IRL: Pennzoil Panther Training Gets Crew Lean and Mean

FITNESS TRAINER HELPS PENNZOIL PANTHER CREW GET LEAN AND MEAN INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 22, 1999 -- Teams look for every way to gain an edge in the highly competitive world of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Every legal bit of power is pumped...


INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 22, 1999 -- Teams look for every way to gain an edge in the highly competitive world of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Every legal bit of power is pumped from the Oldsmobile Aurora and Infinity Indy V8 engines. The ultra-sleek Indy Racing League race cars are tuned to maximize performance. While every other team looks for ways to cut hundredths or thousandths of a second off their lap times, Pennzoil Panther Racing is finding ways to cut seconds from the lap times of driver Scott Goodyear. Pep Boys Indy Racing League technical rules are designed to keep the competitive playing field level so performance isn't always decided by the biggest checkbook. So Panther Racing decided to work on tuning the most basic - and complex - pieces of equipment on the team: the bodies of the race crew, known as the "Pack." After the team updated their G Force chassis, the team put a new spin on the term "bodywork." The team's crew members trade their impact wrenches for weight-training equipment and aerobic exercises three days per week. And instead of heading to the gym, the gym has come to team headquarters in Indianapolis. During these one-hour workout sessions, the crew chief and pit boss becomes Donna Weller, one of the top physical trainers and nutritionists in the country. Weller has put the "Pack" through workout sessions since October. The results have been measurable. In four months, the "Pack" has lost more than 100 pounds, decreased body fat by 50 percent, lost nearly 70 inches in its collective waistline and increased strength by 75 percent. This resulted in cutting considerable time off pit stops. "Tires felt as light as a feather," said Keith Jones, 38, a "Pack" tire changer for two years and former running back at St. Joseph's College in Indiana. "Since we've started working out, it's brought me along 90 percent. My weight has stayed the same, but I lost body fat and gained muscle. You could see a big change in everybody's enthusiasm at Orlando and their will to want to go after it. "It cut a heck of a lot from our time changing the tires. We're waiting around a good six seconds for the fuel. It gives us more time to get a full picture of what's going on around us. Then we just get ready for a good push off." While strength and weight charts are nice, the real results could be seen at the Pep Boys Indy Racing League opener in January at Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando, Fla. Goodyear finished second behind Eddie Cheever Jr., and the "Pack" had an impressive 10-second stop on Goodyear's last visit to the pits that helped put the pressure on Cheever. The Pennzoil Panther Pack will be in action again Feb. 26-27 during the league's annual "Test in the West" at Phoenix International Raceway in preparation for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28 at the 1-mile desert oval. Goodyear works out with the team when his schedule allows, and learned the value of working out after injuring his back in a 1996 racing mishap in Brazil. "I could see the difference with the team at Orlando," Goodyear said. "They were able to get me out of the pits quicker, and I know they will help us get into the winner's circle." Weller's training program should not be confused with ever-present infomercials. Her personalized training is fun, but she also makes it clear that improvement requires work. "It's a whole different concept. It's very high energy," said Weller, who has degrees in exercise physiology and nutrition. "What's amazed me is to see a group of people who are so motivated to do this. It's an awesome feeling to walk in knowing you're going to train 12 to 18 people that day, and everyone is motivated and to see them get results." Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes decided to buy eight pieces of weight training equipment and free weights for the shop. Weller expects the team to expand its gym. After setting up the workout area, Weller's first order of business was a full body assessment, including weight, body fat percentage and size measurements. She also worked with each team member to design a low-fat, moderate-protein and moderate-carbohydrate diet. "When I did their body fat I calculated their metabolism to let them know how many calories they needed," she said. "Their caloric intake was based on how much lean mass -- how much muscle and such -- they had. That gave them a goal for protein and fat intake. "It's not a diet, per se, but rather a range of protein and fat grams they need so it's more flexible because of their traveling." Weller also interviewed each participant to assess previous injuries. "There were a lot of back, elbow, knee and shoulder injuries," she said. "It was important to determine that so I could tailor training to each individual." Barnes knew the effects of a training program. "I trained John a couple of years ago, and he kept saying that he'd have something for me down the road," Weller said. "He called me last year and said he had his own team and was ready to get started. "The biggest effect I can see is the team is more unified. It's dynamite. The guys are inventing their own exercises. They have team pride in doing pit stops. It's another area where they can excel as a team. They know if you can pick up two or three seconds on a pit stop that's huge on the race track." After ending 1998 seventh in the championship point standings Panther Racing began rebuilding and configuring a team that they hope will put them in victory lane. The race crew had already established itself as the best in the Indy Racing League by winning four of five special pit-stop competitions last season. The biggest win was the prestigious Coors Pit Stop Challenge held in conjunction with the Indianapolis 500. The team reviewed videotapes of their pit stops and practice but still wanted to find another edge. Weller has delivered. "They have to have a lot of strength and endurance," Weller said. "They have a very athletic job. I cycle their training to combine building mass and others to help endurance. "We work on sports-specific training. The tires weigh 35 pounds so we take a 45-pound plate and use a motion similar to picking up the tire and taking it off and putting it on with the proper mechanics. They do that 20 to 35 times in a row so the endurance they build up in that motion is amazing. "After the pit stop or the race they now have energy. When they came back from Orlando the adrenaline was still flowing. They couldn't believe how well they felt. Plus it helps with teamwork; they encourage each other. "They feel better, and their energy is amazing. They told me after the race they weren't fatigued. Even the intensity and morale at work has gone up." Weller's training isn't limited to the race team. Her Panther students include staff members, including the controller, receptionist, public relations person and team co-owner Michael Griffin. "Like a lot of people I was active but at some point you get tied up in the rat race and working out is what goes," said Griffin, 56, who quit smoking three months ago as part of the program. "I think it's invigorating. I'm not the equal of any of them physically but you gain a little respect for making the effort and sweating with them. We don't have a big chasm between owners and employees anyway." Panther publicist Jana Griffith also works with Weller and believes she will have an easier time getting around the racetracks. "When you're at a race you're on your feet all day long, and I could tell at Orlando that working out has helped a lot." When the team goes on the road they are taking some free weights with them and have made it a priority to stay at hotels with workout rooms or locations near a gym. After three days away from working out you start to lose muscle mass," crew member Jones said. "We'll try to get a little workout on the road to keep us in tone." And fortunately for the team, Weller's nutritional program is flexible. "They'll always be room for a few 12-ounce curls," Jones said of post-race libations.

*** "Test in the West" schedule: Pep Boys Indy Racing League testing will start from 9 a.m.-noon Feb. 26, continuing from 1-5 p.m. that day. Testing will resume from 9-11:30 a.m. Feb. 27, with an autograph session for fans from 11:45-12:30 p.m. The final test session will take place from 1-5 p.m. that day. A private tire test will take place Feb. 28.

Source: IRL/IMS

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Scott Goodyear , John Barnes
Teams Panther Racing