford, along with other staffers, was on the phone with racing legend Lyn St. James. They were talking about themes and stories for Driven to Win: Racing in America, The Henry Ford’s permanent racing exhibition, then in progress. St. James, a longtime supporter and partner of The Henry Ford, was an integral source of ideas and insights related to Driven to Win since its conception—and she is one of the drivers showcased within the exhibit.
It was during this call that St. James recommended The Henry Ford investigate Jim Leo’s story of entrepreneurship and innovation. A who’s-who of auto racing had been having great success on the tracks using Leo’s PitFit Training approach, including drivers such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish, Jr., Larry Dixon, Morgan Lucas, Pippa Mann, Levi Jones, and James Hinchcliffe.
Soon after that call, Anderson and team were in Indianapolis, meeting Leo and touring his industry-leading motorsports training facility. “Jim couldn’t have been friendlier. He opened his doors and gave us an up-close look at his methods and machines,” noted Anderson, who admitted to being a bit starstruck when driver Pippa Mann walked into Leo’s gym to work out while The Henry Ford team was on-site.
“Jim had us try some of the physical and mental workouts,” Anderson continued. “We did our best, but, needless to say, none of us will be starting in the Indy 500 anytime soon.” The team decided then and there to incorporate elements of the PitFit program into the exhibition. Leo enthusiastically agreed to help adapt some of the training machines he uses into interactives for visitors to experience in Driven to Win. We also received assistance from Senaptec, who customized their app specifically for museum visitors.
“Our visitors will be able to use some of the same training machines, and some of the same sensory performance devices, that top drivers use,” Anderson said. “Once you realize the physical strength and mental acuity required of these racers, you’ll never doubt their athletic abilities again.”
George Tamayo is Creative Director at RACER Studio and has more than 20 years of experience in motorsports communications and marketing. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.
CORNELIUS, NC – PitFit Training, known for their pioneering motorsports human performance programs, will expand to the state of North Carolina with the acquisition of Podium Performance Fitness in Cornelius, NC. The program’s concept has a unique history, when in 1993 President Jim Leo created a strategy for Roger Penske’s IndyCar team at the team’s headquarters in Reading, PA. The success of this program led to more teams and drivers seeking out Leo’s program, and PitFit Training was officially formed in 1997.
With this being the first expansion of PitFit Training, Founder and President Jim Leo is ready to spread the program that he and his team have developed for more than a decade with the new location in Cornelius, NC.
“Expansion into the Charlotte-area market has been on our radar for quite some time,” said Leo. “Several obstacles were eliminated after a discussion with Trey Shannon, who started Podium Performance a few years back. I have been impressed with Trey’s program, but realized he was facing a common expansion problem for many small businesses that are a one-person operation, the burden of not enough resources This acquisition will not only provide the necessary resources of our organization, but also give Trey an ownership stake in the company.”
Although PitFit will acquire all the assets at Podium performance, including the facility, there will be more than just a name change to the space. New equipment will be brought in with top-of-the-line reaction technology, cognitive skills training tools, and recovery equipment including infrared sauna, ice baths, and a custom-built simulator. With all these additions however, there is one factor to say the same at the location and that’s owner Trey Shannon, who’s owned Podium Performance for the past eight years.
“I really can’t put into words how excited I am to take our partnership with PitFit to the next level and officially become one company,” said Trey Shannon. “PitFit is a true pioneer in driver fitness and has represented the gold standard for over 20 years now. Combining our efforts creates a huge opportunity to continue innovating and push motorsport fitness, safety, and performance forward. Jim has created something truly special over the last 20 years, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to be a part of the PitFit team.”
PitFit’s newest location opened on January 3rd with a plan to expand to larger space and add additional staff in 2022. For more information, visit www.pitfit.com or call 317 388 1000.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind., (May 13, 2019) – The month of May always brings a flurry of activity to the city of Indianapolis, and this year is no different for the men and women at PitFit Training. This spring, the facility that specializes in the training of IndyCar’s top drivers has left its home of the last ten years to a new facility on the northwest side of the city, nearly doubling in size. Fanimation, an industry leader in ceiling fans, has partnered with PitFit Training to provide high quality air circuiting to the 3,400 square foot fitness center.
