Dr. Jacques Dallaire is a scientist who has devoted his professional life to researching how to train our minds to perform better under pressure. In other words, do you step up when the chips are down, or do you choke? As president of Human Performance International (HPI), Dallaire has worked with brain surgeons, jet fighter pilots, sky divers, and F1 and NASCAR Nextel Cup racers. Oh, and he says you can benefit, too.

Whether you race karts, Mini Stocks, or Super Late Models, you cannot ignore the mental component when it comes to stock car racing. Yes, there is something to be said for natural talent, experience, and a general understanding of how your car reacts to different setup changes. But getting prepared-from setting up a conditioning program to sharpening your mental skills during the off-season-can be the difference between being a middle-of-the-pack driver and claiming the track championship at the end of the year.

"It is pretty hard to separate the mental component, when it comes to racing, from the physical component," Dallaire says. "Whatever goes on in the brain, there is a pretty firm structural link called a neck that attaches it to the rest of the body. Reaction, decision making, all of those things ultimately emanate from the central processor. They are also all a function of the physical inputs our bodies can gather. That includes what our eyes see, what our ears hear, and when it comes to race car driving, what we feel by the 'seat of our pants,' so to speak."

To help you get a leg up on the competition, we've put together a list of simple and fun things you can do during the off-season while everybody is on the couch eating chips and watching college basketball. Even if you do only a few infrequently, they should at least help you keep the rust off. But you might be surprised by how much you can actually improve as a race car driver if you design your own off-season training regimen around these ideas and stick to it throughout the winter months.

We talked to several experts and it was interesting that each one said the first thing you should do is get some exercise. Forget the old argument that's a favorite on sports talk radio: Racers are definitely athletes. Even if you are only running 30-lap features, endurance becomes a factor, especially when heat from the engine makes it a sauna inside the cockpit. Building your endurance should be your top priority, but it is also a good idea to embark on a moderate strength training program. Strong arms and a strong grip will help you wrestle a poorly handling car around the racetrack, and overall muscular fitness can help you walk away from a wreck with fewer aches and pains the next morning.

Andy Hillenburg owns and operates the Fast Track High Performance Driving School. Through his program, Hillenburg not only teaches drivers what to do behind the wheel, but he also counsels them on everything required to become a successful race car driver on all levels of the sport. Several current and former NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series drivers have attended his school, and he says no matter if you are driving 500-mile Nextel Cup events or a 20-lap heat, conditioning is a priority.

"Get out and start running or set up a bicycling program," he says. "Long races are about endurance, both for the car and the driver. Being in good shape helps you keep your mind sharp and not be affected as much by the heat or fatigue. If your knees are bad, get on a bicycle. I'd say 80 percent of the Nextel Cup drivers today are either running, riding a bicycle, or doing some other endurance routine.

"Not only is it good for you," he adds with a laugh, "it's also boring as heck. So it gives you time to think about your car, think about new programs to attract sponsors, and other things like that."

"The physical requirements of racing-especially at the top levels-are substantial," Dallaire adds. "Therefore, you must develop your physical fitness. Stamina is probably the most important quality, not only because of what's required of you during a race but also when you consider the demands of a weekly racing schedule. You need your muscular strength to be adequate. You don't have to be a football linebacker, but you do need strength. You need flexibility to be adequate. Having a lower body fat level is also an advantage. But stamina is critical. And it's easy enough to do. Go find a gym and maybe even a physical trainer. Set up a program designed around all those things I mentioned, but especially to develop superior muscular fatigue resistance."

The off-season is a great time to hone your skills. Consider going to a driving school. There are week-long options for those who can afford to take time off from work and even weekend-only programs. A good driving school is a great way to get a driving coach to help you refine your technique and possibly even point out problem areas in your driving you didn't even know you had.

Hillenburg recommends trying different schools sometimes instead of going to the same school time after time. It can help you even if the school uses completely different cars. Try a road racing school for a change. There is no telling what insights you can gain and apply to your own style of racing just by spending time with an instructor from another discipline or a different class of race car. This is also a good way to recharge your batteries if you have been racing in the same class for a few years.