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BROOKLYN, Mich. - All things considered, Sam Hornish Jr. would much rather have been fishing. But just four days before the Firestone Indy 400, Hornish was consenting to physical torture in the elaborate gym in the basement of his home.
He battled a rowing machine where no matter how ambitious the stroke, the water fought back and won. Hornish pushed weights with his shoulders and pulled them with his neck. He balanced himself on a large inflatable ball and engaged in a precarious game of catch with his trainer. Then he lifted his body time after time while perched on one foot.
Like most of the drivers in the IndyCar Series, Hornish is engaged in the endless search for an edge. And along with his contemporaries, that means fine-tuning the body as much as you fine-tune the machine.
So the northwest Ohio-based driver for Marlboro Team Penske willingly subjects himself to a demanding regimen of stretching, lifting, bizarre customized exercises and daily battles with elliptical trainers, treadmills, and that relentless rowing machine.
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"You don't ever want to feel like you lost a race because you were less than your best," Hornish said. "So that makes it worth the struggle, worth the time. Everything you can do to improve the performance on race day - you have to do it."
In 2003, Hornish lost this race by .0121 seconds. In layman's terms, that's considerably less than a whisker. So now he does marathon rides on his bike down the country roads near his home, and works out religiously in pursuit of peak performance.
"Each year this becomes more and more important," the 26-year-old Hornish said.
"A lot of the motivation to train hard and stay fit comes from the same competitiveness that pushes you in a race. If I'm not doing this today, somebody else probably is."
In reality, most of the other drivers in the Indy Racing League likely push themselves just as hard.
Tony Kanaan, the defending season champion in the IndyCar Series, takes advantage of the intense conditions created by the heat and humidity in South Florida when he trains.
"I live in Miami, so I use that environment and work out every day between 10 in the morning and one in the afternoon - in the most difficult time of the day," Kanaan said. "I run and ride the bicycle, and I rarely take a day off. Most people go to the office every morning - I wake up and go work out."
Kanaan, who is an accomplished triathlete, takes his workouts to the extreme in the off-season. He takes part in a 24-hour bike race in his native Brazil each year, and has competed in five triathlons.
"I have used a trainer before, but I've been doing this for so long now, I know what I have to do," Kanaan said. "You need your body to be as reliable as every part on the car, and you need to have a certain amount of strength and endurance to stay at your best throughout the race. That can only be accomplished through strict training."
The IndyCar drivers don't expect today's race at Michigan International Speedway to be as demanding physically as some of the other venues in the series. The two road course races on the schedule will provide a more strenuous test, while the 100-plus degree heat at Milwaukee a week ago presented additional concerns.
"Milwaukee was very difficult," said Hornish, who won the event. "It was just really hard to breathe when I got out of the car. That was some of the toughest conditions I can remember. That kind of heat really takes it out of you, even when you are in great shape."
The heat is just one of the concerns for Jim Leo of Indianapolis-based PitFit Training, which has developed driver specific workout programs for Hornish and others. They take a pounding from the track and the car, and are subjected to significant G-forces throughout each race. And then there is the issue of just what folding themselves up into that tiny cockpit does to the skeletal structure.
"Drivers have the worst ergonomic jobs in the world," Leo said. "It is an ongoing struggle to try and correct their posture and strengthen their bodies for the rigors of racing. They spend so many hours stuck in that position in the car. Sam's job is a lot like those on the assembly line at the Jeep plant in Toledo - it is an ergonomic nightmare."
PitFit developed a training program for Hornish three years ago. At the time, Hornish had just won the second of two straight IndyCar Series championships while driving for Panther Racing, but he felt he needed something more to stay on top.
"I was ready to try some kind of workout program, and everybody said this kind of thing will make you better," Hornish said. "I like to mix things up so it doesn't get boring, but I understand the importance of putting in the time."
Leo said a lot of the fitness work with IndyCar drivers focuses on developing strength and balance in the body core, where the G-forces are absorbed. He also zeroes in on the shoulders and arms, which do the brunt of the work with the steering wheel, and has Hornish train with unbalanced weight loads to try and even up his body strength.
"Drivers have a real left-side, right-side discrepancy, much like you would see in a tennis player who uses the muscles on one side of his body so much more than the other," Leo said. "We'll work on that, and also use the heavy bag and other work to develop the shoulders, since racing is such a violent sport on the shoulders and arms."
IndyCar Series points leader Dan Wheldon does a lot of his training at St. Vincent Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis, which specializes in programs for elite athletes.
"The little things are so important," Wheldon said. "I do a lot in the gym - a lot of running, lifting weights. I'm doing a lot more running outside now, too. Physical training isn't something you can ignore, or you won't be competitive in the race."
IRL rookie Danica Patrick, who grabbed the attention of the racing world by leading the Indy 500 and then finishing fourth in the race, has something called "extreme yoga" as part of her training regimen.
She will go through 90-minute yoga routines in a 100-degree room, and also uses roller-blading, running and weight training as part of her fitness program.
"I just try and be consistent with my training and exercise," Patrick said. "I will run on a lot of days, and lift every other day. It is something you have to make time for. Sometimes, I'll even go out for a run before a race. Wherever you go, you bring your running shoes along."
Tomas Scheckter, who has a win and three poles so far this season, is religious about his rigorous training schedule, which includes running, cycling, swimming and weight lifting. Scheckter, who got his first IRL win at Michigan in 2002, said the condition of the driver is every bit as critical as the performance of the engine and the tires.
"It is all part of putting yourself in a position to win the race," Scheckter said. "I have to be as strong and as fit as I can be before I get in the car, no matter how much workout time that requires. A lot of people are depending on me, and I can't let them down."
Hornish, who will often ride his bike as far away as he can in an hour's time, and then push himself to make the return trip in less than an hour, said there is a noticeable psychological gain from a strenuous workout regimen, as well as the obvious physical benefits.
"You just feel better if you do it, and when you feel better, you race better," Hornish said. "And then there are those days when you get out of the car after a race and you feel great. That's what makes you want to do even more."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.42.11068 -84.24795