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Why physical fitness is an understimated challenge for IndyCar rookies

The lack of in-car physical fitness is an “underestimated” hurdle for an IndyCar Series rookie, according to Dale Coyne Racing's Indy Lights graduate Sting Ray Robb.

Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda

Aside from IndyCar’s five days of open testing – last week’s two days at Thermal Club, two at Indianapolis in April, and one on the eve of the season finale at Laguna Seca – the teams are permitted just two other test days.

One of these must be pre-season, the other is in-season, and teams who figure in the secondary Indy NXT series previously known as Lights get an additional day in-season. Coyne, through its partnership with HMD Motorsports, is one of those teams, along with Andretti Autosport and Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Robb’s pre-season team test day has already been used up and the 2022 Indy NXT runner-up says while he has worked hard on his fitness there is no substitute for spending time in the car to make processes “second nature”.

“I think the physical fitness side is underestimated in a lot of senses because people think, ‘I can drive a car, I drive down the freeway all the time,’” said the 21-year-old, who is joined in the 2023 rookie class by Formula 2 race-winner Marcus Armstrong (Ganassi), Argentine touring car convert Augustin Canapino (Juncos-Holinger) and fellow Lights graduate Benjamin Pedersen (Foyt).

“Well, you're not doing it with four or five Gs on your neck with no power steering and it's 120 degrees in the car and you've got 26 other guys that are trying to rip you off the racetrack.

“We need to be able to perform in the car without thinking, and even if you are capable of turning the wheel and holding your head upright, you have to do it with a subconscious ability.

“You have to build up that muscle… It needs to be natural, second nature, because if you're thinking about it, you're already behind.

“There's too many things happening in the car for us to be thinking about, ‘How do I hold my head upright?’

“That's why drivers have to be very comfortable. That's why we have the custom fit race seats. That's why we have forced air intake. That's why we have the cool suits. That's why we have water.

Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda

Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda

Photo by: IndyCar Series

“If you didn't have those things, that's not to say that they're foolproof, but you get what's called brain fade, where you get deep into a race and a driver will make a mistake because they get brain fade from the physical fatigue.

“In a racecar, there's so many variables that are changing lap to lap, corner to corner, that if you fall into a rhythm, you're going to hit the wall. You have to be on your toes 110 percent of the time.”

Reflecting on his move into IndyCar, Robb was encouraged that his two seasons in Indy Lights had been adequate preparation regarding technique.

“I think the driving style is fairly similar moving from Indy NXT to IndyCar,” he said. “My first day in the car it felt very natural.

“It felt like it was an Indy NXT car that did what I wanted it to do. I didn't have to wrestle it around as much.

“But at the same time, you have more tools at your disposal. Obviously more speed, more power, better handling, the tires are much grippier.

“I think the biggest thing for me to learn would be on the strategy side, pitstop side of things, because that's nothing what we've had to do before.

“Obviously Indy NXT series is more of a sprint race style, whereas we're going into longer duration races where pit stops are required, different tyre compounds, and you've got to play that out with the other guys on pit lane.”

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