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NASCAR driver Carl Edwards' job is basically to sit in a car and make left turns all day. But few outside the sport realize just how grueling that can be. The drivers must navigate bumper-to-bumper traffic that's moving at 180 miles per hour while strapped into a seat that bakes north of 140 degrees on a hot day. Any mental lapses can result in death. "In a really hot, long race"—they usually last about four hours—"it pays off if you can be focused without being worn out physically," Edwards says.
It's not that he needs hyperdeveloped leg muscles to work the gas pedal. The NASCAR circuit is more of an endurance test. Drivers must execute precise, if repetitive, motions in their cars for long stretches under intense pressure. And they must do it amid the grind of a punishingly long schedule. The Nextel Cup Series, NASCAR's premier race series, has 36 events on Sunday afternoons from February to November, making it one of the longest seasons of any major pro sport. That's not to mention the drivers' nonstop city-hopping to midweek obligations for their corporate sponsors.
That's why Edwards, an affable 27-year-old who drives the No. 99 Office Depot Ford Fusion, works hard to maintain what's unquestionably the best-chiseled physique in NASCAR. Edwards was a dirt-track expert by his late teens and was always athletic, but as a kid he made fun of gym rats. About 10 years ago, he says, he got serious about fitness, on the advice of NASCAR veteran Mark Martin, who's still racing on the Nextel Cup Series at age 48. These days, Edwards' routine includes plenty of cardio work—as much as an hour a day, typically biking or running—and weightlifting sessions, which last about half an hour, as many as four times a week.
Having hard bodies behind the wheel would be a big shift for NASCAR, a league whose roots run back to moonshine runners and cigarette sponsorships. At a gym set up in the infield of the Daytona International Speedway, where Edwards was practicing for the season-opening Daytona 500, Edwards demonstrated a typical workout session for BusinessWeek. "Ten years ago there might not even have been a gym at the track," says Fox Sports announcer and former pit-crew chief Jeff Hammond, who credits Edwards with helping to raise the profile of fitness in the sport.
Joined by fellow racers Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray, Edwards went through a quick routine focused mostly on back muscles. It consisted of multiple sets of lateral pulldowns, triceps curls, and shoulder shrugs. He had to be out in a hurry to get ready for practice laps around Daytona's 2.5-mile track in a couple of hours. (Edwards would eventually finish the race 23rd in a field of 43.)
Last summer, Edwards began working with Dean Golich of Carmichael Training Systems, a Colorado Springs company founded by Lance Armstrong's trainer, Chris Carmichael. "He was pretty strong," Golich says, "but I don't know if he was really fit." Together, they devised a training routine that's more systematic about when and how Edwards works out, depending on where he is in his race schedule. It's an approach more common to endurance sports athletes, such as seven-time Tour de France champ Armstrong.
The training routine varies according to the demands of each track. For instance, Edwards and Golich identify races at tracks such as the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee; it's a short, half-mile track with steeply banked turns. Those tight conditions create a lot of potential for contact, which makes it the kind of venue that's more taxing physically and mentally on a driver. So in the week before racing there, or sometimes two weeks in advance, they'll dial back on the heavy lifting and incorporate more rest, especially during the hottest days of summer. "You have to know how to train through some races," Golich says, "and how to rest for when you want to be ready to go."
That will be crucial for Edwards, whose schedule is demanding even by NASCAR standards. In addition to the Nextel Cup he's competing in the second-tier Saturday Busch Series races, and he's doing a handful of Friday night truck races. In all, he'll do about 75 races this season. Plus, away from the track, he recently started a record label, Back 40 Records, in his hometown of Columbia, Mo. "I can't [call in] sick," he says. Nor can he afford to be totally gassed at the end of a race he has won—Edwards punctuates each victory with a backflip off his car. By Brian Hindo