Some fans argue that IndyCar racing isn’t a sport, and that drivers aren’t athletes.
Those people clearly haven’t met Tony Kanaan.
The 5-foot-5, 147-pound Kanaan is built more like a rugby player than an IndyCar driver. His normal week includes four cycling workouts, three running workouts and three swimming workouts. He also spends at least an hour at the gym every day, using free weights to target his shoulders and back. Oh, and he competed in an Ironman Triathlon last summer.
“I try to keep busy when I’m not driving,” said Kanaan, who will turn 38 in December.
It’s worked so far. The Brazilian native has notched seven top-10 finishes this season and is sixth in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings. When he climbs into the No. 11 Geico car at the Grand Prix of Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, he will be competing in his 195th consecutive race.
For both his success and longevity, Kanaan said he has the grueling training regimen to thank.
“As you get older, you have a tendency to get more tired, you don’t recover as quick, your performance might [slip]. You see that in every athlete,” he said. “So if you take care of yourself, always you can lengthen this time and I think that has definitely been benefitting me for quite a long time.”
The constant breaking, accelerating, turning, up-shifting and down-shifting of IndyCar racing is more taxing than most people realize. Speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour and multiple g-forces make even the most routine actions seem anything but. Kanaan said he loses between three and four pounds during every race.
The psychological effects of racing also take their toll. Drivers have to stay focused in a high-stress environment for three hours at a time, and it only takes one mistake to bring their race to an end.
“It’s like on a foggy and very hard-raining day, when you’ve got to drive your street car,” Kanaan explained. “You’re going to find yourself holding the steering wheel extremely tight, or you get extremely tense, and that’s really what happens to us for two and a half, three hours. That’s how it drains you out.”
Kanaan has been a fitness junkie since he was a teenager, but triathlons are relatively new. He has competed in 15 of them now, from shorter races to the Kona Ironman in Hawaii last summer, and says he does them not only for personal enjoyment, but because each aspect of a triathlon serves a specific purpose. Swimming strengthens his shoulders and back to ease steering and shifting. Running builds his cardiovascular endurance. Cycling helps him focus.
“If you don’t have a pain, if you’re well-prepared, you’re not even going to start thinking about [making mistakes on the track],” Kanaan said. “And if you’re not thinking about that, you can think about how to make your car better.”
Kanaan has been racing competitively since he was 8 years old and said he wants to compete for another five or six more years. In other words, he’ll race as long as his body will allow him.
And with the training regimen that has become such an important part of Kanaan’s life, that longevity may just be possible.
“It’s like you know when you’re getting older and people realize, like with your grandparents, that you shouldn’t be driving. You never think you’re not bad anymore,” he said, laughing. “That’s going to be my problem.”