When NASCAR drivers practice, they don’t just make perfect, they make permanent. This is why you’ll see a distinct choreography between teammates and drivers from different organizations. The amount of practice it takes to prepare for a single NASCAR event may be more than you think.
NASCAR drivers will enter their car at a raceway and practice varying techniques in preparation for race day. Off the track, drivers stick to stringent training regimens and race prep. NASCAR drivers must practice throughout the season and offseason to ensure they always operate at their maximum.
In the article below, we’ll talk about how NASCAR drivers practice on a track and walk you through a NASCAR practice session. We’ll also explore how NASCAR drivers train when they are not in their 3,000-plus pound stock car, and how their training sessions correlate with their driving performance.
How Do NASCAR Drivers Practice?
NASCAR drivers practice during dedicated practice sessions before and after qualifying. This is when the drivers will assess track conditions, tweak their car setups, and generally prepare for race day. Outside of these sessions, NASCAR drivers may practice using racing simulators.
NASCAR drivers understand the importance of getting in as many practice reps as they can on the track for an upcoming weekend event. For this reason, you will often find them on the track, searching for ways for their cars and their bodies to reach peak performance.
This involves trial and error. Even drivers who have mastered a respective track can be in for something unexpected if stronger crosswinds show up in the forecast. Temperatures can manipulate the track surface as well, and this is something else drivers must be ready to deal with.
Drivers typically run practice sessions before and after qualifying. They are looking to maximize speed in early practice sessions, which will help ensure they achieve a respectable starting position. The second practice session involves fine-turning the car. If something is remotely off, drivers will use this session to diagnose and relay issues to their team.
How Do Track Conditions Change?
Weather plays a huge role in track conditions. Drivers must react to wind speed and direction. The track surface can grow slippery under certain conditions, while other conditions will improve tire grip. These things will affect the way a driver handles a racecar on race day.
Drivers will spend multiple days a week at the track, ideally with different conditions to better prepare for the race. However, there are times where the track surface may look ideal during initial practice sessions but become less-than-ideal depending on the heat index, wind speed, and cloud cover.
To get a feel for what the track conditions will look like come race day, drivers will practice one last time roughly twenty-four hours before the event. If you ever heard of Happy Hour, it refers to the final practice of the week, which gives NASCAR teams an opportunity to fine tune their ride.
Clouds And Cold
Cloud cover can also affect track conditions. Since overcast and cloudy skies provide for better tire grip, drivers are instead more concerned with clear skies and hot days. This makes for a more slippery track surface, as the oils in the track surface seep out, that will force drivers and their teams to make adjustments.
However, if the temperature drops to cooler than ideal levels, it hardens the tires, which affects grip in a negative way. Tires need to be able to flex enough to provide optimal contact with the track surface and therefore optimal grip.
Whether it’s hot or cold, drivers will practice in less-than-ideal conditions in case they carry over to race day, so they are prepared for anything. To best combat potential issues, drivers will seek practice laps after their team talks with local meteorologists regarding potential wind conditions.
Is Physical Fitness An Integral Part Of NASCAR Practice?
Physical fitness is an integral part of NASCAR practice. For decades, physical fitness took a backseat until Mark Martin popularized its importance in the late 1980s. When Martin’s training let him extend his racing career, other drivers adopted their own fitness programs.
From spending time in their cars to prepare for the weekend’s race to physical conditioning and strict nutritional programs, races are won and lost by how a driver prepares both on and off the track. NASCAR drivers who understand this concept will succeed in the sport.
Martin credited his physical fitness for not only allowing him to race at an advanced age, but to race successfully, to the point where he contended for the 2009 Championship. He finished his career second in all-time wins by a driver over 50, with only Harry Gant having won more races.
In the 21st century, NASCAR drivers regularly practice strict fitness regimens off the track more often than they practice inside their stock car on the track. Whether in-season or during the offseason, drivers are always doing something to augment their fitness.
NASCAR practice has become a year-round ritual for drivers. Drivers have come to realize that remaining physically fit throughout the season helps keep their endurance levels and their mental sharpness afloat during an intense race.
NASCAR Drivers And Nutrition
Since NASCAR drivers exercise and take part in on-track practice sessions throughout the calendar year, they must stick to strict nutritional habits. In the days leading up to an event, drivers hydrate and eat starchy foods to keep them alert and energized, foods comprised of simple ingredients their digestive systems can handle. Not only are they carb-rich, they’re also high in protein.
Drivers maintain these eating habits on race day, but to a lesser degree to avoid feeling full when they enter their car. It’s also common to see them eating simple carbs like fruits, granola, and energy bars, although some will opt for protein bars.
Although NASCAR practices run substantially shorter times than the full race, drivers must stay energized and hydrated throughout each session. As they do during a race, it’s common to see drivers keep water and quick snacks in their car. Maintaining their nutritional regimen during practice sessions keeps them on track to operate at peak performance on race day.
