If you’ve ever watched the Indianapolis 500 and thought that the car does all the work, you may be unaware of a great a number of significant demands that are placed on the human body that must be met in order to finish first. From the insane temperatures, right through to the G-Force and intense pressure placed on driver’s limbs, there’s no question that the top performers are the ones that train their muscles in addition to tuning their vehicles.
M&F sat down with the legendary Hélio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud to find out how they prepare physically for a major competition like this Sunday’s Indy 500 (televised on NBC). We soon learned that the hours they invest in training while off the track are just as important as the stellar performance that they turn out on race day.
Drivers Need to Be Ready Long Before the Indianapolis 500 Green Flag Drops
Unlike most other sports such as basketball or CrossFit, rehearsing and practicing a race like the Indianapolis 500 is not something that you can do all year round. “unfortunately, racing, it’s very expensive,” says Hélio Castroneves, who drives the No. 6 Dallara-Honda for Meyer Shank Racing and is one of just four people who have won the Indy 500 on four occasions. “And, for you to go to the track, you literally take an army, like engineers, mechanics, drivers, and you’re talking about hotels, trucks, plane tickets, it is very expensive.” Castroneves explains that because time on the track is limited, he must use his time in other ways that are productive to his training, such as simulators and gym work. With Castroneves’s time in the car highly limited, he has to take care of his bodyweight, and body shape, all-year-round in order to make sure that he’s a great fit for the cockpit when that valuable racing time arrives.
“I do a lot of cycling,” says Simon Pagenaud, who is the first French driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (in 2019) since 1920. He drives the No. 60 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing. “I do a lot of rowing. I do CrossFit. And, I would say, I think I’m average at those. But we’re using all these different sports or I would say; tools, to make me the best physical driver possible, right?”
A Driver Relies on His Body Just as Much as His Car
“You want to have endurance for the race, but you also need intensity for qualifying because qualifying can be over one lap,” says Pagenaud. “And you need to be able to sustain the G-Forces on the upper body.” In terms of G-Force, it’s a variable that is undoubtedly one of the most challenging aspects of racing. When a driver accelerates, and especially when making a turn, they face up to 5-G, which could place 60 to 70 pounds of pressure on their head, neck, and shoulders.
“We don’t have power steering either,” says Castroneves. “So, trust me; to keep in-line and be precise for two or two and a half hours? It is very physically demanding.” Castroneves explains that the car moves so fast, that sweat leaves his head horizontally rather than vertically! Castroneves likes to do CrossFit training to strengthen his neck and limbs, and even appeared on American Ninja Warrior, further illustrating that the top professional drivers can hold their own as athletes. Castroneves likes to get on his bicycle regularly, and says that bodyweight training is a big part of his regime. When lifting weights, he uses time under tension by slowing down his lifts in order to get the muscle’s accustomed to stress.
Still, with all that training pre-race, there’s a risk of injury that could stop them from racing at all. “I rarely go outside on my own because of the danger, quite frankly, of breaking an arm or something like that, as it would jeopardize my season,” says Pagenaud. Instead, he prefers to train indoors on machines like the Zwift Hub Smart Trainer. Pagenaud says that during the off-season, he trains around five days per week, and reduces that down to twice a week when performing back-to-back races. When he’s in the off-season, Pagenaud moves through different programs.
First, he works on his strength and muscle by lifting heavy weights with less reps. Then, he transitions to an endurance phase where he drops the weight to 85% of his 1RM, but increases the volume of reps.
Race Car Drivers Must Endure Discomfort and Pain to Stay on Track
The physical forces placed on driver’s bodies do damage even to the fittest of bodies. “You see some drivers, sometimes, finish with humungous blisters in their hands,” says Castroneves. “You’re going over 235 miles an hour.” And, of course, it’s not just the G-Force pressure that adds to the difficulty of controlling the car. “You know, in the summer, it can go up to 70% humidity at the racetrack,” says Pagenaud. The weather conditions, during the Indianapolis 500, present average temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to the mid-80s Fahrenheit. Additionally, the temperature inside the racecars can rise significantly due to engine heat and limited airflow, making conditions perilously hot for the drivers.
Recovery Is Essential For Racing Another Day, Especially the Indianapolis 500
While rehydrating is one of the first priorities for a driver following a race like the Indy 500, they must also heal and repair their mind and bod, so that they can race another day. For Castroneves, a key part of his recovery is to get regular massages. He’s also a fan of the Theragun machine for convenience. Then there’s the mental side of recovery. For Pagenaud, that means investing the time to meditate. “Well, it’s changed my life. You know,” he says. “I was a kid that struggled with, you know really, life in general. I struggled with understanding what was important, meaning that it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time. So, with meditation, I was able to calm down, you know? Learn breathing technique to also be a lot more positive and move away from all the negative stuff.”
Driving on the highway with the air-conditioning blowing, while an awesome sound system plays our favorite tunes is something that most of us can handle with relative ease, but racing at an elite level is the ultimate challenge that only dedicated athletes can succeed at.