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Strength and Conditioning for Stock Car Racing

Ebben, William PhD, CSCS*D, FNSCA

Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2010 - Volume 32 - Issue 5 - pp 16-27
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181e981f2


Exercise Science Laboratory, Stock Car Driver Research Center, Department of Health, Exercise Science and Sport Management, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Kenosha, Wisconsin

William Ebben

is an assistant professor at Marquette University.

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Stock car racing is the fastest growing spectator sport in the United States (9). The highest level of stock car racing is sanctioned by National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and has a fan base of 75 million fans making it the second largest spectator sport in the United States (9). In addition to NASCAR, there are many sanctioning bodies that oversee stock car racing at numerous regional, state, and local tracks (19).

Some racers have long appreciated the role of good physical fitness (16), and recent articles on pit crew and driver fitness have appeared in popular consumer publications (1,17). Studies examining some of the physical demands and abilities of race car drivers indicate that their heart rates, V̇o2max, and ventilatory volumes are similar to that of athletes in basketball, boxing, soccer, running, bicycling, and handball (10,11). Race car drivers also demonstrate trunk flexion and extension force production characteristics that are similar to wrestlers, tennis, and basketball players; leg extension strength that is higher than national-level basketball players; and neck extension strength that is equal to judo athletes and twice as strong as nonathletes (2). Conditioning services are believed to be important for open-wheel and formula drivers; though, few recommendations have been made up to this point (12). Although stock car racing may not be thought of as a traditional sport, stock car drivers require athletic abilities and experience injuries that, to this point, are not well understood.

Most of the limited published information regarding racing is dated or focuses on open-wheel formula car racing outside of the United States. The National Strength and Conditioning Association and its certified members are well positioned to serve the substantial yet relatively understudied sport of stock car racing more comprehensively. The purpose of this article is to review the motor sports research and characterize some common injuries, physical demands, and physiology of racing and provide practical recommendations for strength and conditioning practitioners.

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Although the total number of drivers who participate in stock car racing is not known, there are 1,389 stock car tracks in the United States with larger and more populated states having as many as 79 stock car tracks (19). By this measure, the magnitude of the sport seems significant. There are many stock car racing sanctioning bodies in addition to NASCAR, with the majority of racing occurring at the numerous short tracks throughout the country. Short-track stock car racing typically occurs on quarter- to half-mile ovals made of dirt, clay, or asphalt. Within any given event, there are typically “heat races” of approximately 10 laps and “consolation” and “feature” races that usually range from 20 to 50 laps, depending on track length. A stock car racer may race in multiple events of varying durations. The duration of races also depends on the number of caution periods because of factors such as collision, mechanical failure, and unsafe track conditions. Thus, action may be continuous or intermittent with intervals of racing and caution periods.

There are many classifications of racing characterized by types of cars including relatively unmodified production automobiles, modified by the addition of safety equipment, such as racing seats and roll cages, and the removal of all flammable interior materials. On the other end of the spectrum, late models and super late models are completely fabricated after market chassis with roll cages; highly modified motors; and a fiberglass, aluminum, or plastic replica body (Figure 1). An analysis of lap times and track lengths reveals that many classifications of stock cars exceed 100 miles per hour, and significant lateral acceleration forces are present in the turns. Thus, the physical demands of racing are intense, and the potential for injury is pronounced.

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Research identifying stock car racing injuries is limited and dated. One study of the injuries of stock car drivers who raced on a half-mile asphalt track is illustrative of some of the injuries experienced (5). This study demonstrated that there was 1 injury every 214 laps of racing (5). Over a 5-year period, there were 31 injuries of extremities, 22 contusions, 12 strains, 12 knee injuries, and 11 fractures (5). Although some of these injuries, such as lacerations, may not be preventable even when participating in good strength and conditioning programs, other injuries, such as strains, sprains, and back and neck injuries, may be reduced and perhaps prevented in some cases.

