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Is IndyCar A Sport? Are IndyCar Drivers Athletes?

While it involves a lot of sitting, there’s a lot more to IndyCar racing than reclining behind the wheel, and it’s quite a physical experience. As with many motor racing disciplines, fans and non-fans alike debate whether or not IndyCar is a sport.

IndyCar is a sport as it partially satisfies the definition of “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against others for entertainment.” IndyCar drivers are athletes, as they need to withstand tough conditions and several G’s of force.

Over the decades, whether to define IndyCar as a sport has been heavily debated. IndyCar enthusiasts are the first to shout “definitely!” while less keen spectators are dubious. Below, we go through whether or not IndyCar can be considered a sport in more detail.

Is IndyCar A Sport?

Dictionary.com defines a sport as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.” According to this definition, there are many reasons IndyCar should be considered a sport.

IndyCar Drivers Exert Themselves Physically

IndyCar drivers definitely need physical stamina to complete a race. A driver experiences profound metabolic strain during a race. Fluid loss (up to 5% body mass), elevated heartrate (for the duration of the race) and the thermal stress of wearing a fire-retardant suit, form part of the physical exertion a driver experiences, along with withstanding several G’s of force in the corners.

IndyCar Drivers Are Skilled

It takes a unique skill set to successfully race in IndyCar. Ultra-fast reflexes, a problem-solving mindset, mechanical knowledge, and confidence are just a few of the skills IndyCar drivers need. Many IndyCar drivers have been building this mental skill set since childhood, a lot like other sportspeople.

It Is A Competition

IndyCar racing is nothing if not competitive. With drivers pushing their bodies, minds, and cars to the limit lap after lap in the hopes of making the podium or simply scoring as many points as possible, it is most definitely a competition!

It Is Entertaining

There have been occasions where more than 400,000 people have attended an IndyCar race. With a growing global fan base, IndyCar has become internationally recognized and supported. A variety of tracks (not all are ovals), a mix of old skill and new talent, and the excitement of the racing itself, all make IndyCar undoubtedly entertaining.

Why IndyCar Is Not A Classic Sport

While there are many reasons to label IndyCar a sport, there is one fair point on the other side of the debate. According to the definition of the word, IndyCar is not a classic sport for one reason: the world’s best driver is at the mercy of the vehicle underneath him. The results of the race are largely (but not entirely) influenced by the performance of the car.

Some would argue that an IndyCar race is then a test of machine against machine and not man against man. While this argument holds some weight, IndyCar does not have a wide variety of different chassis like F1. This levels the playing field, allowing the drivers’ performance and teams’ strategy to have a much greater influence on the results.

Taking this into account allows the focus to rest on the individuals rather than the cars, just like any other sport. IndyCar racing is a symbiotic balance of man and machine. The most accurate label to assign the activity of IndyCar racing is an Automobile Sport. Just as Polo is labelled an Equestrian Sport (the horses do have a significant role to play), IndyCar racing relies on the cars.

Are IndyCar Drivers Athletes?

IndyCar drivers are athletes. They need to operate at a high level of physical and mental fitness and endurance for hours at a time during a race, and they are exposed to tough conditions inside the car. They also train constantly to remain in the right physical and mental shape for IndyCar racing.

An athlete is defined as a person who is trained or skilled in games or sports requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. IndyCar drivers have to focus and respond in their cars for up to three hours at speeds of up to 240 mph.

It’s this test of stamina that will make or break an IndyCar driver. Stamina is the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort and so, IndyCar drivers should be considered athletes.

Why Do IndyCar Drivers Need To Be Fit?

IndyCar drivers need to be fit because an IndyCar race is very physically demanding. Not only do the drivers need to remain fully focused for hours during a race, but they must also deal with tough physical conditions inside the cockpit and withstand high G-forces in the corners.

The outcome of an IndyCar race will be mostly affected by the focus and mental skills of the driver. There are, however, extremely physical elements to IndyCar racing. Let’s take a look at what happens to an IndyCar driver’s body during a race and why it is essential for IndyCar drivers to be fit.

