Are Racecar Drivers Athletes?
My name is Dion von Moltke and I'm a professional driver. I race in the American Le Mans series and the Grand-Am series. Since before my career began, there's been a debate about whether racecar drivers are athletes. I can't tell you what to think, but I can tell you about what my days are like. Then you can be the judge.
During a race, the temperature inside my car will soar past 150 degrees Fahrenheit. I'll spend up to three hours in this heat, usually losing about 10 pounds of water during a session. I'll repeat this up to three times during a 24-hour period during the famed Le Mans 24-hour races.
Operating one of these racecars is nothing like driving in the comfort of your daily vehicle. The environment inside a racecar is a violent one that subjects the driver's body to incredible pressure. Making a turn can inflict 3 G's of lateral load on the driver, slamming his or her body from side to side. Since the enormous protective helmet I wear makes my head weigh in at about 15 pounds, my neck has to be able to support 45 pounds of weight on each of these turns. To slow down the car, I need to hit the brake pedal with 175 pounds of force. My heart rate will hover around 140 beats per minute—similar to the rate an elite runner maintains during a marathon—for all three hours.
Keep in mind: Three hours is one shift. During a 24-hour race, I'll get maybe three hours or so to rest after that shift, and then have to hop back in the car for another three hours. Sometimes those race segments start at 3 in the morning.
Another thing to keep in mind: Until now, I've been describing the fun days—race days. A non-race week consists of five days of two-a-day training, with just one workout on the other two days.
A two-a-day program typically starts with a warm-up run early in the morning. I'll then move into foam rolling and functional exercises—fairly typical movement prep stuff. Throughout the warm-up, the goal is to focus on getting the core more engaged in every body movement. A strong core is key for a driver, since the core must support every movement the body makes inside the car.
After the warm up, I'll do an hour of strength training: high reps, short (if any) rest. Usually this means three to five sets of 12- 15 reps. What part of the body do we focus on? Everything. A driver can't afford to have a weak spot. After strength training, I'll move in to interval training. Usually I'll do this through running and cycling. Sample interval: four minutes of spin biking at 85% to 90% of max heart rate, then three minutes of rest at 75% max. Repeat this for a total duration of 30 minutes, and—assuming you don't throw up—you're on your way to having the VO2 Max needed to endure the demands of the wheel. This is why some of the fittest drivers in sports car racing have aerobic abilities that rival professional triathletes.
The second workout usually takes place in the late afternoon or early evening, and is more focused on light aerobic exercise, followed by focused stretching and foam rolling. Being seated in the car for many hours can wreck havoc on anyone's posture, hip and lumbar mobility. A big focus while away from the vehicle is correcting these imbalances and opening the hips back up. (Learn how you can Eliminate Muscle Imbalances to Improve Performance and Stay Injury-Free.)
In racing, engineers spend hundreds of hours, and teams spend millions of dollars, to make a car as light as possible, because the lighter, the faster. A driver must also be as efficient as possible, which means being as strong as possible while being as light as we can be.
So are racecar drivers athletes? To me, the answer is a resounding "Yes." What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments below.
I'll be blogging for STACK from time to time, and posting videos of my workouts during training sessions. For more information on me and my career, please take a look at my website or check out my Facebook and Twitter pages.
Need more proof that racecar driving is indeed a sport? See Why Tony Kanaan Might Be the Fittest Athlete In Motorsports.