Whether you’re a die-hard fan or have never seen a race in your life, chances are you’ve heard of NASCAR and know what it’s about. But there’s another type of car racing that’s been around for just about as long that you may not know about — and it requires more strength and fitness than you might think.
Founded 60 years ago by Wally Parks, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was created to keep racing off of city streets and highways to make them safer. The thought was to allow fans the chance to see car races up close, as well as teams taking apart and putting back together an engine (and sometimes other parts of the car) in as little as 75 minutes.
The sport took off as the interest in building and racing cars became more of a hobby. Certain drivers began to excel and drew followings to the national events, where the teams spend time in their pit areas, hanging out, taking photos and signing autographs for their most dedicated fans.
Today there are 20 different categories in the NHRA competitions, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the most physically demanding races a “sport.” We caught up with a few top drivers at the Old Bridge Township Raceway in the lead-up to the NHRA Toyota Summernationals to learn more about their race class, Funny Car, and what it’s like to risk their lives every time they strap into their vehicles to satisfy their need for speed.
Funny Car Racing
The not-so-typical look caused by their rear axels and front tires being pushed more forward than normal is what gave the Funny Car its name. These cars have carbon fiber or fiberglass bodies, and have forward-mounted V-8 engines, placed in front of the driver. This category races 1,000 feet, and during a single run, the cars can burn up to 15 gallons of fuel in four seconds or less. This type of speed and power can be difficult for drivers to learn to control, and requires no shortage of upper body strength in order to adequately manhandle the vehicle.
Which is why you might be surprised to see a slender 5’ 8” brunette behind the wheel. Top female Funny Car racer Alexis DeJoria, daughter of John Paul DeJoria who owns Paul Mitchell Hair Care Products, has been racing cars since she was 16 years old. While many thought she’d follow in her father’s footsteps, she instead followed his advice about pursuing her passions. She began racing in the Super Gas category, but quickly moved up to Funny Car once she has the strength and experience behind her.
“I do circuit training one hour daily,” says DeJoria, who often starts on the stationary bike or treadmill, transitions to weights, and then back to cardio. And though it’s hard when she’s on the road so much, DeJoria also tries to maintain her nutrition by eating organic healthy foods — lots of vegetables and fruits — and always has coconut water on hand.
Her strong sense discipline and undeniable drive moved her up the ranks quickly. But with her success came greater risks, and in 2010, she experienced her first crash.
“There was so much adrenaline rushing, and my whole body was sore, but my car did what it was supposed to do and took the impact,” she recalls. “It makes you think ‘am I meant to be here?’” And she was. As soon as her car was fixed, DeJoria was back out on the track. She currently holds four career wins and is one of the top in her category.
Clear Mind, Healthy Heart, Can’t Lose
Matt Hagan, former football player, has experienced his share of turmoil racing Funny Car as well. “The first time I was on fire, the car was so hot that I was ready to jump out, but forgot to unbuckle,” says the 31-year-old Virginia native, who has been on fire three times.
“It’s really hard when you get into fight or flight mode.” Hagan grew up around cars, as his family owned a few dealerships, and holds 11 career titles since his start in 2008. Hagan has the top speed for leaving the line. He attributes it to being strong, going to the gym, eating clean and living a healthy lifestyle. While he does have to watch his weight, as every pound makes a difference in the race, Hagan finds that working out has helped him focus mentally, too. “Ever since I started doing more cardio, I have a lot more clarity out there on the race track,” he says.
Top Strength for Top Speed
For Courtney Force, though, youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car National Champion John Force, strength training is where she focuses her efforts. She visits gyms across the country during race weekends, taking moves and workouts that she’s learned from her trainer and putting them into her routine on the road. “It’s important to build your upper body strength when handling one of these 10,000 horsepower race cars,” says Courtney. “In these cars anything can happen when you’re reaching speeds over 300 miles per hour so you need to be mentally and especially physically prepared for anything.”
One of Courtney’s most difficult memories in the sport was in September 2007, when her father crashed during the Fall Nationals. She started receiving phone calls and texts from people, some of who were even telling her that her father died. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and while John suffered numerous injuries, he was able to make a full recovery. The John Force Racing team worked on improving the safety of the cockpit area of the car post-crash, and both Courtney and her father were racing again.
Courtney agrees with the other drivers that traveling does affect nutrition. “It’s tough to follow a strict diet out on the road but throughout the day I eat small meals,” she says. “I make sure to snack on almonds or fruit while having a lean meat at lunch, like chicken and veggies.” And when she’s home, the 26-year old is always welcoming new meal ideas that she can make. “I love cooking and trying recipes whenever I can,” she says.
And she must be doing something right. Courtney currently holds five career wins and was featured on the cover of ESPN’s 2013 Body issue.