G-Forces

The greatest test of an IndyCar driver’s body is their ability to handle the G-forces experienced during a race. G-forces are the forces experienced due to acceleration/deceleration, including forward, backward, and side to side. In IndyCar, this is felt mostly when taking corners. The sensation is one of weight pressing on you. 1 G is what we feel due to gravity – in other words, our weight.

At 4 G, drivers are effectively functioning with 4 times their body weight crushing against them. Considering the focus and agility required at the same time, this is downright impressive. In order to handle this force on their bodies, IndyCar drivers have to strengthen their neck and upper body muscles.

There is no power steering in an IndyCar. Handling an IndyCar has always been heavy, and the drivers experience great strain on their wrists and arms while wrestling the car around the track with precision.

Elevated Heart Rate

Adrenalin and an increased heart rate of between 160-180 bpm is another way that IndyCar racing is an extremely physical experience. This metabolic state can be compared to that experienced during a triathlon event (with a few G’s added, of course). Drivers maintain this state for the duration of each race, so they have to be in top physical condition.

Tough Conditions

IndyCar drivers can lose up to 5 % of their body mass during a race despite having access to water. In 2020, the introduction of the aeroscreen reduced airflow and increased the temperature of the cockpit. An extra air duct was added, but cockpit temperatures can reach highs of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and fire-retardant suits aren’t very breathable.

IndyCar racing requires endurance. An IndyCar driver’s body has even been trained to (almost never) need a toilet break – partial dehydration helps with this one. An IndyCar driver needs to handle pressure and heat while remaining intensely focused and responsive for up to 3 hours. It’s no wonder the last car to cross the line still gets points. 

How Do IndyCar Drivers Keep Fit?

Driver fitness and cognitive function play key roles in the success of IndyCar’s athletes. IndyCar drivers include various exercises in their professional fitness routines to keep their bodies and minds as fine-tuned as their engines.

Cardio Workouts

Cardiovascular workouts (exercises that strengthen the heart and lungs) form a crucial part of personal training for IndyCar drivers. Drivers will typically include cardio that results in an elevated heartrate over a long interval to prepare their bodies for race conditions. Running and cycling are popular choices 2-3 times per week.

Full Body Workouts

IndyCar drivers include a range of basic muscle-strengthening exercises in order to handle the G-forces and heavy steering they’ll experience during the race. Core, neck, and upper body muscles are targeted in a circuit routine. Strength training forms roughly 60-70% of a driver’s training regimen.

Reflex Drills

Besides basic full body training, IndyCar drivers also train their reflexes. Modern LED equipment (PitFit) sends out light signals that the driver has to react to as fast as they can in a given time frame. Trickier than it sounds, this kind of exercise helps drivers stay sharp on the track, optimizing their reaction time and coordination.

Stability And Flexibility

Similar to honing their reflexes, stability training also serves to refine a driver’s physique and performance in the cockpit. Balancing and stretching can fine tune muscular strength, preparing a driver for not only speedy responses, but accurate, well-controlled reactions. This provides the “edge” that commentators often mention.

Diet

IndyCar drivers are conscious of what fuel they feed themselves. Leaning towards protein to support muscle strengthening and carbohydrates to provide energy, most drivers follow a semi-strict eating plan. This will become even stricter on race weekends, where the finest of margins apply both on and off the track.

Sleep

The smartest teams prioritize their drivers’ sleep. Often it is when a driver hasn’t slept well that the value of this commodity is most appreciated. History has shown that poor sleep leads to impeded focus and reflexes on race day. Drivers typically aim to sleep well for at least 7 hours at night and often nap in preparation for a race.

Final Thoughts

IndyCar is a sport, as it involves a physical aspect, along with a competitive aspect, and there’s no doubt that it’s entertaining too. This satisfies most definitions of a sport, and given that the drivers need to be extremely fit to race in IndyCar, they can definitely be considered athletes.