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Fit, fast ... and for real

A recent study shows race car drivers are as well-conditioned as other athletes - and their sport is just as demanding.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Oriol Servia will speed down the airport runway at about 185 mph. Inside the cockpit, he will brace himself for the sudden pull of powerful G-forces.

A pilot?

No, Servia is a racecar driver. And it's a good thing he did all those abdominal crunches this winter.

A workout in the cockpit

Imagine lying in a cramped wooden crate traveling at speeds of more than 100 mph through the streets of St. Petersburg while holding a 25-pound dumbbell in each hand. You're dressed in a business suit trying to read your laptop as you get thrown from side to side. It's120 degrees. Your eyes are full of sweat and the constant vibrations impair your vision. After two hours, you've lost 7 pounds and you're physically and mentally exhausted. This is what it’s like to be a CART driver. And according to driver Mario Dominguez, even one hour of cardiovascular training and two hours of weight training a day doesn't keep him from feeling the effects of a race.
[Times art: Jeff Goertzen]

Today, when practice begins for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Servia and others in the Champ Car series will muscle their way around the twisting, turning, lurching 1.85-mile temporary street circuit along the city's downtown waterfront and Albert Whitted Airport. It is a pursuit requiring the strength of a gymnast and the aerobic capacity of a basketball player.

Yes, drivers are athletes.

"Some people do not think racecar drivers are athletes," Servia said. "They think that because they drive their car every day, and sometimes they go fast, they don't have to be in any special shape. But I always give the same example: Play any racing game on PlayStation, and after 30 minutes, you end up sweating."

A recent medical study found the fitness demands of Champ Car drivers comparable to participants of more traditional sports such as soccer or basketball. The results, according to the researchers, put to rest the issue of whether drivers are athletes.

Still not convinced? Take a few laps and see for yourself.

"You undergo tremendous G-forces, laterally and longitudinally," said 37-year-old Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART champion. "Your heart rate is about 145 for 21/2 hours, there is heavy steering and high heat. All those things you need to train for. You certainly can't come straight off the couch and do it."

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's Director of Medical Affairs, argued for years that drivers were athletes, but people were hard to convince because Olvey had no proof beyond his observations.

Now, he does.

Olvey and an associate in the University of Miami Medical Center's department of neurological surgery, Dr. Patrick Jacobs, published a paper in the December 2002 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, detailing their findings during an in-depth study of what happens to the bodies of racecar drivers.

The doctors used metabolic monitors to test seven experienced CART drivers during practice sessions on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the road course at Sebring International Raceway and an exercise treadmill. They found the drivers' oxygen uptake and heart rate levels were similar to those of other world-class athletes.

"Most sports settings are characterized by large muscle actions, that is dynamic movements of the arms and legs, which obviously require oxygen to fuel these muscle actions," Jacobs said. "We were very surprised and excited, once the first few test results came in, to see some numbers which were in the area of what you would see in many of the traditional sports settings, say soccer, basketball and baseball."

Stresses on the muscular system in a racecar relate to resisting G-forces, with the demands being greatest on a road course, where drivers turn right and left, accelerate fast and brake hard. Drivers must have strong midsections to remain upright in the cockpit. Jacobs compared it to a gymnast holding an iron cross.

"Your abs is what holds your body all the time," said Servia, 28, a fitness fanatic who works out twice a day during the offseason with a trainer in his native Spain. "You have to be strong."

For years, skeptics associated drivers' increased heart rates with anxiety, sort of an adrenaline release. By their account, racing was no more an athletic endeavor than, say, shoplifting. Olvey's study linked increased heart rate to physical exertion.

But there's more.

Because tired muscles affect concentration, physical conditioning also plays an important role in a driver's ability to make good decisions near the end of a race.

"What you see when fatigue sets in is the driver starts to lose his ability to concentrate and to anticipate things as well as react to things in front of him," Olvey said. "There is a definite increase in the accident rate of fatigued drivers.

A few years ago, driver Paul Tracy took up cycling and has since lost 35 pounds. By decreasing his body fat, Tracy is better able to withstand the extreme heat in the cockpit, especially during summer events, and stay sharp mentally.

"It's a very specialized sport," said Tracy, 34. "Maybe a racing driver can't play hockey or football all that well, but I will challenge any other athlete from any other sport to come race me."

Physical fitness in racing also is a significant safety precaution. Drivers in peak condition are better able to tolerate crashes, Olvey said. They are less likely to sustain serious injury because of their increased flexibility, and recover more quickly.

So imagine what it must be like for Servia today when he comes to the end of the airport runway and slams on the brakes to make it through Turn 1. Consider the side-to-side forces as he zips around from First Street through Turns 4-9 to Bayshore Drive -- right, left, left, right, right, right.

An athlete?

Have no doubt.

"I think the fact that we did the study and got it published in such a wide-ranging journal pretty much lays to rest, scientifically, the question," Olvey said. "If there are doubters out there, I think they probably have some hidden agenda or something, because they're just not wanting to face the facts.

"It's pretty indisputable at this point."


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