Led by founder and owner Jim Leo, PitFit Training has become the go-to place in motorsports for driver fitness, reaction, and neurocognitive training. With over 20 years of experience, Leo and the trainers at PitFit create custom programs for professional athletes and race car drivers, responsible for over fifteen drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series and Road to Indy, and many more across Formula One, NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA, SRO America, USAC, and numerous junior level auto racing series. The expansion from the 2,600 square foot building to the new training facility gives the staff at PitFit Training 5,400 square feet of offices and gym space.
“This new facility really opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities,” said Jim Leo, owner of PitFit Training. “We now have separate rooms for physical therapy, mediation, and neurocognitive training, while also massively expanding our physical performance training area as well. We’ve been able to fill our gym with even more cutting edge equipment that will directly benefit the performance of all our drivers and athletes.”
Providing their own cutting edge equipment, Zionsville, Indiana business Fanimation has joined PitFit Training as the new gym’s first partner, equipping the vast facility with top-end ceiling fans. A local family business, Fanimation leverages technology and sustainability to implement energy efficient practices into its products, transforming the fan industry.
“PitFit Training is the industry leader of motorsports-specific human performance training,” said Nathan Frampton, President and CEO of Fanimation. Fanimation is the industry leader in ceiling fans and we couldn’t be more excited to partner with another best-in-class company based in Central Indiana.”
PitFit Training’s new partnership with Fanimation is just the beginning, as the team looks ahead to the installation of new flooring and next phases of construction on the office space.
“We have big plans for our new home,” concluded Leo. “We’re thrilled to have Fanimation on board, and look forward to welcoming more partners as the months continue. In the meantime, we’re fully focused on getting our drivers ready for the biggest race month of the year.”
Two of the most anticipated races of the year, the Freedom 100 and Indianapolis 500 will take place May 24 and 25 respectively. PitFit Training will not only train the drivers on the north side of town at the gym, but will also offer onsite support at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For more information, visit pitfit.com.
About PitFit Training
PitFit Training is an industry leader in the development and implementation of motorsports-specific human performance training and lists clients from Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, ALMS, USAC, the World Endurance Championship and numerous junior level auto racing series. The roster of champions that have become part of the PitFit family is a who’s who of auto racing. Drivers such as Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are just a few of the many drivers who have trained with PitFit Training.
Source: Car and Driver
Professional auto racing is the Rodney Dangerfield of athletic pursuits—it gets no respect. Many casual observers assume that the car is doing all the work. But behind every rubber-scuffing hot lap is a human body also being pushed to the limit. Temperatures inside the cockpit can reach 130 degrees and most race cars do not have air conditioning. Drivers can lose 5 to 10 pounds in water weight during any given race. And racers must reckon with lateral and longitudinal forces that can go from 3.00 g’s in turns (what an astronaut experiences during a rocket launch) to in excess of 5.00 g’s under braking (blackout territory for the untrained). “And that force,” says veteran IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, “is applied to every inch of your body.”
In the dark ages of motorsports, before cars produced such cosmic forces, a reasonably fit driver could easily handle a car’s stresses. Hell, he might even have smoked a cigarette between sessions. It wasn’t until guys like Ayrton Senna and Mark Martin came along that their peers saw the impact that fitness could have on driving performance. Now working out is a year-round grind that has drivers fortifying their core, arms, and neck.
It’s not a regimen that drivers can keep up at Planet Fitness. Instead, many frequent places like Indianapolis-based PitFit, a boutique fitness center with a client roster that includes pros like Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan. PitFit aims to train a driver’s body and mind at the same time through a mix of strength and endurance drills, some borrowed from more-mainstream sports and adapted to the needs of drivers.
