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Speed Racers Are In Good Shape, Too

A new study argues that car racers are more than pedal stompers with lightning reflexes - that they truly are athletes, like pros in other major sports.

Drivers in the Indy-style Championship Auto Racing Teams had physical fitness levels on a par with those found previously in pro football, basketball and baseball players, researchers say.

"It's pretty indisputable at this point," said Dr. Stephen E. Olvey, a researcher and CART's medical affairs director.

Olvey and his colleagues looked at heart rates and oxygen consumption on the pavement and in the lab in seven pro drivers, each with more than 12 years of experience in the low-slung roofless racers. The results were reported in the December issue of the American College of Sports Medicine journal, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Tests were done on Florida tracks as the drivers prepared their cars for coming competitions. The researchers outfitted the drivers with equipment to monitor heart rates and oxygen consumption as they roared down straightaways and through turns at speeds of up to 211 mph.

The road tests only became possible in recent years with the development of smaller testing equipment that wouldn't get in the driver's way, said researcher Patrick Jacobs, the lead author and Olvey's colleague at the University of Miami. As a result, the study is the first to look directly at drivers in action, he said.

Overall, the drivers in the 1999-2000 season performed aerobically at about the same level that the average elite football, basketball and baseball players did when the last data on ballplayers was published, in 1992, Jacobs said. The drivers burned the energy equivalent of running miles of 8 to 10 minutes.

This does not mean CART racing counts as aerobic training, Jacobs said. Racing is expensive, and drivers don't get enough days behind the wheel to make a drive as common as a run, he said.

But drivers exercise away from the track because they know they need it, Jacobs said. Drivers need muscle power to keep proper seating position in tight, high-speed turns that generate four or five times the force of gravity, he said.

"The days are gone when you can be competitive and not be in peak physical condition," Olvey said.

Drivers do aerobic workouts to build endurance and do weight training for strength, Jacobs said.

"Just for the amount of training I have to go through, I really consider myself an athlete," said CART driver Oriol Servia of Barcelona, Spain. In the off-season, he does mostly aerobic workouts two or three hours a day.

Two pro football players agree with Olvey's findings.

"They've got to control their car driving however many laps," said San Diego Chargers fullback Fred McCrary. "I respect those guys, man."

Drivers also have the respect of Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Chad Eaton. "Go left at 200 mph, I'd have to say you'd need some athletic ability, some kind of skill. Just like a receiver has to focus in on a ball to make a catch, a driver needs to be able to react," Eaton said. "If somebody cuts him off, you need to see that and react. So yeah, they're athletes."

Although there were only seven volunteers in the study, Jacobs said the results are representative of the approximately 30 drivers in the CART circuit. It would take other experiments to check the fitness of drivers in other motor sports such as the stock car racers in NASCAR, he said.

However, the results "are a good piece of evidence that drivers in the elite ranks of racers are physiologically similar to elite athletes in other sports," said Tim Lightfoot, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

NASCAR's physiological requirements may be even higher than those faced by CART drivers, said Lightfoot, who wants to do a NASCAR study similar to the one done on CART drivers. NASCAR vehicles are heavier and the races generally are longer.

Lightfoot was not connected to the CART study, but he is a race car driver.

"My wife and I own a race team, in a series called the Legends cars. Legends are replicas of the older stock cars they used to run in the late '30s and early 40s," he said. "We have these huge honkin' motorcycle engines in them."

And even weekend racers in 5/8 scale fiberglass-bodied cars such as his ought to be in shape, Lightfoot said. "In a lot of the weekend racing series, there are a lot of folks not in condition, who put themselves and others at risk," he said.

Heart attacks behind the wheel among the weekend road warriors are not unheard of, Lightfoot said, but there is no need for them to happen.

By Ira Dreyfuss