How IndyCar Drivers Train to Race a $900,000 Car at the Indy 500

  • IndyCar drivers are athletes that train physically, mentally, and strategically for each race.
  • It can cost up to $1 Million to race a car in the Indianapolis 500
  • Many IndyCar drivers spend extra time training their neck to withstand strong G-forces.

Following is a transcript of the video.

– [engines revving]

Narrator: This IndyCar driver is withstanding an intense acceleration. It feels like 50 pounds of weight on his head.

When you have 3 to 5 g’s pushing on you, so three to five times your body weight, you can’t actually breathe.

Narrator: That’s why some drivers train with this contraption before a race. It’s called the iron neck, and it helps IndyCar drivers work out a part of the body most athletes overlook.

Rossi: So, we all have the same car, we all have the same tire. So you’re only really competing against the people that have the same equipment as you. So, really, it’s the driver that makes the biggest difference. [engines revving]

Narrator: Since 1909, a small number of highly skilled drivers have raced these single-seat, open-cockpit vehicles, costing around $1 million today. And the premier race is the Indianapolis 500, where 33 drivers push their limit for 500 miles in under three hours.

So, in 2016, I won the Indianapolis 500.

Narrator: Rossi won a prize of $2.5 million.

Rossi: And I was a rookie, which was a surprise to everyone, including myself.

Narrator: But it took a lot of training, strategy, and racing to get there. It’s just a whole lot that goes into racing than just driving.

Narrator: Days before the race, drivers hit the gym for their final workouts. This isn’t just any gym, either. This is PitFit, which specializes in training for motorsports.

Rossi: We’re one of the few sports that has to deal with g-force.

Narrator: Drivers have to withstand an intense acceleration on their body that can feel like a 50-pound weight on their head. This means working out a very specific body part.

Rossi: You have to train your neck.

And that’s probably the weirdest thing about being an IndyCar driver, is you have to kind of have a weird-shaped neck. The biggest machine is called the iron neck. It is made for wrestlers, but IndyCar has adopted it. So, it has kind of a bungee cord that comes up, and it connects to a disk around your head, and you can kind of, somebody can be pulling the bungee cord, you could be pulling the bungee cord.

Narrator: Drivers also have to operate under extreme temperatures. The cockpit, on a summer day, when we have a summer race, can get to 135, 140 degrees. We lose up to 6 to 8 pounds in the race, just from dehydration and lack of water.

Rossi: And so we spend a lot of time in the sauna. You’ll do a two-minute sprint on a treadmill, you’ll get off, you’ll go straight into a sauna, and you’ll do a five-minute reaction drill on an iPad.

Narrator: And drivers train to endure all the intense heat, g-force, and other factors for 2 1/2 hours straight.

When a lot of that

lactic acid
builds up, weight that you can usually move with your eyes closed, you struggle to move even once.

Narrator: To prepare his body for this sustained work, Rossi focuses on exercises that contract muscles but don’t have a lot of movement.

For example, if you take a bench press, you’d put an amount of weight on that you can do 15 to 20 times, but what you actually do is you’ll move the weight up, and then halfway down, you’ll hold it for eight seconds. That is really one of the big things that we do, as IndyCar drivers, to make sure that you have the muscular endurance to compete for 2 1/2 hours. So, I was introduced to racing by my father. For my 10th birthday, he took me to a go-kart school in Las Vegas, and it was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Really, from that point forward, I had the passion and desire to become a professional race-car driver. The mental game is a huge part of racing. It’s a sport where you lose way more than you win. You have to get in the car with a very good understanding of what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and what your objectives are.

Narrator: Endurance isn’t just a physical test. It’s a mental one, too. This is where strategy comes into play.

