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Step into the passenger seat of Ryan Blaney and he’ll show you what kind of athlete a NASCAR superstar is. Despite his consistent top-10 finishes in the end-of-season standings, Blaney still occasionally gets hit with the stereotypical car racing cliches that plague the high-speed motorsport— mainly that racing is nothing more than sitting and steering. When he gets the chance to allow a sports star counterpart to ride shotgun with him, by the time the speedometer reaches 200 mph—in temperatures that can reach as high as 140 degrees—chances are they’re guaranteed to tap out long before Blaney considers tapping the brakes.
“I’ve given some other athletes ride-arounds in our two-seaters, and usually they’re ready to get out after about five laps,” Blaney says. “They’re like, ‘It’s too hot in here, I can’t do this.’ I’m just like, ‘That’s just part of what we do.'”
At 5’7″ and about 150 pounds, he may not be the physically imposing athlete, but in NASCAR, Ryan Blaney becomes a gas-pedal giant the moment he hops into the Team Penske No. 12 Ford Mustang. Wrapped inside the Ohio native’s sponsor-logoed firesuit is the work and training discipline of Dwayne Johnson coupled with the physical endurance and mental toughness of David Goggins.
Therefore it can only a matter of time—perhaps this weekend’s Geico 500 held at iconic Talladega Speedway (Sunday, Apr. 23 at 3 p.m. ET on Fox)—before his annoying 55-race losing streak finally breaks. He has been close, including a second-place finish at the Phoenix 500 in March, and now that the season is in full swing, Blaney is getting himself back into racing condition.
“I feel like you tend to get more in-shape as the season goes on, for sure, because you’re back in the car working,” he says. “By about a month into the season, you get into the best shape because you’re back in it and used to the conditions.”
For Ryan Blaney and Team Penske, in order to continue moving up the NASCAR leaderboard—he is currently in 10th place in the standings—it is about maintaining consistency in all areas of his fitness. This requires a regimen that keeps him physically strong for 500 miles, a hydration program (powered by one of his chief sponsors, Body Armor) that keeps him at peak condition in the nastiest of conditions, and a unique and uncanny video-game-like focus that helps keep his mind clear going into the final lap.
“I’m not the biggest guy, I don’t lift a lot of weights, we do a lot more of core and shoulder exercises, and then heat training for stamina,” Blaney says. “Soccer players have an incredible amount of stamina. For us, it’s a bit different in the way we approach it.”
A win this weekend would be Blaney’s first since 2021, when he crossed the line first at Daytona’s Coke 400. However, of his seven career wins, two have come at Talladega.
To do so, Blaney must both aggressively control a 3,000-pound machine at top speeds of over 200 mph on the straightaway and nearly 3 G’s of accelerations around the turn of Talladega’s 2.6-mile oval. For three or more hours in temperatures that can reach 140 degrees inside the vehicle, Blaney must carefully navigate the congested track occupied by 39 similar vehicles, all weaving and braking and drafting in order to the finish line first. In that top-speed, bumper to bumper situations, a split-second decision can win a race or send you and others crashing into the wall.
Training for these conditions requires most of Ryan Blaney’s weightroom work to focus on core stability, neck and shoulder strength, as well as mental stamina to keep a cool head when the conditions become unbearable.
When it comes to raceday training, it is not about one-rep maxes; muscular endurance is the name of the game.
“If I tried to go play on a football field, I’d be in deep trouble because I’m a tiny guy, and I’m just not strong enough,” Blaney says. “I think people overlook a lot of times how hot the cars can get and how much stamina and training we put into that side to where you don’t wear yourself out and fall out of the seat.”
Unlike other sports, it’s OK for Blaney to skip squat day, to an extent. According to Jon Rowan, director of performance for Team Penske, one of Blaney’s gym non-negotiables is avoiding barbell-based moves such as squats, which can create additional, unnecessary stress on an overstressed physical frame confined to a seat for 500 miles. “Because of being in the car sitting and being so stiff, we do not do any spinal compression work with them at all,” Rowan says.
Instead, when it comes to lower-body work, Rowan will have Blaney focus on unilateral movements, such as lunges. However, the core of Blaney’s training is plenty of core work. It is not about gaining a six-pack, but rather staying strong for 500 miles and being able physically to still make the right decisions. So Rowan has Blaney work on primarily linear stabilization exercises, which aim at resistance against being moved in a given direction. Blaney will do moves involving a physio ball, Bosu ball, and some med ball transfers. These are usually performed for 30 to 45 second intervals. Rowan will have him usually stay within this time frame, especially during the season, in order to avoid additional lower lumbar discomfort. This method, done consistently, will help alleviate some of the hip pressure Blaney endures, especially on high-banked tracks, according to Rowan.
Besides the speeds, which can look seamlessly smooth at times during a race, a NASCAR driver has to train to handle the physical demands of the jolting stop-start shifts required to avoid collisions, some of which can be traumatic jolts on the body. According to Rowan, a wreck will cause ungodly soreness.
The day after the race, barring any major injuries, Rowan wants Blaney to move around to reduce soreness. He will then undergo physical therapy, which may include cupping, dry needling, and yoga or stretching to improve shoulder and ankle mobility. Blaney explains that the core is a major part of driving since it is necessary to hold oneself up in the seat and withstand the G forces of the turns every lap for 500 miles.
“Everyone is different, but my hips usually go first,” Blaney says. “And then my shoulders can get pretty worn out. They get worn out because they take the brunt of the G-force and stuff like that.”
