What athletic qualities go into being a racecar driver?

It was really cool to watch, and fun to see drivers who drive much different cars take some laps in something they’re not used to.

But, watching the swap got me thinking. Both drivers are drivers, and very good drivers, but this wasn’t really too far out of their comfort zone. What would happen if NASCAR went way out of the box and put other athletes from other sports in a car? Could Bryce Harper figure out how to brake around Martinsville? Would LeBron James make it a full race around the Roval?

I am not a racecar driver, so I didn’t know the answer to these questions. So, I turned to a local expert who might – Late Model Stock Car national champion Peyton Sellers, driver of the Clarence’s Steakhouse and Danville Toyota late model car that most recently won a track championship at South Boston Speedway. While Sellers has some experience in the NASCAR XFinity Series, and is something of a local late model legend, many people may not know he was also a four sport athlete in high school, and played soccer at Averett University.

Sellers filled me in a bit on what it takes to be a driver, and what other athletes would expect if they were to give it a try.

(Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Cooper – What sort of athletic qualities go into being a driver?

Sellers – I can tell you without a doubt, any of the other sports I’ve played you give it 110 percent in between the whistles. But you do get a whistle, you get a timeout. With racing, you get cautions, and during the caution you’re still very focused on what’s going on around you, keeping your tires cleaned off, keeping a check on the guys around you… watching out for safety workers on the track, making pit stops, whether it be getting onto your stall the fastest or getting out of your stall without hitting another car. And your stops are only for 12 or 13 seconds so at that point you’re getting your wheels straight, you’re tugging on your seat belt, you put it in gear and you take back off. You don’t have much of a downtime.

So when you wear a heart monitor in a stock car, your heart rate will go to 170 or 180 and it will stay there for two hours at a time. Other sports you might spike during a play or during a series and then you get a timeout or you get a break. Some of the longer races on Saturdays in the XFinity Series or Sunday races in Cup, you’ll be at an elevated heart rate for three or four hours at a time.

In addition to the heart rate you’re having to deal with the temperature of a car. These cars are built with the highest quality materials known to man as far as the heat resistance stuff, a lot of the stuff under the cars comes from NASA and places like that to kind of resist heat, but at the end of the day your ambient air temperature is still 130 degrees. And when you have to deal with those temperatures for that long, muscle fatigue sets in. you have to deal with your legs getting cramped because your feet are down at the foot box. So you have heat fatigue … and you’re constantly trying to hydrate yourself throughout the race, trying to hydrate throughout the week leading up to the race, lots of potassium. A lot of the drivers now are going on Thursday and Fridays before an event and getting bags of fluid put in, getting saline put in, so they’re well hydrated going into Sunday’s race.

Now in the short track series such as South Boston, Martinsville, Motor Mile Speedway and things like that it’s not quite as intense because it’s shorter races but you have more heat because you don’t have quite as much heat resistance stuff around in the car. You’re wearing a three-layer suit, a helmet, gloves, shoes that are all Nomex lined. Heat is the big thing so when you take the elevated heart rate and the heat and you combine with the mental fatigue that goes with it, you’re focused on getting every ounce of speed out of your car for 200 laps around the track and trying to focus on getting by the car in front of you, and all of a sudden you start to wear down some mentally. And the minute you start to wear down mentally, your body is saying ‘oh man I’m hot right now, I’m exhausted, I’m dehydrated,’ but you’ve still got to stay focused on what you’re trying to do and that’s winning the race. So there’s a lot of different elements that go into the fitness side of driving a race car. Do you have to be the biggest or the strongest? No. You’ve got to be the most toned, the most hydrated, you’ve got to be physically fit to be able to do it so when you’re body is not giving up your mind is not giving up.

So would you say endurance is probably the No. 1 athletic quality drivers should have?

Absolutely. The Cup drivers go through cycles. Ten years ago everybody was trying to have a little bit of muscle to endure the long races because they felt like if their muscles were fatiguing that they were giving up because of muscle size, the muscle mass. Fast forward to now, we’re all a lot smarter, the cars are driving better, the tires are better, the cars are a little bit better, so now a lot of your guys are riding bikes, they’re doing more cardio, a lot of running, and a lot of swimming. We’re on the endurance thing now, so you want that long lean muscle more than the bulky muscle.

If a professional athlete were to even just try to get behind the wheel for one race, where do you think they would struggle the most?

Definitely the short tracks. Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, definitely those tracks, because they add so much of an element with the g-forces pulling on your body. Martinsville is more of a mental thing because you’re trying to save brakes, you’re trying to save tires, and trying to muscle your way by cars. It’s so hard to pass at a place like Martinsville, where at Bristol you have a lot of g-forces tugging on your body. Your back starts hurting because it’s so much banking at a place like Bristol to where you drive into the corner and the car just squats to the ground. It’s not lateral force, it’s all downward force. It’s very hard on your body to drive at a place like Dover or Bristol for 500 miles. The larger tracks, they’re hard in their own aspects. The heat stays trapped up under the cars a lot more on the bigger tracks. The heat is more of a factor. Then you take a place like Daytona or Talladega, and it’s not a physical game at all. It’s all mental, jockeying for position and trying to get by the guy in front of you. I’ve gotten out of a race at Talladega before and felt like I could run another 400 or 500 miles, but mentally I was just ready to turn the lights off and go to sleep because my mind was exhausted.

You hear a lot of people saying things like ‘LeBron could play soccer. Usain Bolt could play football.’ Do you think there’s another sport out there where someone could get into a racecar, just from a physical aspect, and figure it out pretty easily?

I’m a firm believer that if a person has God-given talent to hit a baseball or throw a football he could switch sports pretty well. And we’ve seen it through time with Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan.

To sit here right now and say ‘this guy would be pretty good at jumping into a racecar,’ it’s hard to say. I do know that cyclist would make very good racecar drivers because of the physical stamina that they have, because of having to jockey for position and pace themselves to be in position at the end of the race. When… they’re running in a group and knowing when to lead and when not to lead. As a racecar driver you have to know the same thing. If you go to a place like Martinsville, you want to lead but you want to save brakes too, so sometimes it’s better to be third or fourth where you can save your brakes than to be out front setting a fast pace. So I think any kind of cyclist would make good racecar drivers.

As far as baseball players or football players, I don’t think their mindset is quite right to make a good racecar driver. They might be able to do it with enough training, but baseball players, to me, have an amount of God-given ability to be able to calculate the ball speed coming at them and still be able to hit it, or judge a ball as they’re running toward it to catch it, but it’s totally different than driving a racecar. So I don’ think baseball players would be quite right.

Football players, usually their size and their bulkiness is what makes them so dynamic on the football field, but it would make it hard to be racecar drivers. Now basketball players, there have been a few… So maybe basketball players because they have that endurance, they’re used to having to run too, and keeping their stamina up and the focus level. But that’s my personal opinion.

(This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin)

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