How Do NASCAR Drivers Train?
NASCAR drivers train constantly. Since NASCAR is a physically demanding sport, drivers undergo rigorous conditioning programs to keep their strength, motor skills, and endurance operating at peak performance. To do anything less is almost throwing away a chance of winning races.
Like Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson also credited his own fitness regimen with extending his career. Johnson started training with weights in 2007 and that training eventually led him to competing in not just NASCAR races, but marathons and triathlons. While each NASCAR driver trains differently because of individual needs, most drivers engage in strength, functional, and cardio training.
A Typical NASCAR Training Regimen
1. Cardio Training
Since NASCAR is an endurance sport, it’s common to see drivers engaging in varying types of cardiovascular workouts. Many incorporate jogging, running, swimming, hill sprints, and biking. Just as drivers must race in varying conditions, they also train at different intensities.
Drivers may train for distance and choose to jog or bike for multiple hours. Or they may take part in a high-intensity, low-volume workout that lasts no longer than 30 minutes. This is when you may see them participating in hill sprints.
Note that not all NASCAR drivers will take part in the above cardio exercises. Some may find stair climbing, rowing, or Jacobs Ladders more effective. Regardless of the cardio exercise, all NASCAR drivers have one common goal: To maximize their endurance so it doesn’t become an issue on race day.
2. Weight Training
To the untrained eye, weight training and functional training are interchangeable. This is not true, and NASCAR drivers understand this. Weight training is ideal for building strength, while functional training deals with building efficient movement patterns that mimic those most used in real life.
Some drivers will split their training to focus on various muscle groups, while others opt for two to three total body workouts per week. While strength training is not a primary focus for NASCAR drivers, they realize it’s necessary to create an ideal balance in a training regimen. And at the end of the day, all endurance athletes incorporate strength training to varying degrees.
3. Functional Training
Drivers are more concerned about functional training because their physical mechanics behind the wheel are direct results of their functional training programs. To develop ideal functional training workouts, drivers and fitness professionals must determine which movement patterns drivers most often use during a race. The core of a driver’s training program will be based on those movements.
As with weight training, drivers will also seek balance in a functional training program. Such balance calls for at least a few movements drivers do not typically use during a race. This prevents overcompensation for muscle groups to deter injury. Every muscle group pulls on one another, so if drivers spend too much time training their primary movers, overcompensation will occur.
This is why drivers will also train in movement patterns that are the complete opposite of those they use during a race. By giving equal attention to agonists (muscles used), and antagonists (muscles pulling against primary movers), they can avoid overcompensation injury.
Drivers often use their shoulder and arm muscles to operate the steering wheel for 300 to 500 miles. But they also sit for long periods, which can weaken their core and lower back muscles, hips, and hamstrings. To ultimately achieve equal compensation among all muscle groups, it’s common to see a driver’s functional training regimen movements that involve the entire body.
How Do NASCAR Drivers Prepare For A Race?
NASCAR drivers and their teams take race preparation very seriously. Race prep is a weekly ritual that often begins the minute the previous event ends. Therefore, NASCAR drivers and their teams must perform at maximum capacity week in and week out without rest for nine straight months.
But there is a reason everyone on a NASCAR team makes big bucks. Working in NASCAR is − whether they are a driver, a crew chief, or a builder − one of the most mentally-draining jobs in America. Drivers shine in front of national audiences for only three to five hours a week, yet members of each team dedicate at least 60 hours a week into preparing for the next NASCAR event.
NASCAR Race Prep: Week Of The Race
1. The Week Begins
A NASCAR driver’s preparation for the next race on the schedule begins the minute the current race ends. They often sit on the plane ride home and go over with their pit crew and builders what went right and what went wrong with the car. Drivers take lots of notes and hand them to their car’s builders, who will take things into their hands the following morning at the shop.
2. Car Prep
Before they venture to the track, NASCAR drivers are in constant contact with their team’s engineers, specialists, and builders to help prepare the car for the next event. Early in the week, drivers and their teams will fine-tune the car to fit the demands of the upcoming track.
Teams with larger budgets will prepare a primary car and a backup car in the event the driver has issues with the primary car or crashes it in practice or qualifying. The builder’s week begins at the shop between 6 and 6:30 am the day after Sunday’s (or Saturday’s) race.
Drivers and their teams often have fewer than 30 hours between the previous event and the following event to make necessary preparations and repairs to the cars before they load them back into the hauler. This becomes especially taxing when teams make cross country trips, such as from Daytona to Fontana.
3. Practice And Qualifying
NASCAR teams often have three days to haul the car to the track so their driver can be present for the first practice session. When everyone arrives at the track, the team unloads the car and prepares it for the initial practice run. The driver will relay feedback with the team, and the road crew will further fine the ride.
