If you’ve ever looked at the Indianapolis 500 and thought the car does all the work, you might not know a lot of the important demands placed on the human body that must be met to finish first. From insane temperatures to G-force and intense strain on the driver’s limbs, there’s no doubt that the most successful are those who train their muscles in addition to tuning their vehicles.
M&F sitting with the legendary Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud to find out how they prepare physically for a big competition like this Sunday Indy 500 (televised on NBC). We quickly learned that the hours they put in training off the track are just as important as the outstanding performance they put in on race day.
Drivers must be ready long before the Indianapolis 500 green flag drops
Unlike most other sports like basketball or CrossFit, rehearsing and practicing a race like the Indianapolis 500 isn’t something you can do year-round. “Unfortunately, the race is very expensive,” explains Hélio Castroneves, who has been driving the Dallara-Honda n°6 since Meyer Shank Racing and is one of four people to have won the Indy 500 four times. “And, for you to go on the track, you literally take an army, like engineers, mechanics, drivers, and you talk about hotels, trucks, plane tickets, it’s very expensive.” Castroneves explains that because track time is limited, he has to use his time in other ways that are productive for his training, such as simulators and indoor work. With Castroneves’ time in the car being very limited, he must take care of his weight and form throughout the year to ensure he is perfectly suited to the cockpit when that precious racing time arrived.
“I ride a lot of bikes,” says Simon Pagenaud, who is the first French rider to win the Indianapolis 500 (in 2019) since 1920. He rides the #60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda. “I do a lot of rowing. I do CrossFit. And, I would say, I think I’m average at those. But we all use these different sports or I would say; tools, to make me the best possible physical driver, right? »
A driver relies as much on his body as on his car
“You want to have endurance for the race, but you also need intensity for qualifying because qualifying can last one lap,” says Pagenaud. “And you have to be able to maintain the G-Forces on your upper body.” In terms of G-Force, this is a variable that is undoubtedly one of the most difficult aspects of running. When a pilot accelerates, and especially when making a turn, he faces 5-G, which could place 60 to 70 pounds of head, neck and shoulder pressure.
“We don’t have power steering either,” Castroneves explains. “So trust me; stay the course and be precise for two or two and a half hours? It’s very physically demanding. Castroneves explains that the car is going so fast, the sweat is coming out of his head horizontally rather than vertically! Castroneves enjoys doing CrossFit training to strengthen his neck and limbs, and has even appeared on American Ninja Warrior, further illustrating that top pro riders can hold their own as athletes. Castroneves likes to ride his bike regularly and says bodyweight training is a big part of his regimen. When he lifts weights, he uses the time under tension by slowing down his lifts in order to get the muscles used to the stress.
Still, with all that pre-race training, there’s a risk of injury that could prevent them from racing at all. “I rarely go out alone because of the danger, quite frankly, of breaking my arm or something like that because that would jeopardize my season,” says Pagenaud. Instead, he prefers to train indoors on machines like the Zwift Hub Smart Trainer. Pagenaud says during the off-season he trains about five days a week and cuts that down to twice a week when he does back-to-back races. When it is out of season, Pagenaud goes through different programs.
First, he works his strength and muscles by lifting heavy weights with fewer reps. Then he moves into an endurance phase where he lowers the weight to 85% of his 1RM, but increases the volume of reps.
Race car drivers have to endure discomfort and pain to stay on track
The physical forces exerted on the driver’s body damage even the fittest bodies. “You sometimes see some riders end up with huge blisters on their hands,” Castroneves explains. “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 on the circuit”, explains Pagenaud. Weather conditions, during the Indianapolis 500, feature average temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to mid-80s Fahrenheit. Additionally, the temperature inside racing cars can rise dramatically due to engine heat and limited airflow, making conditions dangerously hot for drivers.
Recovery Is essential to run another day, especially in Indianapolis 500
While rehydration is one of a driver’s first priorities after a race like the Indy 500, they also need to heal and repair their mind and body, so they can race another day. For Castroneves, a key part of his recovery is getting regular massages. He is also a fan of the Theragun machine for convenience. Then there is the mental side of recovery. For Pagenaud, this means investing time in meditation. “Well, it changed my life. You know,” he said. “I was a kid struggling with, you know, life in general. I struggled to understand what was important, which meant it was hard for me to focus on one thing at a time. So with meditation I was able to calm down, you know? Learn the breathing technique to also be much more positive and distance yourself from all negative things.
Driving down the highway with the air conditioning on, while a brilliant sound system plays our favorite tunes is something most of us can handle with relative ease, but racing at an elite level is the challenge. ultimate that only dedicated athletes can pull off.
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