Racecar driver Andy Lally—who sets off this weekend in an attempt to win his sixth Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, a day-night car chase through a 3.56-mile, 12-turn outcropping of one of this nation’s grand ol’ tracks—knows that his success is built not only on what he does in the car, but also on what he does outside of it. For the 40-year-old Lally, whose taut 5’10”, 168-pound frame is unlike a classical racecar driver’s physique, fit means fast.
“If you go back to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, [drivers were] definitely not fit,” he says. But the more cars grew in technological complexity, the harder they became to drive. “Your neck muscles, your core, your shoulders, your arms had to be that much stronger.”
A health club, a gym—these would be ideal places to address those areas. But since Lally hates any form of training that’s stationary or regimented, he sticks to playing sports. Outdoor sports. He approaches them no less seriously than he does auto racing. He’ll compete in street luge races. (Actually, he was twice recognized as a world champion.) He'll compete in the odd Brazilian jujitsu bout and practice mixed martial arts as a way of rounding out his training. (Warning: He's a purple belt-level threat.) Compulsively, he’ll enter more pedestrian endurance challenges—like Ironman. He’ll take on a few extra auto-racing dates, in NASCAR, where his most recent hot laps came in the Xfinity series. He skateboards. He long boards. He swims. Simply put: the man is in perpetual motion. Ironically, his only rest days come when he’s traveling from race to race.
There’s no limit to the things Lally will do to keep his heart rate up. The only times problems arise are when he gives his team palpitations—which, to hear him tell it, is often enough. “I’ve raced with a couple broken fingers from competing a little too hard in MMA. Ankles. Wrists. Stuff I’ve definitely had to hide,” he says. “I raced the  Brickyard 400 in the Sprint Cup series with a broken middle finger, which definitely affected my shifting on restarts and getting in and out of pit lane. I’ve eaten sh-- on a monster downhill mountain bike ride. I’ve eaten sh-- at the skate park and shown up [to the racetrack] with scrapes and whatnot.
“When you keep [training] enjoyable, there’s usually a tradeoff. And for me that tradeoff ends up being risk of bodily injury. My contract reflects that. If I make a stupid mistake or get myself into a bad situation, [my teams] have an option that relieves me of my duties.”
Even Lally’s decision to hew to a vegan diet feels impractical. So many athletes of his caliber—from former All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez to the UFC’s Ronda Rousey—have tried and failed to go meat-free. And then, again, there’s that nagging stereotype of the classic racing driver, inhaling hunks of rare steak before setting off into orbit. But Lally hardly lacks for stamina.
“On the cardio side it’s been awesome,” he says while noting how easy it is to triangulate vegan eating options with his smartphone when he’s on the road. “There’s not a lot of guys who are gonna be, at the end of the two hours, battling it out to the checker any stronger than I am.”
This weekend’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the crown jewel of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, marks the beginning of the 2017 racing season. It airs live on FOX’s family of networks, beginning on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET. For diehard racing fans, it’ll be must-see TV.
“The 24-hours of Daytona attracts the top drivers from around the world,” says Lally, a member of that group. “We’ll see guys from F1 to IndyCars to NASCAR that will show up because they all want the watch. You get a Rolex watch if you win. It’s one of the most sought-after racing trophies on the planet.”
True, this particular journey demands more than twice as much time at the wheel than is considered healthy. But 40-year-old Lally will have help from three co-drivers: Mark Wilkins, a veteran sports car racer; Katherine Legge, a pioneering open-wheel racer; and IndyCar scion Graham Rahal. And they’ll have a fast car, a 2017 Acura NSX bearing the No. 93, prepped and fettled by an outfit called Michael Shank Racing. Per custom, the team will break up the race into two-hour shifts, with the four drivers rotating turns, in hopes that the race goes by faster. Or, at least, faster for them than their fellow competitors in the GT Daytona class—a showcase for supercar marques like Porsche, Aston Martin and Lamborghini.
Lally in particular has a knack for making good time, collecting 30 victories in his 15-year career. Five of those he earned in the Rolex 24, the most recent coming just last year. Each victory brings a treasured keepsake, a Rolex watch. But Lally only has one to show for his five Rolex 24 wins and three Grand-Am class series crowns. The rest he gifted to the impact people in his life. Among them: Peder Madsen, the middle-school soccer coach back on Lally’s native Long Island who chaperoned him from the pitch to the go-kart track; and Mike Johnson, the team owner with whom he won his first 24, back in 2001. His dad, stepdad, mom and sister have hard-won Rolexes, too.
Lally enters the weekend well positioned himself to earn, and give away, yet another timepiece; on Thursday, he lapped the No. 93 Acura into seventh position on the starting grid during a 15-minute qualifying session.
The secret to his raceday tenacity? Pacing himself.
“When we go to this 24-hour race,” he says, “I’m gonna do two hours of cardio, and then I’m gonna get out of the car for probably four hours, and then get in and do two hours again. You’ve got to go into the race almost a little bit—not heavy, but with some stored energy. You’ve got to then get that back as you go in between stints. As soon as I get out of the car I rehydrate as much as possible and then I eat right away so I have the most time to digest in between stints. So it’s a big thing.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. The longer Lally drives, the less chance there is of slowing him down.