The question has long been asked: “Are racing drivers really athletes?”
Numerous articles over the past several years have provided overwhelming, objective evidence that give racing drivers their due credit as legitimate athletes. At this point, any argument to the contrary is simply grounded in ignorance.
However, as an experienced professional in the realm of human performance, I believe that to merely label IndyCar drivers as “athletes” falls quite short of providing them due recognition. In fact, it is no stretch to say that IndyCar drivers are the most underappreciated athletes in all of sports.
While this underappreciation may be grounded in the ignorance that comes with a lack of exposure and popularity in comparison to football, basketball, and other sports, I’d like to shed light on just how truly well-conditioned these athletes are.
Many fans may already have some understanding of the physical demands that IndyCar drivers must deal with during competition, but when it comes to human performance in racing – or any athletic endeavor – physical fitness is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Just because a person is physically fit, that does not necessarily make them well-conditioned for a given sport. Place a highly-trained footballer or mixed-martial artist in an IndyCar and, assuming they could keep the car on the track, they would likely be highly fatigued within a few laps. While those athletes may have adequate levels of the physical traits (e.g., strength and cardiovascular fitness) needed to drive an IndyCar, they would be far from conditioned to do so.
So, if it’s not just physical fitness, what else goes into conditioning and what makes the conditioning level of IndyCar drivers so unique?
In any sport, especially at the highest level, athletes must have a tremendous amount of skill. How well they execute their specific skills in competition determines their level of performance, whether it be driving a car, throwing a ball, or any other number of tasks. When conditioning falls apart, execution of those skills, or performance, will suffer.
At PitFit Training (where we work with many high-level athletes, mostly within various realms of motorsports), we believe that overall performance is determined by a combination of three factors: physiological performance (physical fitness), cognitive performance (strategy, quick decision making, etc.), and environmental conditions.
Each of these three factors consumes the body’s energy, which is the currency with which performance is essentially purchased.
Look at it this way. Going into a competition or race, every athlete has a finite amount of energy at their disposal – call it their “energy budget”. While athletes’ energy budgets may vary somewhat in size within a given sport, it is the efficiency with which athletes spend this energy that will largely determine their overall performance.
If an athlete is inefficient in the area of physiological performance, this will limit the amount of energy they can spend toward cognitive tasks. As anyone who exercises knows, it’s far easier to think clearly when you’re not physically exhausted. Similarly, if an athlete struggles with, or is inefficient at handling cognitive tasks, it will siphon away energy that could be spent on greater physical performance. Finally, if an athlete is unprepared for the environment in which they compete, it will waste energy that is needed to maximize physical and cognitive performance.
Each of these factors affect the others, and IndyCar drivers face of combination of these three factors that is as demanding as any sport.
The physical demands (which attract the most attention from the common spectator of any sport) for an IndyCar driver require a high level of development of many muscular and cardiovascular capabilities.
The cars generate high amounts of downforce, which exposes drivers to high G-forces and requires tremendous levels of strength in the neck and core. The absence of power steering requires them to generate large amounts of strength/force output from their hands, forearms, arms, shoulders and chest. On road and street courses, they need to have the lower body strength and power to generate high brake pressures quickly and repetitively.
Drivers must deal with all of these physical demands for two or more hours with nearly no rest, save a couple of 8.0s pit-stops. All of these physical demands, coupled with the cognitive and environmental factors discussed below, keep their heart rates at very high levels throughout a race, requiring them to have an aerobic capacity (cardiovascular fitness) close to that of a marathon runner.
Knowing this, it is impossible to deny the athleticism that it takes to pilot an IndyCar. Yet, while these physical demands certainly require a tremendous amount of energy over the course of a race, the cognitive demands and environmental conditions drivers face are also extremely energy-consuming.
Driving an IndyCar isn’t like driving your sedan on the highway. Drivers are constantly having to absorb and interpret information regarding what is going on around them on track, as well as within their own car. They aren’t merely driving. If you haven’t, take a look at everything on an IndyCar steering wheel.
Drivers are constantly strategizing, then executing a tactical plan over and over while making multiple adjustments to the car itself. Within the car, drivers are monitoring information, working to adjust the handling of the car as the race progresses, occasionally switching fuel maps to either increase fuel mileage or power, all while planning how to get around the car in front of them or hold off the one behind them. On top of that, they have to make many of these adjustments and decisions while reacting to situations on track in less than the blink of an eye.
Finally, they face a variety environmental conditions, including stimuli such as noise, temperature, vibrations and more, which the brain has to process and respond to at the cost of significant amounts of energy. As far as these environmental conditions are concerned, IndyCar drivers have to deal with extreme conditions that are unlike any other competitive environment in sports.
The drivers are strapped down in a tiny cockpit for hours. They’re wearing a helmet and a fire-retardant suit (that doesn’t exactly breathe well), as temperatures within the cockpit can eclipse 120°F. It’s obviously quite loud, which makes it more even more challenging to listen to their spotters and crew over the radio. They experience constant vibration through the steering wheel and the tub of the car. And let’s not forget that visual processing is a little more taxing on the brain when you’re travel at speeds that can exceed 230 mph.
If this all sounds stressful, that’s because it is. Multi-tasking under a high amount of physical stress in an extreme environment like these athletes do is extremely draining and energy-consuming. When you factor in that every time these drivers take the green flag, they are putting their lives at risk, it’s easy to be in awe of what these athletes do.
In addition to putting in the work to continuously master their skill as driving the car, IndyCar drivers devote countless hours to training to make sure they are fully prepared to perform safely under the most demanding circumstances.
Comparing the demands of driving an IndyCar to that of an athlete like a football player or mixed-martial artist is largely comparing apples to oranges. There are different demands that high-level athletes of all sports face that make what they do extremely impressive. Where IndyCar drivers set themselves apart is in the seemingly unparalleled cognitive and environmental demands they must deal with in face of physical stress during competition.
When you combine each of these factors that contribute to overall performance, it is undeniable that the IndyCar Series truly features world-class athletes who may very well be underappreciated more than any others in the world of sports.
PitFit Training is a health and performance center providing services at their facility in Indianapolis, IN, as well as online to clients throughout the world. For more information visit pitfit.com.