February 13, 2024
REPOST of PRI Special Report: IMPROVING DRIVER PERFORMANCE
TODAY’S DRIVER TRAINING REGIMENS INCORPORATE MUCH MORE THAN JUST EXTRA LAPS ON THE TRACK.
Written by Steve Statham for PRI
January 1, 2024
Like every aspect of racing, the quest for improving driver performance is only accelerating. For long-time followers of motorsports, the training regimens modern drivers have adopted is astonishing to witness.
Driver fitness was not always a given, to say the least. Just a couple of decades ago, driver fitness was often measured at the post-race beer bash. Mark Martin raised eyebrows in NASCAR garages in the early 1990s when he swore off drinking and channeled his energies into daily weight-lifting routines and a strict nutritional focus. His case was considered so unusual that it was a widely reported story in the sports media.
Martin was a bit of an outlier at that time, but today any driver not following a comprehensive fitness routine would be an outlier in the sport. Now the stakes are higher, the money greater, and the competition to make it to the top even more fierce.
Physical fitness and strength training are a necessity, and there are many schools of thought on the best paths for drivers. But fitness between the ears is also a major factor. Advances in neurocognitive research, and breakthroughs in technology that have revolutionized training techniques, have transformed how drivers approach their training.
While drivers have become more focused on their overall fitness in the car, they can often overlook the importance of hydration, said Todd Hayes of FluidLogic. New in-car hydration systems make it easier than ever for drivers to keep their fluid and electrolyte levels up, and those who do are staying at the top of their game, Hayes said.
“It’s becoming more commonplace for research to be done on this racing business because it’s more popular, it’s more extensive,” said Jim Leo of PitFit Training, Indianapolis, Indiana. “It has changed, and it has changed for the better. I think that’s a good thing. The bar has been raised over the years.” PitFit has specialized in the human performance side of the motorsports industry for nearly 30 years and has collected extensive data along the way.
We spoke with several sources about the latest techniques for improving driver performance. For some of our sources, their techniques are proprietary, and specific methods are held close to the vest. For others, such as The Mental Agility Coaching Center in Park Ridge, Illinois, since they are licensed mental health professionals, they must maintain the confidentiality of the people they work with. But all had important insights into the latest training techniques to elevate drivers to the next level.
The reasons drivers seek out sports performance training facilities span the gamut. Jordan Stewart is a cognitive trainer at The Mental Agility Coaching Center and a licensed mental health therapist with a master’s degree in Sport and Human Performance. “We do have people who come in who’re not very confident, they’re feeling a little anxious, maybe they are tentative or hesitant going into turns, but sometimes—a lot of the times—people are just trying to get an edge, too,” she said.
Quite often, drivers will approach trainers with what they feel are weak spots in their performance, but they are not always the best judges of their own capabilities. “Everything starts with our assessment,” PitFit’s Leo said. “Drivers will come to us with what they perceive as a negative component, and fixing this component will in fact make them more productive in the race car. And then we’ll do an assessment and determine that maybe where they consider themselves to be inferior, they’re not. They may just be average. And there may be some other areas that could dramatically improve their opportunities to succeed in the race car.
“Our assessment is very comprehensive,” Leo continued. “It takes the entire day. It’s mental and it’s physical. We do interviews with them, and so the driver will oftentimes discover that where they felt they were not lacking, they in fact are. We have a data pool for comparison for the last 25 or 30 years to show, ‘This is where the top level, the mid-level drivers are, and this is where you are.’”
Unpacking mental baggage is often a part of a sports training specialist’s job. “When racers fail to perform well in qualifying or race sessions compared to practice, that’s a sign their mental game might be the issue,” said Patrick Cohn with Peak Performance Sports, Orlando, Florida. “We help with perfectionism, dealing with mistakes, pressure, distractions, and over-driving, to mention a few.”
According to Cohn, perfectionism is a particular issue he encounters. “This happens when racers think the ‘stars have to align’ to feel confident,” he said. “How they feel, the track conditions, the car set-up, etc. has to be right to feel confident. Perfectionism also leads to high expectations, getting easily frustrated with mistakes, being self-critical, worrying about what others think, and wanting the car and driving to feel perfect.”
There are times, too, when drivers may not even be aware of their shortcomings, or of newer technology that can boost their endurance. FluidLogic in El Segundo, California, manufactures advanced in-car driver hydration systems and finds itself having to overcome the outdated perception that a driver receiving a plastic water bottle during a pit stop will keep the driver sufficiently hydrated.
“To be honest with you, hydration is one of the last things the drivers think about nowadays, which is really puzzling, with the level of competition, how it has increased and how the driver has become a little more focused on overall fitness in the car,” said Todd Hayes of FluidLogic. “I feel they still don’t look at hydration as being super vital to their performance in the race car.”
The days when training equipment for athletes was limited to jogging shoes and a weight bench are over. Advanced cognitive training equipment and techniques available today work on reaction time and visual field awareness by developing the neural pathways in the brain, and how the brain makes decisions and responds to stimulus in the environment.
Among the tools The Mental Agility Coaching Center uses are Fitlights. “The Fitlights are discs, and we can set any type of parameter on them,” Stewart said. “We can change the colors, we can change the way they light up, so if we want them to light up just a little bit, we can put up a dot, or we can light up the whole light. We can change the timing, we can have it delay. So we can do whatever we want with the lights to put these athletes in cognitive overload. Which means putting them in a place where their brains are thinking hard. Challenging them with different lights, challenging them to react to the different colors, the different setups that we have, the reaction time.