It’s a question that oftentimes generates giggles, but it’s one that race enthusiasts continue asking: How does a driver hold it in for 500 miles? And now in his eighth NASCAR season, Blaney remains undefeated with the bathroom. “I’d never have gone to the bathroom in my car, fortunately,” he says. “Right before I get in the car, I run to the bathroom. It’s funny to see the Porta John lines filled with drivers before the race. None of us want to run into that tough situation.”
Hydration, however, is a serious concern for drivers, who, according to Rowan, can lose as much as 7% of their body weight each race through sweating. Weighing at about 150 pounds, Blaney says he’s lost up to roughly five pounds a race, especially during the extreme heat conditions. The effects of dehydration, particularly in a quick-reaction sport like auto racing, can catastrophic, including slower reaction times which can lead to crucial mistakes that can not only result in a lower finish, but can mean the difference between crossing the finish and being towed.
“If you’ve watched racing, you’ll see drivers that fall out when they get out of the car. They have to have people help them out,” Rowan says. “We haven’t had one of our drivers in that position to get out of the car and fall out like that, which is really good.”
Sometimes water just isn’t enough to beat the conditions, Rowan says. So it’s beneficial to the team that Body Armor isn’t just one of Ryan Blaney’s sponsors (The Body Armor No. 12 Ford Mustang was rolled out for the first time at the Atlanta 500), but both its SportWater, alkaline water containing electrolytes as well as its signature SportsDrink, are some necessary examples of what is needed to make it through the grueling 500 miles. “Anything we can do to replace those nutrients as quickly as possible. has been beneficial to us,” Rowan says. “It’s been tremendous for us, even for my guys that are on pit road. I mean, you got to figure you’re basically out there, it’s the hottest part of the year wearing a heavy snow suit.”
For Blaney, replenishing is never a problem.” I’ll probably drink three to five bottles of it. You’re sweating most of it out anyway., if you lose it, you’re in big trouble trying to gain it back.”
In order to keep the No. 12 Ford Mustang at top speed and near the top of the leaderboard going into the final lap, it is critical for Ryan Blaney to keep his mind running within the speed limit throughout the race. Oftentimes that can be as challenging as getting past the leader going into the last lap. From making the right move at the right time, to car performance, to tire pressure, fuel levels, there’s as much racing through Blaney’s head as there is on the track.
“I think there is definitely a level of excited and nervous energy presented whenever you are in the race car and in a racing environment,” Blaney says. “Even before getting into the car, I feel like my heart rate naturally rises when I am in crowds which is unavoidable on race day. The training regimen I go through in-season during the week and throughout the offseason raise my levels to prepare me for those moments in the car.”
Having mental clarity through challenging moments is an element Rowan and his team take seriously and work with Blaney—along with Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Austin Cindric—on maximizing. Rowan admits, while it’s nearly impossible to train to be 100% comfortable strapped inside a racecar for three-plus hours, the team tests Blaney to find his threshold for staying calm as long as possible during those difficult moments.
One method Rowan uses is force plate testing, a device that scores velocity and power output during certain activities. Then, Ryan Blaney gets on a row machine and performs to get his heart rate to a certain level (Rowan usually starts at about 70%). Once he hits that target, Rowan will have him do certain physical or mental tasks. They will keep doing that until they determine when he will reach mistake level.
“What we are looking for is overall muscular endurance and how that endurance affects mental clarity over the course of a race,” Rowan says. “I mean, you’re talking about 500 miles, so the idea is that I need my guys to stay in good physical and cardiovascular shape so that they can manage the stimuli and stress over the course of several hours.”
Once that’s determined, they can use techniques to help Blaney maintain an optimal heart rate so that he can react under the most pressure-filled situations. One method is box breathing, a technique that attempts to get one’s breathing back to normal rates after a high-stress situation. This can happen for Ryan Blaney in pit row or any bumping incidents on the track. Usually, the breathing protocol is four seconds of inhaling, holding, and then exhaling each. The goal here is to return to normal breathing as quickly as possible.
“We have had to teach them some of the smaller techniques they can do in the car to get themselves back in and ready to perform,” Rowan says.
If Ryan Blaney can’t find his Namaste, he’ll oftentimes find his Nintendo, particularly Super Mario Kart.
Video games, whether it be Mario, or a race simulator, is one of the methods Blaney and his team rely on to not only ease the raceday mental stress, but also use as an unorthodox training session off the track and outside the weightroom.
“Our ability to use the Ford simulator gives me a chance to get my mind visually ready for the race track that weekend – especially in instances like the road courses we have coming up on the schedule,” Blaney says. That’s helpful in terms of finding reference points and getting the visuals down. One of the biggest things for me is getting those aspects as clear as I can in my head. To me, it’s all about the visuals that prepare me for what to expect when we roll off for those first laps of practice.”
Rowan, agrees, admitting that immersing himself in a video games during his down time is a good way for Blaney to not only unwind, while at the same time working on some additional hand-eye coordination.
“it doesn’t matter what the activity is, video games are usually one that Ryan does go to,” Rowan says. “If it’s something that caused them mindless action and allows them unfettered relaxation, absolutely do it.”
For Blaney, his skills in riding the Penske No. 12 may be no match for his Mario mastery. Either way, behind the wheel or in front of the TV, you don’t want to test Ryan Blaney’s athleticism.
“I am nasty at Mario Kart on Nintendo 64,” Blaney says. “Everyone always wants to challenge me, and I am just dirty on it because I spent many years playing it as a kid. I might be one of the best in the world—I’ve put a lot hours in playing that game. My buddies always want some smoke, and they always regret it afterward.”
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