I had been looking forward to the Sebring weekend all year. I was ready for my debut in World Challenge GT driving a Dodge Viper Competition Coupe. Or was I?
Mentally, I was more prepared for this race than any race leading up to it at this point in my racing career. I had watched footage of the track, I had attended a racing school at Sebring to learn about the track, I had gotten plenty of sleep the night before the race, I had eaten well and I had been drinking water and Gatorade at the track instead of carbonated drinks. I had some butterflies about the professional competitors I would be racing, and the price of the race car I was driving, but physical fitness had not entered my mind. I was in great shape, and the race would be just like the others I had raced at Sebring, Daytona and Miami in the hot Florida sun, many of which were endurance races lasting much longer than this professional race distance at Sebring.
I was in such great shape I did not even need a cool-shirt system in my car. That would just add weight, be another prep item and get in the way.
The standing start went off without issue, and I found myself racing just outside the top 10 in my first professional sports car race. Things were going great as I worked my way up inside the top 10 in GT. I was the third-fastest Dodge Viper behind Tommy Archer and Bob Woodhouse.
Then, for the first time in my racing career, I started to have thoughts of, “When will this be over. When will it end?” I wanted to know how many laps were left in the race, a question I had never asked before with the exception of strategy. This time it was different. I was getting tired, and making mistakes. My mouth was dry, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
Cars I had passed earlier in the race were now back on me. I was fighting to hold onto my top-10 position. There was sweat in my eyes, my heart rate was up as if I were running a marathon and I slipped out of the top 10, finishing the race in 12th place. I was not happy about sliding backwards, but I was glad I did not have brain fade and make any stupid mistakes causing a spin or contact with another car. I was happy to be back in the paddock, and out of the racecar.
I grabbed two bottles of water and a Gatorade, and sat down in a chair next to the car under the tent. I finished all three of them and still felt thirsty. After drinking all three and getting up from my chair to grab another water, I realized I was a wet noodle. I had zero strength and felt completely worn out.
It was a wake-up call. I decided right then and there that I would start a personal training program, purchase a cool-shirt system and make a difference in my driving performance. It made all the difference in my future performances. The next professional race I participated in was much better. I did not feel like a wet noodle after the race. As I continued my fitness training, it got easier and easier to drive the long stints in the racecar. My upper body strength allowed my arms and shoulders to stay strong throughout the races. My lower body strength kept my back from tiring out in the racing seat. My leg muscles were stronger for working the pedals at high PSI rates.
My heart rate remained low in future races to the point that other competitors had me wear a heart-rate strap to guess how low it was. Even in future qualifying sessions, I stayed below 130 beats per minute. Physical fitness allowed me to double-stint in the 13 Hours of VIR when other drivers needed a break from the 1.5-hour stints in the car. I was able to do all of this feeling confident and alert as if I had just started my first lap of the race.
Making sure your racing equipment is in top condition and prepared for the best performance possible is something we all know in this sport. However, remember, you are the biggest variable in the formula. Make sure you are in top physical fitness and your racing results will improve in many ways. You might not win every race, but you will know you gave 100 percent of your effort and did not beat yourself by being out of shape.
Start by working out with weights at least three days a week. Rotate weeks with upper body twice and lower body once for one week, and then lower body twice and upper body once the following week. Also perform some sort of cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging or riding a bicycle. Take the stairs instead of the elevator when you can, and once the cardio work becomes easy to complete, start interval training where you sprint for a short burst and then return to a baseline level of effort.
It is not easy, and the work required to feel the benefits takes at least 90 days. However, once you feel your improved fitness level, you will wonder how you ever raced out of shape in the past.