Coach’s Corner: The Link Between Physical Fitness and Speed

For decades, people have argued whether the ‘sport’ in motorsport really applies. Professional football players, baseball players, sports commentators and fans have weighed in on both sides of the debate. In 2011, now-New York Giants wide receiver, Golden Tate, tweeted: “Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete???? Um nooo .. Driving a car does not show athleticism,” thus upholding the argument that a mechanical device is doing most of the work, not the human inside the car.

Don’t tell these guys they’re not athletes! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s impossible to argue a car, motorcycle, lawnmower or motorized scooter used for racing, is not producing the bulk of energy expended in our sport. Most racecars can output peak horsepower anywhere from 100 to 1,000-plus, and sustain that output as long as there are fuel, air, and ignition sources available.

By contrast, Usain Bolt, an eight-time Olympic gold medalist — and one of the fastest runners in the world — can approach three horsepower on a good day. He cannot sustain that output throughout the entire race length, but could still win by a country mile. Oh, and by the way, he only has to travel 200 meters, just under half the length of a quarter-mile drag strip.

Usain Bolt can exert up to three horsepower, but can only sustain that for a few seconds. Race car drivers extend themselves in a harsh environment for hours. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The argument whether racing is or is not a sport will likely continue until humans no longer rely upon an object to get them from one place to another, but that is not what we are talking about here. Regardless of motorsport’s status in the hierarchy of sport, if one approaches driving the same way a more traditional athlete approaches the practice and skills training needed in stick-and-ball sports, it is a nearly sure-fire way to become better behind the wheel.

Simply put, any type of physical training can help improve performance and increase enjoyment behind the wheel of a car at speed. I would argue it does not matter what type of physical activity a driver engages in, from video games to triathlon training. Any activity requiring some sort of coordinated physical movement can help bring you closer to achieving your ultimate level of on-track performance. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

My Story

At the risk of sounding like a self-promoter, it may help to give some background on my progression through ten years of kart racing, and the role fitness played in the degree of success. Looking back, it was a great lesson showing the importance of preparation for a race when not at the track. It wasn’t until the later years of my karting career when I learned about the importance of preparing to race, purely from the perspective of a driver.

When I began kart racing, I was in high school. I was active in several sports, including football, track & field, and other athletic endeavors. Those were my steady sources of physical ‘training’ or activity. Two years later, I was attending college where I wasn’t involved in organized sports and made the barely-occasional trip to the student health center.

Sitting on the pre-grid getting ready to roll onto the track. (Photo credit: Anne Berg)

During that time, I moved karting classes, jumping from racing flathead 4-cycles — engines initially designed for lawn and garden equipment — to the TaG class, with screaming, purpose-built 2-cycle engines revving well above 10,000 rpm. In retrospect, I imagine it was the equivalent of jumping out of a Ford Fiesta and into a Ferrari 488 Challenge.

Top speeds and acceleration of the high-power, 2-cycle engine were incomparable. Sticky slicks also increased braking and cornering performance past anything I experienced driving on the comparatively rock-hard tires used in the 4-cycle classes at the time. I was experiencing more lateral g’s than I had ever felt before, and it was taking a toll on my body during that first year.

Making the jump from one karting class to the next showed me I needed to work on my fitness. (Photo credit: David Bush (

At a race weekend midway through my first season in the new class, I had a revelation. Halfway through Saturday’s final race of a double race weekend, I felt like I had been run over by a semi-truck. My ribs hurt to the point where it was hard for me to commit to turning into a corner with any hope of carrying a shred of mid-corner speed.

I was having a difficult time catching my breath. I counted down the remaining laps in agony hoping for the checkered flag to fly each time I passed by the flag stand. I was able to white-knuckle it around the track, holding on to finish the race with a shred of my remaining dignity.

After a long race in a kart, everything hurts. You’ve got to be on your A-game. (Photo credit: David Bush (

When I started to talk to some of the other racers in my class after pulling off the track, they looked like they had just finished a light, pre-workout stretching routine, while I felt (and probably looked) like I just survived Marine boot camp. One of the top drivers in the class was freshly graduated from high school and was about three years younger than I. In talking to him, I learned he was a competitive swimmer when he was younger but still swam 3 times a week, primarily to stay in shape for racing.

