PitFit Training: IndyCar Drivers' Secret Weapon to Winning the Indy 500
Drivers may be fit, but not all of them are mentally and cognitively conditioned to win. That's where PitFit comes in.
Running a physical training facility isn’t complicated—assuming you find a niche audience, cater to its specific needs, and are able to endure the ups and downs of a ruthless business. On the other hand, doing so successfully for more than 20 years and developing a portfolio of A-list clients is complicated, especially in an industry that moves as quickly as the clients themselves. That’s what Jim Leo, founder and president of PitFit Training has managed to do.
Conditioning racing drivers is a serious business. Every single race of the Verizon IndyCar series represents a grueling war between man and machine. Whether it’s challenging road courses where drivers are battered by constant braking and accelerating forces, or high-speed ovals where normal humans would black out due to the sheer speed. Being a racing driver, believe it or not, isn’t an easy task.
Jim Leo is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who was originally tapped by “The Captain” Roger Penske to improve the fitness of his racing team over two decades ago. Since then, Leo and his staff have been revolutionizing the physical and mental conditioning of racing drivers and pit crews from IndyCar, IMSA, Indy Lights, NHRA, Formula BMW, Global Rallycross and many more.
The Drive recently had the opportunity to visit Leo and his Performance Director Alex Wanee at their facility in Indianapolis, where some of IndyCar’s most famous names can be found sweating and oftentimes cursing at the arduous workout routines they have to perform. During our visit, we caught a glimpse of Schmidt Peterson’s James Hinchcliffe as well as Andretti Autosport's Alexander Rossi’s workout. The likes of Indy 500 and IndyCar champions like Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are also full-time clients, but they had different commitments that particular morning.
Like most folks in the IndyCar circus, Leo and Wanee are extremely busy during the racing season, but we persuaded them to close their office door and sit down with us for a chat.
The Drive: If I count correctly, there will be eight PitFit Training drivers on this year’s Indy 500 grid. After so many years in this business, what does it feel like to be represented by so many great athletes?
Jim Leo: It’s very cool, for sure. Our drivers have evolved over the years much like our program has. We have some strong guys on the grid and they will be more than ready to win—they will be better prepared to win.
TD: What exactly do you mean by “they will be better prepared to win?”
JL: They will have a special “PitFit Push to Pass” at the end of the race that the others won’t, per se. All of these guys will have more left in their energy and concentration tanks than the rest of the field thanks to all the conditioning they’ve done, and they will use it when it counts.
TD: Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did you realize that racing drivers needed to be better prepared to win?
JL: I didn’t, I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in racing when I was younger. It all started when I was working a corporate wellness program at the Detroit Diesel Corporation, and I noticed that Roger Penske’s racing team would come to our facility in Detroit to get his cars ready for the [Detroit] Grand Prix. The guys would come up and use the gym, so I developed a relationship with them and that’s when I got the idea, but it was only the crew, not so much the drivers. I eventually pitched the idea [of developing the team physically] to Roger Penske and he said, “Go for it.”
That’s when I basically started working two jobs for the same pay, my corporate wellness job and training the racing crew. I did that for about three years before I accepted an offer by Pac West Racing and that’s when I moved down to Indianapolis to do this full time.
TD: A lot of people nowadays still think that racing drivers aren’t athletes, and I’m willing to bet that two decades ago some people within the racing community also felt that way. What do you think changed that?
Absolutely. One of the biggest things was the influx of Formula 1 drivers who came over in the ‘90s to race in CART. You had Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi, Mark Blundell and Mauricio Gugelmin, for example, and they all had the Senna mentality that was shared across European and Formula 1 drivers of that time. Everyone trained over there—all the time. So when these guys came over, thankfully, they started kicking ass with one on one focused training.
For me, that was huge confirmation that I needed to get onboard with this [as an independent trainer]. I still remember Bobby Rahal losing weight to perform better. That influx had a huge impact.
