Imagine the physical and mental challenges of this scenario: you are a NASCAR driver traveling at more than 175 mph, just inches away from other drivers also piloting their 3,400-lb machines. The sun is shining in your eyes, your car isn’t handling well and it’s 90 degrees and humid. And as you head into a turn with sharp banking three seconds, the high G-forces put added pressure on your body.
Make no mistake, being inside a NASCAR cockpit for hours at a time and expertly navigating traffic at a high rate of speed is both physically and mentally demanding.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson knows that his commitment to fitness and nutrition have made a huge difference in his career, and that people who scoff that professional racecar drivers aren’t athletes are misguided.
“There are so many people out there who think we aren’t athletes,” Johnson said. “Racing is extremely physical. Just the heat in the car, can get upwards to 150 degrees, for three to four hours on end. It’s hard to keep your concentration if you aren’t hydrated and able to focus. Everything I do out of the car fitness-wise helps me in the car.”
That commitment includes formal instruction like working with trainer Jamey Yon for more than a decade and prepping for races of a different kind like the Boston Marathon. Earlier this week, Johnson ran the event for the first time and finished it in impressive fashion at 3:09:07. He shared on Twitter that it was “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.”
That race notwithstanding, Johnson’s ongoing challenge physically in the racing world is cramping. “That has been my biggest issue,” he said. “Whether a circumstance in the car has become an issue like my in-car drinking system has failed or my air flow system to my helmet has malfunctioned.”
There is no other sport where the athlete is as self-contained as a NASCAR driver is in the cockpit. If a football, soccer or basketball player cramps up, he or she can simply come off the field, and we see this all the time. In NASCAR, it is not that simple, making it more challenging for drivers. “There have been two times I unexpectedly didn’t feel good after a race and needed fluids. Cramps just came over me and it all boiled down to nutrition and dehydration.”
The mental aspect of racing is also unique. NASCAR drivers, unlike almost any other type of professional athlete, have extensive sponsor and public interaction on race day. “I am signing autographs and doing sponsor obligations basically right until we get in the car, so I start mentally focusing when I put my helmet on and strap in the car.”
This unique dynamic makes mental preparation key. “For me, it is studying races from the year before, getting (racing) simulator time and reps, and a lot of debriefing (with his team). Thankfully, we can simulate some of the races from the year before in testing and artificial intelligence, but sometimes tracks change from season to season, so you have to adjust when you get on track.”
Once the races begin, many factors can make a race more physically and mentally demanding than others. “Heat and humidity definitely play a factor,” Johnson said. “The sun in your eyes sometimes makes it hard to see at races that start in the day and end at night. Damage to the car can affect your handling and loss of power steering. If you have damage to the car, fumes can be a factor and if you aren’t feeling good, it is hard to be in the car if you are sick for that long.”
On the NASCAR circuit, Johnson cites Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway as the most physically demanding. “You are turning left essentially every three to four seconds and the G-forces on the banking play a factor. Bristol is pretty violent in the car – you don’t really realize that unless you are in the cockpit. Mentally, the restrictor plate tracks are the most difficult – Daytona and Talladega. You are racing in such a tight pack, the air disturbs the car so much and you just never know what can happen.”
That unknown factor makes the physical and mental preparation so important in racing. And throughout Johnson’s illustrious career highlighted by 83 wins, his understanding of the physical and mental demands of the sport-along with his commitment to meet those demands- have helped him be one of the most successful drivers in the sport’s history.
Written By Keith Green
Keith Green has more than two decades of experience in PR, marketing and sales in sports and entertainment, including stops at the Philadelphia 76ers, Richmond Raceway and Guinness World Records.