I realized that it was time to start getting serious about physical fitness as a driver. (Photo credit: Sarah Donahue)

At that point, a lightbulb went off. I realized if I had any hope of being in the same zip code as this guy, much less beating him, I would need to get off the couch between race weekends. I began taking an occasional two-mile run outside to increase the physical stamina lost during four years of relative inactivity while away at school.

At my most disciplined, I would take a two-mile run, two-to-three times a week around noon to prepare my body to exert itself in hot conditions. At the time, it was not particularly apparent to me, but looking back, it is fairly easy to correlate my on-track success to my amount of physical training.

After stepping back from karting due to family, a better job, and life, I cut back on my physical activity. When I moved into taking more of a driver-coaching role (right seat), I really began to feel a lot of those same physical pains and aches I had after jumping kart classes. So, I stepped up my physical fitness, mostly going running.

Low and behold, I began to feel less tired after multiple on-track sessions. I also felt that because of my increased fitness, coupled with a foray into sim racing, my overall coordination — including hand-eye — was much improved. I also noticed my frequency of fitness had a huge impact on my abilities. If I slacked off in the running department, I could really tell, because I did not have the same physically coordinated reaction to things as before.

If you think you don’t need to be in shape sitting in the passenger seat, think again. You’d surprised how much better you feel if you are fit. (Photo credit: David Bush (

Why Train

Almost all first-timers and less experienced high-performance drivers are caught off guard by how tired and fatigued they feel midway through a full day at the track. That is likely the number-one comment heard by HPDE instructors everywhere. Soreness in the body’s core area, neck, and arm muscles are common complaints. Noticeable deterioration in the ability of a student to react to hazards or stay on the racing line is also a telltale sign of fatigue.

In many cases, errors and misjudgments begin to creep in because of a biological deficiency, not a lack of understanding of the rules for safe on-track behavior. Brain-fade is real, and physical training is one tool that can help a driver maximize their performance behind the wheel for a longer period.

Brain fade can creep in and cause mistakes, hopefully, only little ones. (Photo credit: Jane Absalom)

Heat buildup is one of the most significant hurdles a driver has to overcome. At a minimum, helmets are required equipment when taking a car on nearly any racetrack. Because the top of the head is one of the primary places where the body sheds extra body heat, both open- and closed-face helmets block this function.

While a helmet should be required when on a racetrack, it does reduce the body’s natural method of temperature regulation. If allowed by the organization with which you run, an open-faced helmet may provide more airflow, but modern full-face helmets specifically designed for auto racing have come a long way in getting fresh air where it’s needed most.

When looking at wheel-to-wheel competition, a race car driver must wear a flame-resistant driver suit. Many manufacturers using a variety of materials populate the marketplace. But, there is no getting around the fact that a driver is covered from head to toe in multiple layers of heavy fabric. Depending on safety rules, another layer of flame-resistant underwear underneath the suit may be required.

On top of that, gauntlet-style gloves and flame-resistant shoes with minimal airflow are designed to keep hands and feet safe in a fire. While wearing a full complement of safety equipment, there is no way a driver’s body can cool itself as efficiently as when wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

There are very few environments in sports as harsh as the inside of a race car. (Photo credit: Shawn Brereton)

We now have a driver wearing a helmet, driving suit, shoes, gloves, and possibly flame-resistant underwear. Put that driver in a race car driven by an engine radiating heat and extremely hot exhaust gasses, and you have the ingredients for problems like heat exhaustion or heat stroke if the driver’s body is not correctly prepared for their day at the track. Add the body heat from the driver, while working the steering wheel and resisting the g-force from cornering, and the heat problem is exacerbated.

The body can combat a rising core temperature, but the ability to minimize fatigue comes at a price. Nutrients from food and drink are used to keep vital organs, and muscular and neural systems, functioning at an optimal level. Physical fitness allows the body to function and use its fuel more efficiently, resulting in burning less fuel to produce the same output over a given period. This increases the total time a driver’s biological system can perform at peak capacity.

