So this is the pit. Inside the vast 480-acre infield at the Daytona International Speedway, I'm standing with Carl Edwards' pit crew. Their man has just squeezed into his Ford Fusion, and the Speedway has awakened with a roar as the Daytona 500 ushers in the start of the 2007 NASCAR season.
Edwards begins the race a distant 14th, but in many ways he's leading the pack. How? He represents a new breed of NASCAR star, blazing the final frontier for a competitive advantage among his racing peers-an advantage that, for Edwards, begins in the gym. "Driving is 90% mental," he says, "and the last 10% is where the physical side helps you. Just like someone who sits in an office all day, you're going to make better decisions if you're well-rested and in good physical shape. I think NASCAR guys have realized in the last few years that if there's a way to get ahead, the gym is the best place to start."
In fact, this past summer, Edwards, already the most ripped racer in the world, hired Carmichael Training Systems to take him to the next level. Perhaps it was a reaction to his 2006 sophomore slump, which came on the heels of his breakout rookie campaign the previous year. "It's a partnership between me and Carmichael. My trainer Dean [Golich] and I hit it off, and I figured if I can work with fun people and make gains competitively, it's the perfect situation."
Dean Golich saw an opportunity for Edwards to improve. "He was in good shape, he was strong, but he wasn't necessarily aerobically fit," says Golich. "The reason he's fit is he takes it seriously; it's an important part of his life. He likes to lift weights, and his program was geared toward that. But strength is not the limiting factor in the race car. Dealing with a busy racing season and hectic daily schedules-I've never seen a schedule busier than a race-car driver's-that is the limiting factor. So we needed to switch a little bit."
The plan was simple: Hit the road. Edwards got on the road bike and the mountain bike, and he started climbing stairs at stadiums until he was drenched in sweat. "It's helped me a lot with the racing, but it's helped me more with my day-to-day workouts," he says. "It helps me to focus a bit more and increase my endurance."
The tale of the tape, in race-car driving, occurs with the final 10 laps. That's the stretch for which Golich customized Edwards' program. "When it's Sunday afternoon after he's raced two races already, and he needs to concentrate and it's 140 degrees in the car, it's no problem for him," says Golich. "There's a saying that fatigue makes cowards of us all, but at the end of the race, when it really matters and he needs to turn it up, I think he can drive better." Edwards concurs. "I simply don't feel like I ever get tired," he says. "I never feel bad. I can be driving in Mexico City, at 7,300 feet, and I never feel tired. That can be huge when it's a hot, humid day."
Thankfully, today it's a cool 60 degrees-so while Edwards and his NASCAR cohorts will attempt to satisfy their crazy quest for speed, at least they'll be comfortable doing it. "The hardest part about driving a race car is that it's extremely hot," says Edwards. "In really long races, it can easily wear you out. There's a fresh-air vent that blows in the helmet, and that helps a lot, but mostly you just need to get used to being hot. It's like getting in your car on a really hot day with a helmet and snowsuit and then wiggling the steering wheel back and forth as hard as you can for three hours. It'll be hot and you'll be tired." It's so hot, in fact, that drivers have been known to lose up to 10 pounds during a race.
Back in the race car, it's a given that Edwards is focusing his attention on what lies ahead of him on the track. Yet as he approaches his first turn, he'll glance in his rearview mirror. He'll look to see how the cars are running behind him, lining up, attempting to make a run for his position. But Edwards' rearview reveals more than just a blur of cars. It's also a mirror into his past. Lap after lap, as the race wears on, it's impossible for him not to look there and see the reasons that first motivated him to get behind the wheel and into the gym.
"I was 18 when I realized racing was going to be tough and that I was gonna run out of money way quicker than I was gonna run out of the desire to do it," says Edwards. "I saw a story on Mark Martin on TV, and it talked about how hard he worked physically, and I thought that was something I could do for free."
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