“I used those to put a driver in cognitive overload recently. Not even a week later he was saying, ‘I felt so much more comfortable in the turn.’ Because thinking about when you are in that turn, you have a bunch of stimuli around you—lots of cars, you’re kind of claustrophobic, and the natural thing a human would do is back off. So let’s try to get him to be so cognitively stimulated and overloaded in this situation that he can go into those turns and feel okay.
The Mental Agility Coaching Center uses Fitlights to put athletes in what Jordan Stewart called cognitive overload. That means “putting them in a place where their brains are thinking hard,” so they learn to react to increasing amounts of stimuli without backing off.
“The more stimulus we have and the more we can practice this, the slower the race track is going to feel,” Stewart continued. “If you’re racing and then you go and drive on a normal road, everything around you feels a lot slower. That is actually the goal of this training, for the brain to be thinking so quickly that in these really fast, highly intense situations, your brain is processing so fast that your decision making is second nature. There’s no hesitation.”
Visual tracking is another technology that The Mental Agility Coaching Center has enthusiastically adopted for driver training. “The visual tracking in particular really lit me up when I started learning about it,” said founder Dave Marks. “The visual tracking for me just really captures my imagination, because in effect we are able to see the visual field, the point of view, of a driver, or any performer, and also see specifically what they are looking at. I can tell if a driver going into a turn is looking at a distance marker, versus a car in front of them, versus checking their mirrors.
“There is a study that was done that I think is pretty cool, by Pupil Labs, which created this particular technology. They showed that for a NASCAR pit crew, by doing visual tracking, they were able to knock two-tenths of a second off per lug nut. Which, if you do the math, that comes down to a second, and that, in turn, at say, an average of 100 mph, that’s 146 feet,” Marks said.
Driver training today can even pinpoint imbalances in body chemistry that can affect performance. Among the information PitFit acts upon following its driver assessments is the lactate threshold. “Your lactate threshold is the point when your body starts producing larger amounts of lactic acid, larger amounts than your body can tolerate, which will fatigue you,” Leo said. “When fatigue sets in, then a number of other factors become apparent—your focus, your ability to concentrate, all these other areas. So we’re going to improve your lactate threshold. You’ll be able to work at a higher level without producing this acid. We’re going to train you to do that.
When Pupil Labs trained NASCAR pit crews in the skill of visual tracking, they were able to knock two-tenths of a second off of each lug nut, which can be a significant time savings over the course of a race.
“In the car, your heart rate is higher. And when you produce this lactic acid, suddenly all these areas you could stay focused on to be at your highest level are going to deteriorate. So now, instead of you driving the car at 165 beats per minute, at which point your body starts to break down, you can go all day long at 165 because we’ve raised that lactate threshold to 170 through the proper protocols,” Leo added.
Certainly, top racers are clued into the benefits of advanced driver performance training and leading-edge equipment. “I worked with AJ Allmendinger,” Cohn related. “He said, ‘Mental coach has taught me what to focus on in and out of the race car. How to stay calm and focused have been key skills that I have learned, which have helped me be a better and more confident race car driver.”
PitFit counts top Penske drivers among its clients, building on a relationship with Penske Racing that dates back to 1993. “Scott McLaughlin is a great example,” Leo said. “He didn’t start working with us until this year. In his first year in IndyCar, he was 14th as a rookie, and then he was fourth, but the lowest Penske driver even though he was fourth. Then this year he ended up being third in the championship, and the top Penske driver. His teammates are Indy 500 champions and two-time series champions. For him, it was consistency. We worked with him and changed his body and his diet and his mindset.”
Hayes has witnessed how the FluidLogic in-car hydration systems have allowed drivers to stay at the top of their game. “This year we won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship with FluidLogic,” he said. “Those drivers are very tuned in to staying hydrated in the cockpit, because they are in a closed cockpit now, too. Heat never was an issue in the open wheel world until they put a windscreen on an IndyCar.
“Getting drivers to learn how to control their mind and be calm, inside and outside the car, is an element you’re seeing more and more of,” said Jim Leo of PitFit Training. “You’ve got to take care of yourself outside of your respective sport to be productive in it.”
“And I would add Tyler Reddick in the NASCAR world. Hydration is his most important preparation tool for the race. He’ll drink about 120 ounces of water in a 500-mile race. He’s somebody who will change drink bottles within his car two to three times during a race, and he really pays attention to it,” Hayes added.
Looking ahead, it seems likely that developing a driver’s mental game will continue to be a key element in improving driver performance. “Getting drivers to learn how to control their mind, inside and outside the car, to be able to control their mindset and be calm, is an element you’re seeing more and more of,” Leo said.
“Mental coaching helps racers focus on a functional performance instead of a perfect race,” Cohn explained. “We help racers manage expectations, focus on the process, be less self-critical, let go of mistakes quickly, and not worry about what others think on the team.”
Small gains in mental acuity can lead to big gains on the track. “If you start working the mental game and you start working the neurocognitive side, you’re going to have the advantage over everybody else who isn’t,” Marks said. “That advantage can be critical. If it gives you an extra two or three seconds through efficiency gains during a drive, I’ll take that. That’s a couple of places at least.”
The limits of driver performance are still being explored, but with the explosion of sports training specialists entering the field, especially in this social media age, drivers may need to reign in their natural need for speed and vet sources carefully. “I think due diligence for the drivers is important, to really research who they are working with and get feedback from some of the clients,” Leo advised.
But after identifying legitimate training sources, drivers should not be reluctant to explore leading-edge methods for improving their performance. “The days of people just doing their activity and moving on have long passed,” Leo said. “There’s enough research being done that shows that you’ve got to take care of yourself outside of your respective sport to be productive in it. With athletes it’s critical.”
The Mental Agility Coaching Center
Peak Performance Sports