Skip navigation links

June 19, 2024

Ask the expert: Are race car drivers athletes?

Ricky Taylor in the race car simulator
Ricky Taylor in the race car simulator in the Ferguson Lab. Michigan State University.

When you think of sports that can be physically challenging, football, basketball and hockey are top of mind. But what about race car driving? Is it physically and mentally challenging? According to Jordan Taylor and Ricky Taylor, sons of sports car champion Wayne Taylor and members of WTRAndretti sports car team, the answer is a resounding yes.

In 2017, the Taylors teamed up with David Ferguson, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and an expert in improving the health and human performance of race car drivers. They worked with Ferguson ever since to improve their performance on the track, including prepping for the Six Hours of the Glen endurance race that they will be competing in on June 20 to 23.

Here, the Taylor brothers and Ferguson answer questions about the physical and mental challenges of race car driving.

Why did you seek out Ferguson? What was the team looking to discover?

Ricky Taylor, co-driver, No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-06 GTP:

The goal has always been to be competitive, wanting to win and seeing what other people are doing. I think looking at every aspect of motorsport is important. The machine only does what the driver tells it to do, what the engineers have set it up to do. And so, the biggest variable in motorsports is the driver.

While you can spend hundreds, thousands, millions on trying to make the car faster with technology, the cheapest way to go faster is the driver. Drivers are one of the least studied part of motorsports. And so, the first thing you look at is the physical side and what stresses the driver and how to make them better, how to basically build a robot driver. That’s what Dr. Ferguson does for us.

Jordan Taylor, co-driver, No. 40 DEX Imaging Acura ARX-06 GTP:

As a race car driver, you don’t get a lot of data on yourself, so it’s nice for us to work with Dr. Ferguson. Through tests, we learn a lot about ourselves and how we can improve ourselves as athletes, both outside the car and inside the car. Race cars have a lot of sensors on them and a lot of research and data that goes into making them go faster. But drivers don’t have that data. So, we go to Dr. Ferguson’s lab and correlate what we feel in the race car, on a treadmill, on a simulator, on a bike, and he can kind of direct us in a way that makes us feel better in our day jobs. A lot of drivers know they need to be fit and they have trainers and things, but what Dr. Ferguson does is very specific to a race car driver and their fitness and their nutrition.

David Ferguson:

Race car simulator in the Ferguson Lab
Race car simulator in the Ferguson Lab. Michigan State University.

The WTRAndretti team has always been interested in driver physiology, driver science. I’ve had the pleasure of working with them since 2017 at the Rolex 24-hour race in Daytona. I was part of a team that was invited to the race by WTRAndretti’s technical director, Brian Pillar, to find ways to optimize driver performance. I collected physiological data on the drivers by having them wear high-fidelity heart monitors. We measured blood glucose, blood lactate, and we tracked them for 24 hours. Like the drivers, I was awake the entire time — and stressed, fatigued, exhausted — bu I wasn’t driving like they were! It was quite an educational experience that laid the foundation for a great relationship that’s almost going on eight years now. Since then, Brian, the drivers and I have worked to find ways to optimize driver performance.

What physical stressors do you experience when racing?

Jordan Taylor:

This isn’t like driving a car on the highway — you’re in a violent race car doing up to 3 or 4 Gs on corners. It can be up to 120 degrees in the car, and you can be in there for up to three hours. We run all sorts of monitors and sensors on us in the race cars and on our body. We sweat out between 3 and 5 pounds per hour, and your heart rate can be up to 180 beats per minute while driving. And the g-forces create muscular stress as well. But Dr. Ferguson is the master of figuring out exactly what we need to improve and how.

David Ferguson:

They’re going to be exposed to 3 to 5 Gs, depending on the car. They have to wear a fire suit, which will cause a lot of sweat loss in an already hot car. It will be intense, like running a marathon in July in a winter ski suit while wrestling an Olympic champion. And then they’re going to have to contract muscle to hold themselves in the car, but also turn the wheel and press the brake pedal. Depending on the car, that could be 75 pounds of force on the brake pedal. It could be 25 pounds of force on the steering wheel. Their body needs to be able to do that repeatedly, 12 to 14 times a lap for two to four hours. Each race they burn an average of 2,000 calories. It’s quite physically demanding, and they need to be strong and fit enough to handle that.

