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."
The team does a comprehensive workout in a gym each Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday team members practice pit stops. They get Friday off, and then they work the weekend at the track. "And on Monday we sit down and look at the tapes to see what we can do better," Salerno says.
But how does that relate to a guy who spends all day at a desk and climbs into a car only on Saturday night?
First of all, Salerno doesn't expect someone racing Saturday nights at a local bullring to be able to keep the same training schedule as Jarrett or the 88 UPS crew.
But that doesn't mean there isn't room to adapt what he does for the boys in brown to guys in T-shirts and blue jeans who race for trophies and a week's worth of bragging rights.
"First of all, we have to get rid of the 'I'm just here for the beer' attitude and start thinking of ourselves as athletes," he says. That is especially important with amateur racers who have full-time jobs and race only once a week.
"Keeping in shape is important," he says. The difference in driver conditioning may not show up the first or second lap, but eventually the driver who is in shape and has the stamina to race hard for 30 minutes will have an edge at the end of a race over a racer who is wrung out after 20 minutes.
"You can be skillful at racing," Martin proclaims in his book. "But if you don't have the strength to effectively repeat these skills throughout a race, you are likely to finish in a poor position with an increased chance of injury from crashing."
Increased stamina will allow a driver to be more responsive to the changes in the track and in the car, use better judgement, and have quicker reflexes than a driver who is barely hanging on to the wheel.
Dr. Steve Olvey, who studied drivers in the Champ Car open-wheel series, says he observed drivers for years to look for any erratic lap times or erratic behavior.
"What you see when fatigue sets in," says Olvey, "is the driver starts to lose his ability to concentrate and anticipate things as well as his ability to react to things in front of him. There is a definite increase in the accident rate of fatigued drivers. It is not unlike what happens on the ski slopes. When you talk to physicians in Colorado, they'll talk about the rush of injuries toward the end of the day. We're very aware of what the drivers are doing toward the latter stages of races."
So, what's the answer? Salerno suggests the following:
Cut out the junk food. You don't see guys like Martin living on burgers and fries. They eat a balanced diet with low fat and high protein. Salerno says that eating small, frequent meals kicks in a body's metabolism and encourages it to lose weight. The trick is to always have the system working on something healthy, so it is always burning calories. The 88 pit crew eats six small meals a day.
Get in shape. Lift weights to build up stamina. But don't get involved in a program aimed at building muscle mass. You want to be muscular, not muscle-bound. "It's far better to lift less weight and do more repetitions," Salerno says. Lift slowly. Lift for five seconds and then release for five seconds. "You need to lift smoothly," he says. "There's no need to throw a lot of weight around, because big muscles are not what you are after."
And to build up stamina, go from exercise to exercise without stopping. "You shouldn't be standing around in the gym," he says. "If it takes you more than 35 minutes to lift weights, you are wasting time."
Combine weights with aerobic workouts. Run or use a treadmill to get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes each workout.
Drink lots of water. Salerno suggests a half-ounce of water for each pound of body mass. In other words, if you weigh 200 pounds, drink 100 ounces of water each day.
Drivers should schedule their training to be at their best on race day. For most short-track drivers, that means training early in the week, on a schedule similar to what Salerno uses for the UPS crew.
"One of the [most important] things is to let your body heal before race day," he says. "If you race on Saturday, then go to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday and let your body rest and repair itself on Friday. Your muscles ache after the gym because they have been damaged, but when they repair themselves they become stronger. They need a day to heal and rebuild before you race.
"So take the day off on Friday and drink lots of water-lots and lots of water. You have to hydrate yourself before the race. It isn't something that can be done while you are unloading the car.
"The real key," Salerno says, "is to think of yourself as an athlete and begin to train like an athlete and act like an athlete."
SourcesStrength Training for Performance Driving,By Mark Martin and John S. Comereski. Motorbooks International. Out of print and a bit hard to come by, but worth the effort to find a copy.
Fit for Motorsport, by R.S. Jutley. Haynes Publications. A British book with a bent toward sports car racing, but serves as a good source of information.