I am occasionally scoffed at when I suggest that race drivers need to be in good physical shape. Most people can at least believe that pro drivers are in good condition, but not that it’s explicitly necessary for them to do what they do. I have struggled in the past to convey how, exactly, driving is in fact physical. I’m going to give it another shot here. Part of the difficulty is that race driving (like most sports) is a pretty unique activity; it’s not much like anything you’re likely to have done before, and driving a race car is extremely different from driving a “regular” car.
So, let’s play an imagination game:
For round one of our game, imagine trying to open a combination lock; a round one with a dial like you would find on a gym locker. Let’s even assume you know the combination. Certainly it isn’t physically challenging, although it does take some precision and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. Easy.
For round two, imagine the lock isn’t on a locker, but it’s chained to a 45lb plate like you would use to lift weights at the gym. Let’s make it interesting by saying you have to wear this contraption as a necklace like Flavor Flav turned into a gym rat, and you have to remain standing. Now that you’re trying to support the weight while you’re working the lock, it becomes more physically challenging. Turning the dial just right is harder when you’re also exerting yourself, but as long as you can hold up 45lbs or so for a minute you should be ok, right?
Now let’s make it really interesting. The good news is for round three you’re sitting down, the bad news is you’re sitting on a roller coaster; think of the most intense roller coaster you have actually been on, only very slightly modified to allow you to reach the lock-chain-weight combo that’s now in your lap (although still around your neck). Imagine trying to unlock the lock while the roller coaster is going. Now we’re talking about a real challenge: keeping the thing in your lap at all is pretty tough, but trying to spin that little dial to just the right numbers (without smacking yourself in the face with the weight) you can imagine is hard. Your head is being jostled around, the lock itself is all over the place, and that weight gets pretty unwieldy in that corkscrew section. I’m willing to bet, though, that if you could keep the thing in your hands you could unlock the lock once (or a few times) without really getting tired. Tough? Sure. Tiring? Probably not.
Round four. Something has malfunctioned on the roller coaster. This isn’t the usual car-gets-stuck-upside-down malfunction though; this is the ride-doesn’t-stop-at-the-end-and-just-keeps-going malfunction. You’re not in much danger (as long as you don’t hurt yourself with that weight), but you’re not getting off any time soon. Say the thing goes for an hour; some “ride engineers” are there, the Channel 4 helicopter is circling, but you’re stuck on the darn thing. Worry about keeping your lunch down later; how is it coming with that lock? Imagine if you got more points every time you unlocked, then re-locked the lock. How many times could you do it? How long could you hold the thing in your lap while your roller coaster just kept going? A few times, probably, but you can imagine how it gets pretty difficult pretty quickly.
Race drivers don’t need to unlock combination locks chained to weights, and they’re not on roller coasters. They are, however, being thrown around in their seats while trying with their hands and feet to do things that simultaneously require both strength and precision, sometimes for hours at a time. If you have never done it before it’s tough to imagine that turning the wheel and pressing the pedals could be tough; the car you drive to work has power steering and power brakes, and most of the time it doesn’t really matter how much you turn or press them as long as you’re close. Race cars (and fast go-karts) require strength to turn the wheel and press the pedals; hard to believe but it’s actually physically difficult. To go fast, you have to do those things exactly the right amount at exactly the right time. It’s difficult and challenging in the same way that round four of our imaginary game is difficult and challenging.
I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about it to go to a decent go-kart track and give it a shot. Don’t bother with the slow stuff, head to a place that requires helmets and neck braces, like F1 Boston. It’s a ton of fun, and I promise you’ll learn something.