Rossi: For us, the strategy, really, is to move forward pretty aggressively in the first stint, the first opening laps, just to give yourself that buffer. You don’t ever want to fall outside the top 10. That’s really hard to recover from. So you want to kind of be in the top five at 100 laps in, and then, really, in the final stint, you want to be in the top three. And just at that point, it becomes a chess match. And when I won the Indianapolis 500, my strategists came up with a strategy that was pretty crazy and pretty aggressive, that was basically having us skip the final pit stop. And so we had to conserve a crazy amount of fuel. We ran out of fuel in turn four, coming to the finish, and we were able to win. A lot of times, Indianapolis becomes a fuel race. If you’re out front leading, pushing, pushing through clean air, you get worse fuel mileage than if you’re following behind a car. Obviously, the less fuel you burn, the less horsepower you have, the slower you go. So there are trade-offs. So you’re always trying to manage the best balance between saving fuel and going as quick as possible.

Narrator: Once a driver decides on a strategy, the next step is making it second nature.

When you’re operating at 230 miles an hour, you can’t be thinking of things on a conscious level. You can’t say, “OK, I’m gonna turn in here. I’m going to break here. I’m gonna do this and this.” Everything has to come kind of from a subconscious level.

Narrator: On Carb Day, we found the drivers down on the track working with their teams. With 36 hours left before the race, this is their last chance to work out any final kinks.

We have a two-hour practice session just to double-check if we need any slight adjustments to the car, and, I guess, how to save fuel the most efficient way. So we can do some practice with that on the track before we get out there for the race.

What’s pretty cool about IndyCar is you can also make quite a few adjustments in the cockpits. You can change wing settings, you can change tire pressures. All of that has an effect on the balance of the car.

Narrator: We weren’t allowed to film under the bodywork of an IndyCar, but Andretti Autosport gave us a tour of one of their vehicles.

So, the steering wheel of an IndyCar sets you back the price of a nice family sedan, about $35,000. So, the neutral button is the button that the driver pushes to get the car into neutral out of first gear when he comes into the pit lane. PLC is pit lane speed control. There’s a speed limit in pit lane. H2O is what you might think, it’s water, and that’s, basically, the driver drink bottle. So, these two top paddles are shift up and shift down. That’s how we go up and down through the gears in the gearbox. There’s no gear lever or anything inside the car.

Narrator: Drivers only get a couple hours of practice before any race. But every drive, even a practice one, comes at a cost. To go practice in a race car is $30,000 to $50,000 every single time you do it.

Narrator: Carb Day, while expensive, is crucial to get the right conditions for race day.

How it was started was, the teams, after qualifying, back in the ’70s and ’80s, needed to tune in the carburetors for the conditions that were going to be on the weekend. Obviously, motor technology and engine technology has advanced since then and everything’s fuel-injected now, so it doesn’t really matter.

Narrator: This is also the last chance the driver gets to practice with their pit crew. [engine revving]

You know, races can be won or lost on pit lane. If you have a problem in a pit stop and you lose three to four seconds, that can be five or six positions on track. [engine revving]

Narrator: It can cost an average of $1 million to race a car at the Indy 500 and up to $10 million for an entire season to pay for fuel, tires, parts, and the team itself. And all of this team’s training, strategizing, and practicing leads up to one day, the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Rossi: It all disappears as soon as the green flag waves. You don’t really feel anything at that point. It’s just going out there and trying to beat everyone around you. Race day morning is, like, five hours, because you wake up, and immediately you feel the energy of this place come alive.

Obviously, I’m starting second in the race. My plan, I think initially, will probably be to sit and see what other guys are doing.

Narrator: In the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500, Colton Herta placed 16th, and Alexander Rossi placed 29th. They are ranked seventh and 12th overall in the NTT IndyCar Series.

It’s amazing to be an IndyCar driver. It’s everything that I would’ve hoped for. You get to drive really fast race cars all across the US, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t take it for granted and really enjoy my job. [engine revving]

You actually feel everything through your butt. All of us have little butts, so we can feel a little bit more. [laughs] If the car slaps the ground, what we call bottoming, or if the rear slides or the front slides, you all feel it through your butt first.

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