COMPRESSED NHRA SCHEDULE SHOULD PLAY INTO J.R. TODD'S HANDS
NHRA is about to embark on a compressed schedule that will tax drivers, crew members and officials in unprecedented ways.
The resumption of action this weekend in Indianapolis after a 4½-month, pandemic-forced break launches a grind that at least one driver hopes will play right into his hands. The 16-race dash to the finish includes a stretch of 13 consecutive race weekends.
J.R. Todd, the 2018 Funny Car champion, is in his fourth year undergoing physical and mental training at PitFit, a 5,500-square-foot facility 15 minutes from Lucas Oil Raceway. PitFit’s majority clientele is IndyCar drivers, and Todd is currently PitFit’s only drag racer client. The mind-bending, body-sculpting workouts could give him an edge when the season finally ends at Pomona, Calif., in mid-November.
“I’m sure there are plenty of guys that have been working out and not talking about it,” said Todd, driver of the DHL-sponsored Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports. “It’s definitely been nice this last two months being back at PitFit with all the guys, getting us prepared for this grind we’ve got coming up. … I would like to think that in the long run what I’m doing is going to pay off.
“We’re going into something that we’ve never done, this many races in a row. Whoever comes out on top is definitely going to show, driver-wise, that they are mentally focused and physically prepared for this. It’s going to take a combination of driver, car and crew. Hopefully I can hold up my end.”
PitFit, located on the northwest side of Indianapolis, is the brainchild of Jim Leo. He worked for a wellness program that served Detroit Diesel, one of the many companies owned by Roger Penske. That endeavor included working with members of the Penske’s IndyCar team -- the billionaire’s flagship racing operation that has won the Indianapolis 500 a whopping 18 times.
Leo used that experience as the springboard to launch PitFit in Indianapolis in ’97, and “it’s just grown since then,” he said.
The facility includes a main “gym” of 3,500 square feet. Then there’s what’s called “the Brain Lab” that includes equipment to refine drivers’ reactions. The remainder is set aside for a simulator, office space and a chiropractor.
PitFit caters almost exclusively to the racing community, Leo said. A limited number of private memberships were created for some “pretty high-end members,” he added
From 8:30 until 11:30 a.m., though, the building is reserved for racers simply because the workouts designed for them require use of the entire facility.
“It’s honestly something you won’t find anywhere else in the world that focuses on motorsports and the technology we’ve invested in,” Leo said. “We cap our elite driver program, and right now we’re completely full. So even if another racer wanted to come in and work with us, we wouldn’t be able to take them.”
Drag racers who have trained at PitFit in the past include Morgan Lucas and Richie Crampton. It was the latter who recruited Todd away from a more generic, standard gym setting to the streamlined, purpose-specific workouts at PitFit.
“The place I worked out was more of a CrossFit-type place open to the general public, and PitFit is geared pretty much toward drivers only,” said Todd, who joined PitFit in 2016. “Richie had been on me to come work out with him, so I finally decided to make the change and haven’t looked back since.
Todd admittedly was “kind of a late bloomer” when it came to physical fitness. It wasn’t until his workouts produced a leaner version of himself that he realized the role they could play in his success as a driver.
“Right away your face shrinks up and you lose your gut,” he said, adding that he quickly noticed improved muscle tone.
But PitFit’s mission isn’t to turn a racer into someone with a bodybuilder physique, it’s to maximize his or her total potential.
And to accomplish that for Todd means putting him in stressful situations and teaching him how to almost step outside himself and remain in control of his responses.
“Basically, a lot of the workouts that we do, they’re trying to simulate you being in the racecar,” Todd said. “They’re getting your heart rate way up where you’re kind of uncomfortable, and then giving you some reaction-time drills such as hand-eye coordination things. They’re constantly switching them up to see where my mind is at a given point compared to what my heart rate is -- to try to simulate being inside the racecar.
“I hope my heart rate never gets that high in the car because typically that means something bad is going on.”
In short, the goal is for Todd to remain in total command under any circumstance.
Mike Dunn is a decorated veteran of nitromethane drag racing. The 1983 season, Dunn's third behind the wheel of Roland Leong's Hawaiian Punch Mopar Funny Car , was nearly his undoing. #ClassicDragRacing - https://t.co/ONthEqfPa8 pic.twitter.com/FXxuMyfGVF— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) July 4, 2020
“One of the things I think people overlook is the ability to stay calm and stay focused under an amazing amount of stress, such as staging and everything that goes into it,” Leo said. “There’s a certain point where your reactions are enhanced and a point where you can get jumpy. We work with J.R. to put him in conditions that’re very similar to being in the car, whether we increase the heat, increase his heart rate, and then we have him do really specific reaction-based drills on some of the equipment we own -- very high-end equipment.
