Fit to Sit in a Race Car 

July 27, 2023

There was a time when race car drivers could have big bellies and skinny arms and out-of-shape legs.

That time is no more.

To be a consistently competitive driver at almost any high level of motorsports, drivers need to fine-tune their bodies – and, not incidentally, their minds – to be able to react in a split-second to things happening around them on the track. And their daily nutrition and fitness programs need to be linked to the fact that running four-hour races in the pounding heat of a tightly enclosed race car requires exceptional endurance.

More than a few drivers – and their teams – have addressed this matter head-on in recent years, and Trackhouse Racing is no different. While some drivers design their own workout systems and schedules, others see better success by putting their fitness programs in the hands of professionals. Trackhouse works with Wise Optimization, a full-service fitness operation run by former NASCAR driver Josh Wise and based at the General Motors Charlotte Technical Center.

Daniel Suarez of Trackhouse works with Wise as he runs through the ups and downs of the almost-year-long Cup Series schedule.

In Wise’s approach, driver fitness is more than lifting weights and running laps and eating the right things. It’s a combination of four approaches – technical, tactical, physical and psychological – designed to enhance the driver’s skill sets and endurance.

“He trains in all those areas weekly,” Wise said of Suarez. “We start with those four pillars of assessing drivers and building awareness and building tools and strategies for them to improve in those areas. Daniel is in the gym several days a week. We are studying and assessing his data and his technical and tactical development twice a week. He makes a pretty big commitment to his craft physically and psychologically.”

Wise, 40, said working with race car drivers is very different from physical training procedures used with other athletes. He competed in the Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series from 2008 to 2016, giving him a deep appreciation for the ways a training regimen can benefit racers.

“When I was a driver, I hired many different trainers,” he said. “They all were great trainers, but they didn’t understand the demands of motorsports. There aren’t many trainers who have raced cars at a high level, unfortunately, so I learned through that process and through my education that this looks very different for a motorsports athlete.

“The skill sets are obviously much different. The driver is operating a vehicle. I would say even the physical nature of how we have to prepare the drivers is unique. They’re endurance athletes, and they’re exposed to high temperatures for long periods of time. They have to have the ability to sustain focus for long periods of time, and there’s a lot of stress on the body for the duration of a race.”

The differences in the approach to driver fitness even can be sifted down to which cars racers run, Wise said.

“There are differences tied to the specific forms of motorsports,” he said. “The way you would train a NASCAR driver is very different from maybe an Indycar or dirt-track racer. They all have unique needs.”

From start to finish in a race, there essentially is no “down time” for Suarez, Wise said.

“There’s no breaks,” he said. “You’d think a caution flag would be a break, but it’s not. They’re having to communicate what the car is doing to the crew chief. They’re preparing their tires for pit road and the restart. They’re discussing tactical approaches for the restart with their spotters. There’s really no relief for four and a half to five hours in these races.”

Obviously, race car drivers have busy lives. Suarez races virtually every week, attends team debriefs and strategy meetings, makes public appearances, spends time “driving” simulators, tests tires for Goodyear and has a marketing and public relations schedule. Fitting “fitness” into that matrix is tough but a necessity for continuing success.

“There’s not really a template we follow for a schedule because schedules change,” Wise said. “Daniel might be working on something with us Monday through Thursday and maybe one or two sessions on a Friday. Everything is individualized for every driver we work with.

“We have a pretty deep baseline process for keeping up with their physical and psychological and technical abilities. We baseline early in the season, and we monitor throughout the season. We set goals and assess our progress toward those goals.”

In the end, that progress shows on the racetrack for Suarez and Trackhouse.

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