Christian Fittipaldi grew up in a racing family, and he’s has been racing cars for almost 30 years. He won his first championship, the European F3000 in 1991, at age 22. Several decades later, Fittipaldi is still behind the wheel and winning, finishing first in the 2014 Tudor United SportsCar Championship along with his teammate, Joao Barbosa.
When he’s not behind the wheel of a racecar, Fittipaldi can be seen above the wheels of a mountain bike, furiously pedaling uphill. Or you might spot him balancing atop a paddleboard, a recent addition to his cross-training repertoire. Shortly after Fittipaldi won his most recent championship, he spoke with STACK about his fitness regimen, his family, and the reasons why racecar driving is a lot more grueling than people realize.
STACK: What was it like growing up in a family of famous racers?
Christian Fittipaldi: Years ago, my grandfather did a little bit of racing, but he eventually figured out he was better at writing stories than producing as a driver, so he turned into a journalist. Later, my uncle and my dad got the bug. When my uncle won his first Formula One championship in ’72, my grandfather was doing the narration of the race on the radio for the whole of Brazil. So ever since I was young, we always spoke about racing at home, because it was something natural in the family. Then I had a couple of tries very early, driving go karts, and I started progressing from there when I was 17.
Did your family ever talk about the dangers of racing?
Yes, absolutely. They were very clear about them. They said, if you’re serious about it and want to do it, go ahead, we’ll support you. But they made it clear that sometimes racing doesn’t go your way, and when it goes in an unexpected way, it can bring you some very harsh outcomes.
You experienced some of those harsh outcomes firsthand. What was the worst injury you suffered while racing?
In ’92 I broke my C4 and C5 vertebrae, which are both located in your neck. I was lucky, because usually when you start messing around with your spine, it’s not fixable. In my case, I just had to wear a neck brace for like 50 days, and the bones welded back into place. I also broke my right leg in ’97 in Australia, and they wound up having to put a rod in it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how physically demanding is driving a racecar?
Depending on the series you’re driving in, I would say it’s a nine or a 10. Driving is very physical. A racecar driver is under about six lateral G’s of force during a race—almost the same amount as a fighter pilot. The specific physical demands from there depend a lot on the car you’re driving. A NASCAR car, for example, is very hot and so you’re sweating a lot as you race. An open cockpit vehicle is a lot cooler, but they tend to be quicker in the corners, so you need to have more strength to steer those cars correctly.
Then there’s the mental side of it. Racing drains you completely. You’re basically concentrating as hard as you possibly can on making sure that you do not make any mistakes. Even a tiny mistake when you’re doing 230 or 240 miles an hour can create a big problem.
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What sort of training do you do to prepare to meet those demands?
I’m going to be honest with you: I was never a gym guy, lifting weights and all that stuff. I’m more an outdoors person. I’ve always been involved with other sports like cycling and mountain biking, which keep you in shape. I’ll actually do some bike races in Brazil just for fun. There’s a big mountain bike race I’ve done for two years in a row, and I’m probably going to do it again this year. It’s a seven-day event where you’re climbing 33,000 feet over the course of about 280 miles. It’s pretty intense.
On the strength side of things, about two years ago I started stand-up paddleboarding. Now I go out almost every day. I’ve noticed that it’s helped me a lot physically. It’s a lot about balance and your core.
How did you get into paddleboarding?
I’ve always loved the ocean. There was a period of my life when I was diving a lot, and I sailed also. I ski too. When stand-up paddling became popular, it piqued my interest. I love that I’m on top of a board on the ocean—a place where I love to be—as opposed to being in an air-conditioned enclosed room lifting weights.
How do these cross-training activities translate to being a better driver?
In cycling, you’re basically on the road, going on a straight line, so the driving factor there is very small, but on a mountain bike, you’re usually riding on terrain that is very technical. You’re dealing with obstacles the whole way, going up huge climbs, tackling big changes in the terrain. Like one second you’re on really hard packed dirt, then sand-type terrain, then some muddy stuff. The driving factor really comes into play there, which relates a lot to a race car. But biking demands a lot more of your leg muscles than driving does. You have to use a lot of power from your lower body.
On the paddleboard, you don’t have the driving factor involved because really there isn’t any driving. But you are exercising your upper body a lot. It’s like the opposite of biking, maybe 70 percent upper body and 30 percent lower body. That’s helpful, since driving requires so much from your upper body, and there aren’t a lot of sports that give you the opportunity to work your upper body that way.
What’s your next big goal?
Just to start the new season. We kick off the most important race of the year in January in Daytona [the Rolex 24 at Dayona]. It’s 24 hours of racing, so my teammates and I will definitely need a lot of stamina. It will be myself and two other guys, and each of us on average is going to drive three to four times, for between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 hours at a stretch.
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