It gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of eating on the run. At some point during a caution period in Sunday's Cola-Cola 600, Martin Truex Jr. will likely reach into a small pouch built into his door padding and pull out a protein bar. With one hand, he'll pull up the fireproof head sock that he wears beneath his helmet. With the other, he'll shove the bar up under his helmet and take a bite -- all while using a knee to steady the steering wheel.
"It only takes a few seconds," the Michael Waltrip Racing driver said. "Multi-tasking."
Truex enjoys his mid-race snack most every weekend, but the caloric boost will surely come in handy Sunday during NASCAR's longest race. The annual 600-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway is not only capable of taking a toll on equipment, but it's also hard on drivers who have to maintain their focus and stamina for the better part of five hours. Each has a tactic -- typically revolving around hydration and getting some kind of nourishment in the car -- to combat the stresses they'll experience over such a prolonged distance. But that doesn't mean they won't feel every mile the next morning.
"You're tired -- no doubt about it," Denny Hamlin said. "It's physically grueling, but with it being as hot as it is, it's going to be very tough. Really, you'll cramp up a lot the next day and even that night."
Technology certainly helps. Some drivers like Jeff Gordon have a hydration system where instead of picking up a water bottle -- tough to do under race conditions -- they can hit a button on the steering wheel, which will deliver water to a tube near their mouth and allow them to drink even during a green-flag run. Air conditioning systems deliver cool air to the top of a driver's head, allowing it to better circulate within the helmet. And although Sunday's forecast calls for very warm temperatures, the race starts in the late afternoon, helping drivers avoid the oppressive heat they'll face during day races on other weeks of the year.
Of course, that doesn't mean Sunday will be easy. Physical stamina and mental focus will be tested just as much as engine components or suspension parts.
"Your body can only hold so much liquid, so then the concentration level for that amount of time gets tiring," said Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle. "You run a 90-lap race, and going home you're mentally exhausted because you're constantly thinking every corner, every lap -- looking in the mirror, what am I going to change, on the gas, go as hard as I can, and it's just intense. The 600-mile race is really no different, so you're mentally exhausted and dehydrated. There's a lot involved in it."
The 600 probably does not rank as the most physically demanding race on NASCAR's premier series -- events on the concrete mile at Dover can be downright punishing, and road-course races involve a lot of gear shifting and wheeling of the car under hot daytime conditions. But the distance alone demands respect, and that much time in the car can come with a physical price. As with any strenuous activity, fueling is key. About once an hour during the 600, Gordon will ingest a brand of energy gel, liquefied in water, used by cyclists and distance runners. Denny Hamlin prefers energy chews, because opening wrappers in a race car can be trying.
"You want to have something that the seals have already been torn open -- something you can grab and take your gloves off real quick during a caution and get it in," Hamlin said. "You always look for the least messy option as possible."
Drivers tell stories of pulling onto pit road during the 600, and seeing competitors in front of them tossing used wrappers out the window opening. Gordon doesn't remember ever trying to eat anything substantial in the car -- except for one time, years ago, before he used a full-face helmet and when he was several laps down. "We were way off the lead lap and just kind of riding it out," he said. "And I got hungry and said I needed a hot dog or something. And I shoved anything I could underneath my helmet. But I didn't have the open-face helmet. You could definitely have gotten to it. I'm sure there are guys that did it, but not when you're trying to compete for a win."
Carl Edwards, one of the fittest drivers in NASCAR, said his car used to be outfitted with a snack box. "I see wrappers flying out of Carl's window constantly, so I don't know what he's got. I think he's got a small fridge inside his car," needled Biffle, his Roush Fenway teammate. This week, though, Edwards is operating off specific instructions from his trainer, and last season's championship runner-up said he no longer tries to eat in the car.
"This race is one that maybe if you had something to eat in the middle of the race it would be good, but you've got to be careful about eating something when you're under that much stress and you've got the belts tight and everything," Edwards said. "I've learned that you've got to be careful about what you eat during a race, even if it seems really simple, so I just don't eat during the race."
Systems inside the car make it all easier than it used to be. Time was, Gordon remembered, you had to wait for a pit stop if you wanted even a drink of water. The first primitive air-conditioning systems just blew hot air in the driver's face. Now there's water delivered at the push of a button, cool air on demand, even snack pouches built into cars. It's enough to make one legend shake his head and smile.
"These guys got it made," said seven-time champion Richard Petty, whose team swept the front row in qualifying. "They've got air-conditioning, power steering, all the kind of stuff, so it's just a Sunday afternoon drive for them."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Denny Hamlin
- Jeff Gordon