DO YOU really need to be in great shape to drive a car? Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, whose career--and life--depends upon his ability to round a turn at 180 mph in heavy traffic with two cars closing on his spoiler, needs to have his reflexes razor sharp. "There are so many variables in a race," says Castroneves, nicknamed Spider-Man for his practice of scaling the chain-link catch fence to celebrate wins. "So many things happen so quickly, your concentration needs to be up." And the mind-body connection must be instantaneous.
That's especially true now that the IndyCar Series, which opens at the Homestead-Miami Speedway this Sunday, will include road courses for the first time. (The first of three road races--with sharp right turns and far more braking and changes in acceleration than you find on ovals--will be on April 3 in St. Petersburg.) The 29-year-old Castroneves doesn't work out with weights at the fitness center he goes to in Miami because bulking up could cramp his style behind the wheel, but his personal trainer of three years, Carlos Bailly, has devised a six-times-a-week regimen that tunes Castroneves's 5'8", 147-pound frame while preparing him to react quickly and correctly under intense pressure. "A slight hesitation, a little delay because the muscle didn't respond to the mind, and that's it. The race is over," says Castroneves, who may shift gears as many as 40 times a lap. "In a long race, if I'm worried about fatigue, my concentration is the first thing to go."
1. RUNNING MAN Hit the beach. Six miles on the boardwalk (Castroneves maintains about a 6:45-minute-per-mile pace) or three miles on sand (8:30 pace). Often fatigued by a schedule that takes him to 17 cities in 33 weeks during the season, Castroneves relies on his morning run with the 36-year-old Bailly to reboot for the high-intensity drills that follow. "You can't beat a run on the beach at sunrise," says Castroneves, who often races Bailly. "Sometimes I'm inspired, and I want to kick his butt."
2. WATER BOY (opposite page) Swim sprints--all freestyle. After a leisurely 500-meter warmup, 20 sprints of 25 meters (he does each sprint in about 20 seconds) with 30 seconds' rest between each. A driver's heart rate can reach 200 beats per minute during a road-course race, 41/2 times faster than his normal rate. Training in brief, quick bursts helps Castroneves's heart find that high gear and transition back down smoothly. "I used to hate swimming," says Castroneves, recalling his youth in S√£o Paulo. "When my mom dropped me off at the pool, I'd sneak out the back. Obviously I'm not Michael Phelps now, but I've come to realize that swimming is the best exercise because it is low impact and uses the whole body."
3. GLOVE GUY Spar five two- to three-minute rounds, separated by a minute's rest. Bailly assigns a number to each of the six major punches--"one" might be a left jab, "four" a right hook, and so on. Bailly calls out numbers at random in pairs or threes, jumbling the order to produce different punch combinations. (Castroneves is always the puncher.) The idea is to train Castroneves to quickly process and react to oral information (as he must when getting mid-race instructions over his radio). This also builds hand speed for quick shifts and turns. "The way you use your arms and shoulders in boxing is very similar to how we use them [in racing]," Castroneves says. "The way boxers are ready to attack is the same way we must be ready to attack the steering wheel."
4. SWINGER In the tornado exercise an eight-pound medicine ball is attached to four feet of rope. Standing against a wall, Castroneves wraps the rope around one hand at the wrist, leaving about 11/2 feet of rope between the ball and the top of the fist. With his stomach taut and legs shoulder-width apart, he whips the ball from side to side against the wall for 18 to 20 seconds. "When [Bailly] first showed this to me, I had no idea what he was talking about. But it gives you great ab support. You have to make sure you swing the ball fast." This exercise also strengthens the arms and shoulders.
5. SENSES AND SENSIBILITY Lying on a Swiss ball, Castroneves faces a chart (inset) showing five columns of 10 balls (basketballs, footballs, baseballs, tennis balls), each with a number from 1 to 50. Bailly picks a starting point, then Castroneves calls out the rest of the column by number and ball type while doing sit-ups ("25 golf ball, 37 football"). Bailly tries to distract Castroneves during the drill, blaring music, yelling, bouncing a ball and sometimes having a third person yell as well. Bailly often adds another chart with numbers and balls in a different order and directs Castroneves from chart to chart until both are covered completely. The exercise takes about five minutes per chart. "If you miss a number, you're going to keep doing sit-ups," says Castroneves. "This is a good way to improve your concentration."
A DRIVER'S FUEL
CASTRONEVES HAS concocted a homemade brew that has become an indispensable part of his prerace routine. He calls it the Tiger and downs one a couple of hours before the green flag drops. He says it fills his tank without weighing him down. "When I have steak or pasta, it gives my stomach a weird sensation--and I feel like I want to take a nap," he says. "I can't go without eating. I have to make sure I have something before I go out and race."
The Tiger: one cup milk; one banana; one cup Frosted Flakes; one cup ice (optional)
Combine milk, cereal, ice and banana in blender and combine for about 30 seconds or until desired smoothness. For a thicker mix, add more banana.
Says Castroneves: "The banana is good for retaining water, and the sugar brings me up. It's going to look like oatmeal when it's done, but it tastes much better."