Russ Salerno admits he can't quite figure out America's short-track racers. They will spend all winter building killer engines, massaging bodywork, and trying to find that tiny edge in chassis setup that brings success. Yet most do nothing to improve the most important part of the racing equation: the driver.
Let's face it. Many of us involved in racing on an amateur level prefer doing 16-ounce bar curls with a tall can of beer to lifting weights or running in a gym.
"But given equal cars, I'll put my money on the driver who is in shape over the one who is 30 pounds overweight and squeezes his beer belly behind the wheel," says Salerno.
A former NFL kicker and retired successful business consultant, Salerno spent last season with Robert Yates Racing, where he trained and coached the over-the-wall crew for Dale Jarrett's No. 88 UPS Ford. He came on board after being asked to study the crew's race day performance to find ways to make them smoother and quicker. "There's always something you can do better," he says. "The key is to find out what it is."
Sometimes it's changing the way a crewmember does his job. Other times it's changing the crewmember so he can do the job better.
As Nextel Cup cars become more and more alike and NASCAR puts limits on parts such as rearend ratios, the human element will take on a greater role in winning races.
Mark Martin, perhaps the most physically fit man to ever strap into a NASCAR sedan, agrees. In his '94 book, Strength Training for Performance Driving, Martin says, "The future of motorsports depends on improvements in technology, along with improvements in human performance . . . attributed to strength training, proper dietary habits, stress control, and adequate rest."
Research conducted as far back as 20 years ago confirmed that race car drivers at work can have heart rates equal or higher than those of marathon runners. Figures of 160-180 beats per minute are not uncommon. Spikes of 200-plus beats per minute have been seen in open-wheel cars.
At least three Nextel Cup teams use a trainer full time, and others bring in trainers on a contract basis. Many of the drivers have personal trainers on the payroll to help them tune their bodies to the rigors of racing.
"The overweight, out-of-shape guy may win from time to time," Salerno says. "But at the end of the season, the guy who is in better shape is the one who generally will have a better record.
"People outside the sport have no idea how physically demanding this can be. There is a huge similarity between a NASCAR team and an NFL team. Much of the training for pro football carries over to racing. You have to be strong, and you have to be quick. The guys on the 88 team stay in pretty good shape just because they are doing this for a living. There is no off-season."