Loaded into the car with all the safety gear places a demand on your fitness. (Photo credit: Shawn Brereton)

Today, racers have many options when it comes to driver cooling. Bespoke cooling systems circulating cold water next to a driver’s body, various types of heat shielding, and cockpit ventilation are just a few tools to help increase a driver’s comfort in the car. However, like many things in a race car’s design, there is a performance trade-off.

Cooling systems often draw power for pumps, adding more complexity to the car’s electrical circuitry. This creates another system that can fail due to the harsh realities of racing. Additional concerns regarding cooling systems and some heat barriers are the placement of more weight in an undesirable part of the car. Heat shields can also fail because of on-track damage or inefficient design. Adding ventilation to the driver cockpit is an inexpensive and time-tested fix, but can add speed-robbing aerodynamic drag. Conversely, increasing the driver’s fitness can solve fatiguing, while minimizing the number of performance compromises.

There are a lot of ways to cool the driver with a cool suit and venting, but if you aren't fit, it does little good. (Photo Credit: Shawn Brereton)

Things to Consider

If you have identified an uptick in physical activity as a way to increase on-track performance, there are a couple of variables to consider. First, how much time do you want to devote to bettering your performance driving when not at the track? Where does this fit in your daily priorities? Family, friends, work, and other obligations can take away from time available for training.

Next, the type of racing, and level at which you race, is important to think about. Each type of car requires a different mix of brute strength and endurance. For instance, a production-based car with power steering requires less shoulder and arm strength than an open-wheel car without power steering. High-acceleration, high-downforce cars may require a driver to have more neck strength to keep the head upright under high-cornering loads compared to a low-torque, low-downforce Formula Vee.

Downforce plays a role in the demands on the driver. Carrying more speed through corners requires more strength. (Photo credit: Shawn Brereton)

Additionally, the physical strength and endurance required of a pro driver in a top-level sports car racing series are very different from that of an amateur racer competing in club sprint races. The level of competition and length of races will provide a ballpark idea regarding the amount of training required for ultimate performance.

For example, a competitive World Endurance Challenge GT-E AM driver will need significantly more cardio and muscular-endurance training than one racing in a budget enduro series. Lengths for driving stints may be similar, but the GT-E drivers are often pushing the car closer to the limits of performance for a longer timeframe, requiring more energy output from the driver.

The climate, and time of year in which you compete, is another major factor to consider when understanding what it takes to be a competitive racer and safe high-performance driver. In North America, most motorsports events take place during summer’s increased air temperature and elevated humidity. Since drivers with better levels of fitness tend to perform better in hotter temperatures, a racer from Maine planning to race in Georgia in August may benefit from some extra training or exercise in a hot environment. The idea is to get the body accustomed to working at a heightened level in a hotter climate.

Grassroots racers have it tougher than pro drivers at times. They are not only the driver but the mechanic as well! (Photo credit: Shawn Brereton)

At a minimum, a high-performance driver should be as fit, if not slightly more, than the other drivers in the field. For a driver, the ability to lay down consistently fast laps is an important component when evaluating skills and abilities behind the wheel. Only a proper level of fitness can allow this to happen. At the more elite levels of the sport, lap-to-lap consistency and the ability to control the car’s overall pace while remaining consistent separates the absolute standout drivers from a pool of highly-skilled racers. That type of precision isn’t possible if a driver is struggling with exhaustion.

Last Lap

We started this story with the debate on whether race car drivers are athletes. Based on my personal experience, I would say race car drivers are absolutely athletes. To be competitive and have fun at any level of motorsport, a driver needs to come to the table with some type of athleticism. It takes muscular strength, physical endurance, and well-developed hand-eye coordination to continue to grow as a high-performance driver.

Traditional training activities like running, weight lifting, or yoga work well for many people. But, many of the same gains can be found through recreational team and individual sports like cycling, walking, or even video games and simulators that require a high degree of coordination among different parts of the body.

With that said, I would encourage any driver wanting to improve their lap times to increase their level of physical activity away from the track. As I mentioned earlier, the exact physical activity does not really matter, but it should be something that focuses on increasing coordination, strength, or endurance.

About the author

Chris Berg

Aside from covering and writing about motorsports, Chris has been an HPD coach and instructor for about 6 years. He's instructed at Heartland Park Topeka and Brainerd International Raceway.
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