Other published reports identify a variety of concerns such as head acceleration during crashes and the associated head and neck injuries (7,18), back and cervical spine pain because of stiff race car suspensions, down force characteristic of race cars and seats with limited padding (4), and heat stroke. In fact, research assessing open-wheel race cars on road and oval tracks shows that driver conditioning may affect racing safety and a driver's competitive pace (10,11). Sound strength and conditioning practices have been shown to help prevent injuries for traditional athletes (14) and nonathletes (13). The application of strength and conditioning programs for stock car drivers may reduce or promote recovery from racing injuries and is part of the rationale for increasing service to this population of athletes.

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Although there is very little research that characterizes the physical demands and physiology of stock car racing (6), a number of studies have examined some of the physiology and physical demands of open-wheel formula car racing (2,10,11,15,20) and other types of racing such as “national class” (21) and sports cars (3). The results of these studies serve as a starting point for understanding the physical demands of stock car racing and the strength and conditioning practices that may best serve these types of athletes.

Physical fitness is believed to be important for race car driving performance (20). Racing includes managing multiaxial acceleration of the torso, neck, and head; steering and breaking; and reacting to acute visual stimuli such as another driver losing control (2,3,8,15,21). Race car drivers demonstrate better reaction time than controls (3) and superior hand, ankle, trunk, neck, grip, and leg extensor strength compared with controls (2). Thus, these physical attributes seem necessary for success when driving a race car.

Anaerobic capacity and endurance are thought to be important for driving a stock car (21). The cardiovascular and metabolic responses to racing have been studied with results demonstrating heart rates in the range of 142 and 152 beats per minute on oval tracks and road courses, respectively (11). In some cases, race car drivers have produced heart rates as high as 180 beats per minute (15). High heart rates are likely because of significant levels of acute physical exertion as evidence by elevated creatine kinase levels and increased liver metabolism (21), thermal stress and the subsequent fluid volume shifts because of temperatures as high as 150°C, and increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system because of emotional stress (15). Race car drivers demonstrate energy expenditure that are 8-10 times greater than resting levels, which is reported to be similar to running 5-6 miles per hour (10). However, these values were attained in a nonracing high-speed driving situation and are likely to be higher during competition (10). The metabolic and heart rate responses of race car drivers are similar to those of traditional sports including basketball, boxing, soccer, running, bicycling, and handball (10,11).

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There is only 1 nonrecent research report assessing racing injuries (5) with no studies examining the physical demands, health and strength and conditioning practices, and needs of these athletes. At this point, much of what is known is anecdotal or can be inferred with some caution, from research examining motor sports other than stock car racing.

Published reports indicate that when stock car racers collide with the wall or other cars, the drivers head may quickly translate forward, causing trauma at the base of the skull. Low-cost neck rolls are likely to be of no help in this situation, and relatively expensive head and neck support devices are recommended for all levels of racing (7). Cervical spine strengthening may add some additional stability in the attempt to reduce the number of acute cervical spine injuries and chronic cervical spine soreness that is common in racers (4). Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate lateral and anterior/posterior neck strengthening drills, respectively.

A comprehensive total-body resistance training program is likely to be useful for stock car drivers, just as it is for most other types of athletes. Additionally, racing-specific exercises should be prescribed. For example, the use of dumbbells during simulated steering drills will strengthen the wrist and forearm to better meet the demands of steering a stock car (Figure 4). Some exercises designed to increase arm and shoulder strength can be performed from a seated position to increase exercise specificity for racing (Figures 5 and 6). In addition to common multijoint lower-body strength training exercises, such as the squat, leg strengthening may include some open kinetic chain exercises because transitioning between the break and accelerator is an open kinetic chain event. Use of the seated leg press is somewhat specific to the stock car driving position and can be initiated with a visual stimulus, and the foot initially off of the leg press platform may replicate breaking reaction time while training lower-body strength. Exercises performed while seated on stable or unstable devices can increase core strength. These exercises can be perturbated with lateral (Figure 7) and anterior and posterior forces to help simulate the lateral acceleration during cornering and the deceleration and acceleration associated with turn entry and exit. Hand (Figure 8) and foot (Figure 9) reaction drills should also be part of the strength and conditioning program for the stock car racer. The Table provides a sample 6-week periodized resistance training mesocycle.