Some teams prefer to keep driver-fitness programs in-house. Two years ago, Ganassi Racing hired former NASCAR pro Josh Wise to develop a training program for its drivers. “A lot of teams shipped their drivers out to run circuits and lift weights with their pit crews, but from an energy standpoint and even a psychological one, there’s little relevance to what they’re doing in the car,” says Wise. Here’s a look at what makes Wise’s regimen or a place like PitFit different from your local gym, with an assist from IndyCar champ Kanaan.
PitFit has a custom $20,000 sensory station created by Senaptec. It takes the old numbered-tennis-ball drill—a staple in baseball training in which the trainer throws a ball at the trainee who calls the ball’s number before catching it—and digitizes it. Here, the drivers are asked to interact with moving images on a screen. Their results are measured, indicating their ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
One of PitFit’s pieces of equipment is the Race Trainer, its homemade steering-resistance machine that is composed of a weighted steering wheel paired with pedals. A light-up board mounted behind the wheel prompts the driver to simulate a turn, which then instructs his trainer to pull on the resistance bands strapped to the athlete’s weighted headgear, called the Iron Neck. This mimics the effects of lateral g’s.
PitFit uses strobe glasses from Senaptec, a company that provides tools to enhance an athlete’s mental and physical performance. PitFit president Jim Leo says the glasses, which intermittently disrupt the wearer’s vision, are often used with a tennis-ball toss, so drivers can practice tracking a moving object while their field of view is compromised.
Source: The Drive
ietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of Formula 1 world champion and two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, completed a staggering 100-lap test at Mid-Ohio ahead of this weekend’s return to IndyCar with the Dale Coyne Racing team.
Tuesday’s road course test marked the first time the young driver climbed behind the wheel of a race car in more than two months, where he completed a full testing program that included cockpit acclimatization and tire and aero performance. Fittipaldi has spent most of his time since his April crash in Indianapolis, where he’s worked with IndyCar doctor Terry Trammell to develop a road to recovery that fits his medical chart and work commitments alike.
Fittipaldi tests at Mid-Ohio on Tuesday.
“It was amazing, man, I’m so happy to be back,” Fittipaldi told Motorsport.com. “The past two months after my accident, I’ve been working really hard with the great people around me working on getting back to driving.”
“It was a full test, we did around 100 laps, which was a lot, but that was our plan to get as many laps as I could and wear me out a little bit because we’re racing next weekend,” he added. “We used the morning to get comfortable and see what we had to do with the pedal [adjustments] and everything felt fine right off the bat. As soon as I was comfortable we worked on the test plan.
Another key figure in Fittipaldi’s recovery is Alex Wanee from PitFit Training, who helped the young Brazilian-American racer get his mobility back to 100 percent, and make sure his muscles are up to the task of manhandling an 800-horsepower IndyCar. PitFit training is a physical training facility that works with North America’s top racing drivers such as Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan among other dragster and open-wheel racers.
“We had a limited range of things we could do given the condition of his [Fittipaldi’s] lower body, so there was a lot of communicating back and forth with the doctors and physical therapists to get his legs back up to speed while maintaining his upper body strength,” Wanee told The Drive. “We worked with very minute levels of resistance to keep his leg muscles active despite his condition. I’d place my hands on his legs and apply slight pressure against the areas where he wasn’t affected, and that’s how we progressed through his recovery program.”
“Personally, within a minute of having met him, I knew we would exceed on all fronts due to his optimism and enthusiasm. It’s normal to expect someone in his position to feel bummed for missing the [Indy] 500 and what not, but from day one he did as much as he could to get back in the car as quickly as possible,” Wanee added.
Fittipaldi was piloting a DragonSpeed LMP1 race car at Spa Francorchamps in April of this year when he lost control of his vehicle at Eau Rouge and crashed into the tire barriers at more than 160 miles per hour. He had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital where doctors diagnosed him with non-life-threatening injuries, however, both of his legs had been fractured due to the force of the impact. As a result, Fittipaldi had to cancel his plans to race in the FIA World Endurance Championship and, eventually, the Indy 500.