ST. PETERSBURG — Patrick Long started the defense of his second straight American Le Mans Series GT2 driver's championship by going on test runs.
With his body.
In January, Long and eight other Porsche factory drivers spent 10 days in Boca Raton for a boot camp. They went on 10-kilometer runs, lifted weights and did aerobics up to eight hours a day. "Physical training and racing go hand in hand," Long said. "Physical fitness is where the majority of the homework comes in. The true work."
Endurance racing is now about marathon men who make sure their bodies are running as well as their cars. And Long's steadfast commitment to conditioning has helped make a difference on the track. Last year he won his second straight and third career driver's championship.
Long started this season in January at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Driving the Porsche-powered Riley Daytona Prototype, Long and teammate Jorg Bergmeister won the pole position and led the first 27 laps. But an accident and a small engine fire forced them to drop out.
This weekend Long will try to navigate the treacherous turns of the 12 Hours of Sebring, a race he has won once (2005).
"Sebring is our Super Bowl," Long said. "It's the holy grail. To win, you have to have everything together because the track is so challenging and demanding. That's where the training element comes in."
Studies have found race car drivers can sustain heart rates of 120 to 150 beats per minute, about the same level as a serious marathon runner. Research also shows that aerobic and resistance training help drivers handle the g-forces racing generates.
There are benefits of adhering to a training schedule. Drivers suffer fewer injuries because their muscles protect their bones and internal organs. Drivers can better handle the intense heat in the car, 120 degrees or higher, because they start with a lower pulse, and a strong upper body helps a driver steer better when the car is not handling well.
"You're not just sitting on your butt driving," Long said. "In a car, you're basically in a sauna for three hours at a time. It's the equivalent of a brisk jog when you're out there. And you need strength training and a solid core to handle the 3 g's of load and the bumps that come with turns in a race."
The boot camp helped Long get in shape for the season. The tough part is maintaining it. Drivers are on the road 24 days a month.
"It's tough because you try to squeeze in a 45-minute jog at a hotel," Long said. "Traveling takes a lot of energy out of you."
To minimize the traveling, Long decided to take up part-time residence in Belleair in 2007. Long was familiar with the area because his mother lives in St. Pete Beach. But the move was made more because so many races are in Florida and it cut down on air travel to Europe.
"It just made sense to come here," said Long, 29, who was born in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "The weather here is a safe haven for me. And there are a lot more direct flights."
In the offseason, Long rides his bike on the Pinellas Trail and kayaks in Tampa Bay.
"I find ways to stay active," he said. "There's so much to do around here. I have to be around the immediate presence of water, so anything I can do near the beach works for me. It's a great area to stay in shape for the season."