Conditioning should be specific to the duration and demands of stock car racing. Aerobic and anaerobic conditioning programs with carefully progressed duration and intensity should be specific to the duration of the race. In some cases, race track officials put a time limit on the race to progress the program if any race has numerous delays, such as frequent accidents. Thus, the maximum possible length of the event may be known, and conditioning can be planned accordingly. Additionally, typical time trial or lap times can be multiplied by the number of scheduled laps of an event (i.e., heat, consolation, or feature race) to estimate the minimum length of the event. In reality, the likely race duration will be longer because lap times during time trials are faster than racing lap times, and most races will include some caution periods where racing is temporarily stopped. Consequently, interval training may be best and should alternate between high-intensity work bouts that replicate the physical demands of racing and low-intensity periods of recovery that approximate the caution conditions.

Although using multiple modes of exercise for conditioning and cross training may be useful, conditioning in a seated position, such as using ergometers, may be more sport specific. Thus, consideration should be given to conditioning with rowing ergometers, seated steppers, and recumbent bike ergometers (Figures 10-12). This conditioning can be made more demanding and sport specific with the addition of an upper-body strength training component, which increases the intensity and approximates some of the demands of driving a stock car. For example, dumbbells can be added to conditioning drills to simulate steering (Figure 12). Additionally, seated conditioning on an ergometer can be combined with lateral flexion (Figure 13), wrist flexion and extension (Figure 14), radial and ulnar deviation, circumduction (Figure 15), and lateral raises to train the upper-body and core musculature and to increase the magnitude of the conditioning stimulus. Another racing-specific option is to have the racer isometrically hold the dumbbells, weight plates, or weight plates with handgrips in the position of a forward shoulder raise and perform lateral flexion to the right to replicate the lateral gravitational forces of cornering during the race, alternated with periods without the lateral flexion to replicate the front and back straight sections of the track during the race.

In the process of conditioning, racers can use guided imagery or watch racing video and perform the seated ergometer conditioning with high-intensity intervals that replicate the approximate duration of the acceleration down the straightaway and lower intensity intervals during deceleration while cornering. This process may include imagery and mental rehearsal of corner entry and exit strategies.

Finally, consideration should also be given to helping acclimatize racers by including conditioning in hot environments and substantial clothing that replicate the racing environment. Obviously, care should be taken to maintain racer hydration with a slow progression of the intensity, duration, and temperature during heat acclimation training.

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Sport science research on stock car racing is limited despite popularity of the sport. Based on the existing motor sports literature, it appears that racers share some physical attributes with athletes involved in sports such as basketball, boxing, soccer, running, bicycling, handball (2,10,11), wrestling, tennis, and judo (2). Racers demonstrate elevated heart rates and energy expenditure and possess superior reaction time and hand, grip, ankle, leg extensor, trunk, and neck strength compared with nonracers. Stock car racers may be able to reduce injuries and increase performance if they condition for their sport. Certified strength and conditioning specialists (CSCS) are well positioned to be of service to this relatively untapped market. This article serves as a starting point for understanding strength and conditioning because it applies to the needs of the stock car driver.

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Strength and conditioning professionals are encouraged to use the exercises presented in this article, along with a comprehensive, total-body resistance training program in the process of training stock car drivers. Conditioning should approximate the durations of races and match the work and recovery intervals present during stock car racing. Conditioning can be made more sport specific by using some of the exercises presented in this article. Stock car racing should be viewed as a sport, and these drivers represent an important group of athletes who will benefit from the services of the CSCS.

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The author acknowledges Dan Heying of Circle Track Specialties of Waukesha, WI, for technical advice.

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athletic injury; physical fitness; race car driver; race car

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