“That kind of thing really puts him in a position that his reactions can be perfect when he’s got an elevated heart rate. If the heart rate’s too low, you won’t respond quickly enough. If it’s too high, you may red light. We basically allow him to react under stress.”
Leo likened the process to the training that military special operations forces such as the Navy’s SEAL team members or Army’s Special Forces soldiers endure. Racers, just like the military members, can be taught to “basically stay calm and focused” in very chaotic situations, Leo said.
“Our goal is to make the training much, much more difficult than the actual driving,” he said. “It’s not as dangerous when we do it, but we do the best we can. Once you have the task at hand, that’s the gravy. The hard part is in the preparation.”
“It’s good mental exercise as well as physical exercise,” Todd added. “If racing was as hard as the training is, I don’t know if I’d have lasted this long in racing. We definitely do some hardcore training in that hour-or-so session. You’re whipped, for sure.
“When you’re in there with other guys -- the majority of them are IndyCar guys and you see how physically fit they are -- it kind of pushes you to keep going and try to get on their level. You don’t want to be the weak link of the group, that’s for sure.”
The training regimen has helped Todd learn to control his breathing in addition to the improved physical conditioning. That can be crucial, he said, when he’s stuffed inside his firesuit waiting to make a run when temperatures and humidity can both be in the 90s. In addition, the training helps Todd stay at about 150 pounds -- 160 dressed in all his gear -- in a sport where every pound matters.
Todd’s training regimen doesn’t end when the PitFit door closes behind him. He said he constantly reminds himself to stay properly hydrated throughout a race week in addition to eating properly as often as possible.
He’s learned about hydration the hard way, he said. In 2014, prior to the final round at Bandimere Speedway in Denver, Todd began experiencing cramps in his arms and hands due to dehydration. The proper water intake throughout the week is important, of course, and PitFit has taken hydration to a different level with its own line of products, in conjunction with Infinite Nutrition, that Todd can take with him on the road.
“Some have caffeine, some have a little more sodium for hot conditions, and some are protein drinks,” Leo added. “We cover J.R.’s nutrition as best we can on race weekend, but the hydration side, we’ve got that nailed down. He’s good to go with the hydration drinks we’ve developed.”
Todd has also learned that he can limit his fluid loss by minimizing unnecessary movement on race day. He has duties he’s responsible for, such as mixing the nitromethane-alcohol concoction in his car’s fuel tank and packing his parachute. Once those tasks are completed, he tries to seek out a quiet, cool place to keep sweating to a minimum.
“I’ve noticed in the past that a lot of races, there are times you feel you’re getting dehydrated, especially in the late rounds on Sunday, because you didn’t take in enough water or electrolytes throughout the weekend and you start cramping up,” Todd said. “This 14, 15 races in a row, we’re going to go some places we haven’t been in the past this time of year that’re going to be hot and nasty and you’re going to sweat a lot.
“I’m anxious to get to the track and try out those (PitFit drinks). You don’t want to be sweating and losing energy in the later rounds when you need it the most.”
When Covid-19 put the country on hold, Todd was able to work out on his own thanks to PitFit. He said Leo allowed him to take home a kettlebell to continue his weight training, as well as a cycle to maintain his cardiovascular fitness. When Indianapolis allowed businesses such as PitFit to reopen two months ago, Todd said he was there almost every weekday. If he missed a workout, he’d try to make it up on Saturday.
And he’s well aware that the crushing schedule he’s able to undertake will limit the time he can be in Indy to train going forward.
“I’ve been saying for years ‘I wish I could race every week of the year,’ and now we’re going to get a taste of that. I’m all for it,” he said. “I spent some time as a crew member and they’re the ones I feel bad for. It’s going to be a grind for them.
“For me, it cuts down on how much time I can go to PitFit. It’s probably only going to be two days a week at the most that I can go in there and work out unless it’s races I can drive to instead of spending time in the airport.”
And he’s hoping, of course, that each of those grueling workouts at PitFit will make him the best driver he can be when others may be showing signs of fatigue. Leo believes the training Todd has subjected himself to will pay those kind of dividends.
“I think J.R.’s always better prepared, even without the layoff,” he said. “The things that we do with him are unique and he pushes hard. He’ll be better prepared than usual. …
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not better prepared now than he’s ever been. We’ve really, really run the gamut of new things. A lot of the drills, a lot of the equipment we’ve invested in, there’s a learning curve. We’ll learn a little bit and then we’ll turn it over to the drivers and learn with them. This time, we’ve had a lot more time with some of our stuff to try some new things. I think he’s going to be solid come race day. We’re excited to see him start back at Indy.”