Once the driver feels the car is operating at peak performance, they will take their ride into its qualifying run and hope for the greatest possible outcome. After qualifying, the driver will often take the car through another practice to ensure the team does not need to make further adjustments to the ride. Following this practice, the driver prepares for race day.
4. Beyond Practice And Qualifying
Many small, yet important, tasks need to be taken care of as drivers prepare for a race. Earlier, we emphasized the importance of nutrition and hydration. Throughout the practice runs, drivers are constantly paying attention to their caloric intake and hydration levels.
However, they are also representing their sponsors throughout the week and into the weekend. Drivers understand that without adequate sponsorship, their teams and organizations could not invest in top-notch equipment. Drivers are as much salespeople for their products as they are drivers.
Drivers will make appearances throughout the week and take part in interviews. They are always wearing their sponsors’ logos and colors. And on race day, drivers can make up to a half-dozen appearances on behalf of their sponsor. And those appearances are just one sliver of what a driver’s race day itinerary looks like.
NASCAR Race Prep: Race Day
1. Mental Preparation
Drivers must remain in top physical condition, but mental conditioning has come a long way in the 21st century. On race day, drivers mentally prepare in ways that pertain to their individual needs. No athlete is the same as another, and each driver has their own routine.
Some keep to themselves and meditate or go through a specific pre-race ritual. Other drivers mentally prepare by hanging out with members of their pit crew or their families to keep their minds off the upcoming task until driver introductions begin.
With all the stress drivers face when race day arrives, they need an escape as much as the everyday person with a 9-5 job needs one. Their day often begins before sunrise, so finding ways to mentally relax throughout the day is the best medicine.
2. Media Appearances
While drivers make sponsorship appearances, they also appear before the media. Drivers often hold events at a booth where they conduct interviews, meet with fans, and pose for photoshoots. NASCAR is a popular sport and drivers have obligations to the media and their fans.
Drivers spend time interacting with fans and the media until roughly two hours prior to a race before NASCAR summons them to the infield or another designated area to take part in arguably the most important event of their morning: The driver meeting.
3. Driver Meeting
On the surface, NASCAR seems like a repetitive thing, but there can be many changes from week to week. NASCAR mandates driver meetings to update drivers on any policy changes at the track. Drivers often enter these meetings with a general idea of these policy changes, but things can occur at the last minute.
4. Driver Introductions And Pre-Race Ceremonies
Between 30 and 60 minutes before a race begins, drivers become the stars of the show. They, and sometimes their families, will prepare for an introduction before thousands of fans. At this time, they will also take part in pre-race ceremonies that often include the National Anthem, flyovers, and the most famous words in NASCAR – ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.’
How Long Are NASCAR Practice Sessions?
NASCAR practice sessions are usually 15-20 minutes in length. However, some races, like the Daytona 500 and races at Talladega Superspeedway, have a 50-minute practice session. The Bristol Dirt race is unique in that it features two 50-minute practice sessions.
Like other professional athletes, NASCAR drivers must practice for hours at a time to develop sound habits at a racetrack. Most practices occur in the days leading to the weekend event. However, drivers may also run testing sessions in the offseason. When drivers practice for a weekend race, they will often focus on strategies they can implement on race day and provide feedback to their team.
For example, they can work on pushing and drafting with teammates or others who drive for different organizations, but who have the same manufacturer. You will not see drivers using aggressive maneuvers during practice sessions. Instead, expect drivers to find ways to maximize speed. This often calls for them to gain a feel for the respective track’s surface and potential weather conditions.
During practice, drivers may also pull into the pits to further optimize pit strategy for the upcoming race. Like any team sport, drivers and their pit crews will also use situational methods and provide proper adjustments to determine what makes their car run best.
On tracks that are new to the NASCAR circuit, it’s common to see drivers spend time in the offseason running test sessions to get a feel for a new track. This is especially true if they have not driven on that track’s surface before.
Crashing And Backup Cars
Drivers can crash in practice and qualifying. For some NASCAR teams, this is not a huge deal since they can afford to haul backup cars to the track in the event of a wreck. However, if a driver crashes during practice using a backup car, they must relinquish their starting spot.
Even if the driver was lucky enough to qualify on the pole, they will be forced to the back of the pack and start from the rear after a crash. Often, if a driver qualifies on the pole or attains a respectable qualifying position but is forced to start from the rear, they will work their way through the field rather easily, even in a backup car.
Some teams don’t have the luxury of owning a backup car for an event. In this case, they must limit their practice time to preserve their car for the race and protect from potential incidents. If they crash during practice or qualifying and can’t fix it, they’ll be out of the race.
NASCAR drivers practice their craft all year round. They prepare for the next race as soon as the previous one is finished. They constantly train their bodies and minds and watch what they eat to stay in peak physical condition for the 36 long races throughout a NASCAR season.