How Yoga Helps IndyCar Racers

The Target Chip Ganassi Racing team at work in the pits.
The Target Chip Ganassi Racing team at work in the pits.

Driving long distances can be hard on both mind and body. Other drivers are unpredictable and all that sitting is murder on the back. That’s especially true when you’re going 230 mph and trying to win the Indianapolis 500. IndyCar drivers use their whole bodies when they race; they don’t have power steering, they endure greater g-forces than astronauts, and they average a heart rate of 160 bpm while racing. To combat the stresses, strains, and pains that come with competing in the IZOD IndyCar circuit, some drivers in the sport have turned to yoga.

Mike Conway, a driver for Dale Coyne Racing, began his yoga routine with a weekly bikram class, practicing over a puddle of sweat in a 105 degree room. To keep his body limber and to be ready to deal with the heat in the car (Indy Cars don’t have air conditioners), Conway heads into the studio a few days before racing to give himself time to recover. “It’s just feeling sort of loose and supple getting into the car, not just my back but my legs as well,” says Conway. “And the hot yoga, it helps you maintain your body temperature.” With races in places like Texas and Florida, the heat can be a source of fatigue and distraction.

Panther Racing’s Oriol Servia credits yoga with improving his ability to overcome distractions. Servia has been practicing yoga for eight years and does it twice a week when he’s not racing. He also does a few sun salutations the morning of a race to start the day. “Most of the race is how to control your own thoughts and to keep thinking of the things that are going to make you fast,” Servia says. And if you can’t focus? “It’s not going to go well.”

Mental clarity is equally important for the pit crews, which must operate smoothly, in breakneck spurts, to get their driver back on the track as quickly as possible. Barry Wanser manages the crew for the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, the reigning Indy 500 champs, and, as of two years ago, yoga converts. Wanser says that mandatory Friday-morning yoga sessions help some of the older crew members stay limber and have absolutely improved their performance, but he admits that it initially led to some busted chops.

“Some of the moves have some funny names,” says Wanser. “We spend more time together as a large group of men than we do with our families, so there are lots of things that we make fun of each other about.” Regardless of any easy jokes, Servia says that misconceptions about yoga aren’t what keep him from recommending it to his competitors. “I definitely do not encourage other drivers to try it,” he laughs. “I want to have an advantage.”

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