TD: Of course, losing weight isn’t the only thing drivers must do in order to be successful on the track. What does a driver in the year 2018 need to be successful in racing?
JL: Drivers nowadays need to be focused on the lifestyle and activities that make them be better athletes in general. They need to look at things that will increase their endurance, their strength, and their overall ability to withstand the stress that the car inflicts on them. Drivers need to be specific and train in cycles that they follow throughout the year. For example, Scott Dixon, he’s been following the same cycles for years, which include an offseason program that’s wildly different from the on-season one. It’s the same thing Olympic athletes do to prepare for a big event. They must get their minds and bodies ready for it.
Alex Wanee: Take for example what Danica [Patrick] said the other day, about the cars being “hard to drive” and the steering wheel being “so heavy” due to the lack of power steering. That shows the difference between being fit and being conditioned to race.
We [PitFit Training] aren’t in the driver fitness business, we are in the driver conditioning business. Danica is quite fit, but she’s not conditioned, yet. That’s what other drivers don’t get when they train somewhere else. We condition our drivers to face every stressful situation they are going to face in the car.
TD: Let’s talk about someone like Tony Kanaan. TK has been one of the fittest drivers on the grid for many years, just looking at his physique is intimidating, yet he recently committed to PitFit Training full-time. What do you do to take someone who is already extremely fit to a higher level?
JL: Tony has always been in great triathlon shape. He's been in CrossFit and can absolutely kill it on the [road] bike. If you put him on a bike or in a pool, he's a beast. For the longest time he felt that more was better, and in his youth, he could get away with that, but not so much anymore. When he came to us we had to step him back and slow him down. We had to address the issues with his shoulders [injuries] and find out what's causing it rather than ignoring it like he's always done. It's not often that we have to slow down a driver to take him to the next level, but that's where he is now.
Alex [Wanee] is working with him one-on-one and showing him that it's not always how hard can you work, but more of how controlled can you be during your workout routine. Alex is showing him scenarios that will be replicated in his car during a race: How he can keep his heart rate down, how he can maintain his reaction time strong despite fatigue kicking in?
TD: Would you say that what you're doing is helping him focus on quality workouts rather than quantity?
Jim: Absolutely! Focused training, that is it. The difference between Scott [Dixon] and Tony [Kanaan], is that Scott has been following this system for a long time and it's been ingrained in him. Tony is just being introduced to it on a regular basis. You're seeing him be a more competitive driver this year, but I think he's also a happier person because he feels better physically and mentally.
Following our chat, we had the opportunity to walk around the facility and witness the PitFit Training concepts in action with several drivers, some who were quite literally drenched in sweat, and others who were sharpening their reaction times on an interactive screen.
I could see Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th running of the Indy 500, work on his arms, shoulders, and neck on a machine that resembled a racing seat and steering wheel. The steering wheel was connected to a weighted rod, and Rossi had to move the steering wheel and react to the lights being activated by Wanee. By the time we made it out onto the floor, James Hinchcliffe had finished his daily program, so he simply sat on a treadmill and tooled around on his smartphone.
Wanee walked me around the facility, showing me the specialized equipment that drivers train with on a regular basis. Many devices were neck-specific, but there were others like the Jacobs Ladder, a sort of never-ending wooden ladder that exercises hand-eye-foot coordination. Others, like the Senaptec Sensory Station, resemble a high-end game of arcade whack-a-mole, which aims to improve reaction time, a skill that could literally save a driver's life. Just imagine having to react when the car in front of you crosses your path at 230 miles per hour.
Lastly, I asked Leo one final question: What differentiates a PitFit Training driver from the others on the grid?
"Their body, their mind. The fact that they can look around the grid almost with disdain and say 'You don't deserve to be out here with me, I am at a higher level than anyone out here.' They hope it's a hard race, they hope it's a hot race, and they can't wait for the last few laps because they know they will be at a higher level than the guy who is running purely on talent. That's the difference, and that's why we go above and beyond during training—and we do it intelligently.