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September 22. 2012 12:43AM

Fitness is a big driver for today's racers


NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson runs the 3.1-mile leg of a sprint triathlon in Charleston, S.C., on July 7, the morning after competing in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. (BRIAN FANCHER/BRIANFANCHERPHOTOGRAPHY.COM)

LOUDON -- Through the years, NASCAR racing and healthy living haven't been closely aligned in American minds. For more than three decades the stock-car racing league's top series was named for a cigarette brand, and its car sponsors have included companies peddling beer, liquor and fast food.

But the current crop of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers might be changing a long-held perception with their commitment to physical fitness. Although the public might view them as less-than-world-class athletes who simply sit, steer and punch the accelerator, many of the drivers who arrived in New Hampshire this week for Sunday's Sylvania 300 were more likely to be found at local gyms than saloons during their pre-race down time.

Inside his hauler after a practice run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Carl Edwards slipped out of his racing fire suit, revealing a well-sculpted physique. The winner of 19 races during his eight-year Sprint Cup career, Edwards was a fledgling 20-year-old driver living with his mother in Missouri when he saw an article about NASCAR driver Mark Martin's fitness regimen and committed himself to emulate Martin.

“I realized that I was pretty much out of money, and that was an inexpensive way to go try to make my race car faster, just try to be in better shape,” said Edwards, now 33.

Edwards works with a personal trainer and frequents fitness clubs while traveling the NASCAR circuit, he said. While in New Hampshire, he's been known to run or bike around the 1.058-mile NHMS oval in the early morning hours, before the racing action begins.

Edwards believes physical conditioning offers a competitive edge in a sport where hundredths and thousandths of a second make a difference.

“There are a lot of days where (fitness) doesn't matter in a race car, but one out of 10 it does,” he said. “If you're not physically as tired, you're able to focus better and make better decisions.”

Along with Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne are known as NASCAR's resident fitness buffs. In July, the Hendrick Motorsports teammates competed in a sprint triathlon in Charleston, S.C., the day after racing their stock cars in the Coke Zero 400 at Florida's Daytona International Speedway. The event included a 600-yard swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.

Kahne, who finished fourth in his age group and 27 seconds ahead of Johnson in the triathlon, works out at YMCAs and in the gyms at some speedways, deriving benefits that carry over to the track.

“I like being prepared and feeling like when the race is over I could go another three, four or five hundred miles,” he said.

Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion, and Kahne, who won the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at NHMS in July, both qualified for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., their Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Earnhardt, who ranks seventh among the 12 Chase qualifiers entering the Sylvania 300 — the second of 10 Chase races — started working out this year after a string of disappointing campaigns.

A new way of thinking

According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, Earnhardt has been running and lifting weights, thanks to the influence of girlfriend Amy Reimann, whom the article describes as a “workout zealot.” The son of late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt has dropped 10 pounds in the last year, and his improved fitness has given him a boost late in races this season, according to the article.

Asked on Friday about his new workout habit, Earnhardt cited improved physical endurance and mental stamina as important factors in his 2012 resurgence.

“When you get tired physically, you can get lazy mentally,” Earnhardt said. “So I think that just being in a little bit better shape … has helped me quite a bit.”

The focus on fitness among drivers is certainly greater than it was in decades past, said Rusty Wallace, a NASCAR legend who's now an ESPN broadcast analyst for Sprint Cup races.

“In my prime, there weren't many people working out. Mark Martin was the only one,” said Wallace, who won 55 races on NASCAR's top series during the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s. “Today it's the norm.”

Like most of his contemporaries, Wallace was hardly a gym rat. “If I'd have worked out, maybe I'd have run better,” he said.

Looking back, Wallace wonders whether a fitness regimen might have prolonged his career. And looking ahead, Edwards sees conditioning contributing to his longevity.

“I feel like it will benefit me if I were to have a big injury or get real sick or something,” he said. “I feel like I'd have a better baseline to start from, just being in shape.”

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Mike Cullity may be reached at mcullity@unionleader.com.


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