Imagine being strapped to a wall standing straight up so only the balls of your feet touch the floor. Then, someone wraps a belt around the back of your head and pulls it as hard as possible while you try to stop your head from moving forward.
As you try to keep your head up, you also must hold two bricks out in front of your body and twist them up and down in a circular motion when the belt gets pulled.
Had enough yet? Well, that’s not all.
In addition to the belt and the bricks, python-like pressure is applied to your torso, squeezing the air from your lungs and making it impossible to breathe. The constriction also squishes your internal organs against your rib cage.
The pressure means you must also hold your breath to help keep your lungs inflated and tighten every muscle in your core to stop your insides from being tenderized.
Lastly, someone also pushes your legs hard on the side as the belt is pulled and you must keep the balls of your feet planted firmly on the ground.
That's about what an IndyCar driver experiences in just one turn.
Now try to do this 11 times every 60 seconds or so for about two hours. Once you can do it for two hours without fail, you just might be ready to drive an IndyCar around Toronto’s 11-corner, 2.824-kilometre Exhibition Place street circuit.
Even though this scenario sounds exhausting, it’s amazing to think that many people simply don’t believe that race drivers are athletes.
“You hear it so much and we all have heard it for years – I mean people don’t even appreciate how physical a go-kart is – the forces that are put on our bodies are similar to that of fighter pilots,” said IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, who has a series-high three wins this year.
“It’s not like hockey where you do a two-minute shift and then sit for five minutes or like football where you are flat out for 10 seconds and then rest for minute. It literally is twice the length of a soccer match, but your heart rate is going higher and you’re using a lot more muscle in your body – they are just obviously using their legs and their lungs – we are using an incredible amount of upper body, an incredible amount of core, neck, it really takes every muscle group in the body to successfully drive a race car.”
Even some fellow athletes don’t believe it. Many might recall how Major League Baseball player Larry Walker quipped that he had lost to a car when 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve took home that year’s Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete.
Once you get past the idea of a baseball player – who shared the field with many physical specimens more closely resembling Norm from Cheers than finely-chiseled athletes – scoffing at racing drivers’ fitness levels, there’s also science to back it up Hinchcliffe’s contention.
Dr. Stephen Olvey, an associate professor of Clinical Neurology and Neursurgery at the University of Miami, led a study a decade ago which debunked the idea that racing drivers are not athletes.
The founding fellow of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile Institute for Motorsports Safety recorded the oxygen intake of several drivers during practice sessions on both oval tracks and road courses to measure the physical demands of piloting an IndyCar against other sports.
“We found their oxygen consumption was that of someone who swims competitively in the 1,500 metres or runs in a marathon,” said Olvey, who was also medical director for the now-defunct Championship Auto Racing Teams (later Champ Car) for two decades.
“There is no question that drivers are well-trained and very fit athletes. You can’t be competitive in IndyCar or Formula One or any of the open-wheel series and not be in peak physical condition.”
To get there, most drivers train for several hours daily, combining aerobic and anaerobic exercise to develop the endurance and strength needed to withstand the rigours of racing.
Drivers also have several workout routines geared specifically toward strengthening their necks, which must withstand enormous strain and pounding during races.
“Fitness for me is one of the most important things,” said Bruno Spengler, of St. Hippolyte, Que., the reigning Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion.
“I spend a lot of time on it because, first of all, I feel good when I do it, and second, I always say to myself that in the last 10 laps of a race, you are a fitter driver that the guy in front of you, then maybe there will be a bigger chance he will make a mistake when you put the pressure on.”