Dr. David Ferguson and Jordan Taylor in the Ferguson Lab
Dr. David Ferguson and Jordan Taylor in the Ferguson Lab. Michigan State University.

To help drivers during the race we have designed bespoke nutrition programs for each driver to give the appropriate number of calories and macronutrients. We are currently working to optimize carbohydrate consumption during each stint to prevent fatigue and optimize performance.

Ricky Taylor:

We don’t have power brake assist, so the brake pedal is very heavy and even more so with the g-forces. You work unique muscle groups in your neck, core and lower body. Dr. Ferguson has nailed down those muscle groups and teaches us what to work on if we’re struggling with something.

We race anything from 100-minute races to 24-hour splits between two to four drivers. And sports car racing is unique in that you’re not only racing for a long period of time, but also the cars are quite hot inside and you have extremely limited ability to eat and drink. And your recovery periods between driving are relatively short compared to other sports where you have days between games or events. You’re in the car until it runs out of fuel. You never want to question your physical ability when you get into the race car.

What are the mental stressors you face?

Jordan Taylor:

I think the physical and mental go together. If my heart is beating out of my chest and I’m focused on how tired I am, I’m not thinking about driving the car properly. I’m thinking about being tired and wanting to get out of the car.

Dr. David Ferguson
Dr. David Ferguson. Michigan State University.

David Ferguson:

There is cognitive load, physical load, skeletal muscle stress and cardiorespiratory strain. And so, we’ve always had a very holistic approach where we typically will bring drivers to our lab for two to three days. They’ll go through a battery of tests to assess cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, sweat loss, tolerance, a resting metabolic rate, and resting calorie burn. With this approach, we get a pretty good idea of how fit the driver is and learn their strengths and areas to improve. We help drivers improve physically, which helps them mentally.

Ricky Taylor:

You don’t want to get to the point where you’re being dragged out of the car because it is such a mental sport as well. You want your physical ability to be above and beyond what you need to drive the car so that you’re mentally at 100% for the entire race. As soon as you feel yourself physically start to degrade, the mental side goes with it, and then you start to make mistakes and lose consistency. So, we really focus on making sure we’re at the top of our game physically.

What has been the greatest insight you have gained from this process?

Jordan Taylor:

Probably the biggest development for us is understanding the nutrition side and how much that affects us. We now understand a lot more of what the body goes through like sweat output and sweat intake and what we need to replenish our bodies with during the race. My brother and I are two years apart in age and from the same family, but our bodies are completely different.

Ricky Taylor:

It’s interesting to see your various numbers and if you’re either improving or degrading over a race. The real power is in the application of those numbers and Dr. Ferguson giving training advice.  

While my ultimate performance over one lap doesn’t change by much, I have felt a definite improvement in my endurance and mental acuity over long hours in the car. I feel much sharper after working with Dr. Ferguson.

So, drivers are truly athletes, correct?

Ricky Taylor: 

Yes, race car drivers are athletes because we experience similar physical stressors to, you know, marathon runners or fighter pilots in certain situations. You can definitely say drivers are athletes.

Dr. David Ferguson and Ricky Taylor
Dr. David Ferguson and Ricky Taylor after the win at the Detroit Grand Prix.

Jordan Taylor:

It’s not anything like driving a street car. I mean, the cars are pure raw machines and the violence at some of the tracks is pretty extreme. The bumps, what you feel through your body is pretty intense and the risks themselves can get pretty intense. My heart rate reaches levels of 180 beats per minute, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a run or a bike ride at that level of intensity. So yeah, I’d say drivers are athletes.

David Ferguson:

The greatest insight I’ve learned in doing this work is that race car drivers are, in fact, athletes. Their heart rate is very elevated not to mention the mental stress. Like every other athlete, they need to train and prepare to reach a fitness level to be able to handle those stressors. Their physical fitness numbers rival triathletes, hockey players, even astronauts.

Media Contacts


more content from this collection

Ask the expert