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Caraviello: Johnson sets golden standard in NASCAR athleticism

July 18, 2011, David Caraviello,

Johnson's punishing physical routine a testament to the athleticism in NASCAR

When Jimmie Johnson does pull-ups, he's hoisting not only his 160-pound frame up onto the bar, but also the 100-plus pounds of weight plates chained to his waist. When he does leg presses, he maxes out at more than 800 pounds. When he does an abdominal routine, he performs more than 1,000 movements, some of them hanging upside down, that work each part of his midsection. When he performs cardio, he runs sprints at a blistering six-minute-mile pace.

Clearly, Golden Tate picked on the wrong guy. After seeing Johnson listed among the nominees for male athlete of the year at a recent all-sports awards show, the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver took umbrage via Twitter at the presence of a race car driver alongside the likes of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tennis great Rafael Nadal, and the eventual winner, NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Dirk Nowitzki. "Jimmy johnson up for best athlete????" Tate wrote, showing his unfamiliarity with the driver's first name as well as fitness level. "Um nooo ... Driving a car does now show athleticism."

Physical therapy

Jimmie Johnson and others sound off against Golden Tate's tweet that NASCAR drivers aren't athletic.

Let's get beyond the ridiculous contradiction of a second-string wideout with all of 21 career catches bashing a five-time series champion who could go down as the greatest ever in his sport, or the sheer ignorance of a guy claiming that he could compete in NASCAR if just given six months to prepare (yes, he did that, too). Showing off that fine Notre Dame education, Tate is right; in and of itself, driving a car does not show athleticism. And yet, anyone who equates wheeling a passenger vehicle with winning 54 races at NASCAR's highest level -- "I've driven a car on unknown roads at night 90mph no big deal," Tate tweeted -- has been hit by a linebacker one too many times.

"Some people appreciate golf because they get to play country-club sports and they know, it's hard to do a hole-in-one. It's hard to do a 120 mph serve on the [tennis] court," said athletic trainer John Sitaras. "The only thing they can equate themselves to when they think of race car drivers is, OK, I drove to the airport and back. My mom can do that. No one's ever put them in a car where the temperatures can get so high, and you see how fast it is from a driver's perspective, and the cars are almost touching, and you have to have that coordination and that focus every single time. Your focus can't go on for 10 minutes, it has to go on for hours."

Sitaras would know. The founder of Sitaras Fitness in New York, he's been Johnson's trainer since 2007, when the driver signed on after winning his first NASCAR title, knowing he had to become more physically fit to win more. A former bodybuilder who designed his own fitness methodology, Sitaras oversees a punishing routine that has transformed Johnson into arguably the top athlete in the garage area, a system that's made him a better driver by improving his fitness, stamina and confidence. While NASCAR can be an easy target -- it has roots in moonshine running, had some drivers back in the day who would puff on cigarettes under caution, and even now isn't exactly stacked top to bottom with physical specimens -- singling out Johnson, The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 2009, shows a pitiable lack of awareness.

Besieged by an onslaught of responses from NASCAR fans, Tate eventually softened his tone. Still, misconceptions -- hey, some still think drivers use the same car all year, or ride to the race in the haulers -- linger. Johnson doesn't just jump in the car, mash the accelerator, and go. His fitness routine commands daily attention, and he exchanges up to four emails daily with Sitaras as to his progress. If he gets too busy and misses a workout, he has to make it up somewhere. Johnson's routines vary as to the time of year, tailored specifically to the regular season, the Chase, and the offseason. In what Johnson calls his "warehouse," essentially a big garage behind his home, he has a gym setup similar to what Sitaras has in New York.

"It's blood, sweat and tears, and he puts it in," Sitaras said. "Sometimes he's exhausted and he doesn't want to get it in, because it seems like it's impossible. Then OK, we have to double up on a day. At the end of the week, he has to report back and ensure he gets it in. He treats it as a full-time job. ... He's paid his dues, and he's so diligent season after season. This is no maintenance routine. this is definitely not hotel-type training where you're just working out for the hell of it."

The results are evident. Sitaras had Johnson perform pull-ups, and the driver reached a set of 20. To increase resistance, the trainer added 40 pounds of additional weight. Johnson kept knocking them out. After a year and a half of training, Johnson was doing pull-up sets with 70 pounds of weight plates strapped to his waist. He's currently up to 110. All this from a guy who also performs cardio exercise to rigid time limits. When Johnson runs, Sitaras wants him moving at between six and six-and-a-half minutes per mile, and never slower than eight minutes per mile. Once, Sitaras wanted to see how much Johnson had left after a race. So he had his client run change out of his firesuit and pound out a few miles. The results were "pretty much unheard of," Sitaras said.

"Usually you can't have the best of both words. If a person is light, sometimes they can be fast, but not so powerful," he added. "Now [Johnson] is fast, and he's actually just as strong as any pro lifter. He can lift an enormous amount of weight. If a pro bodybuilder straps 100 pounds to himself and tries to lift himself up, he's lucky to do a few reps, because they usually weigh 250, 260. To have someone who can be a bullet, running long distance and at the same time can lift an enormous amount of weight, that's the best of both worlds."

When Johnson started training, Sitaras said the driver could leg press a few hundred pounds. He progressed to 500, and is up to 800 pounds. "That's an enormous amount of power," Sitaras said. Johnson does single-leg leg presses where he rotates back and forth between legs, preparing him to better work the pedals in the car. His 1,000-move abdominal routine is a day unto itself, one that helps his core better absorb the shock of forces his body feels while turning the car. "It's like in the race, having fresh tires all the time," the trainer said. "He feels like he has fresh tires when he's turning." And that stamina helps sharpen mental acuity, so Johnson can focus more of his efforts on driving the car.

"Jimmie trains exactly like a fighter. He's trained so well that sometimes the races don't seem that difficult."

--JOHN SITARAS, trainer

"The fitter you are, your confidence level is going to go through the roof," Sitaras said. "You're like a trained fighter that's paid his dues and had a whole season of training, and now you're ready to let loose and fire in the ring, as opposed to someone who's just dabbling in it. We have trained fighters here who compete in mixed martial arts, and we see how much vigorous training they do. Jimmie trains exactly like a fighter. He's trained so well that sometimes the races don't seem that difficult. It's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared, and most times going into the races he's over-prepared."

The significance of all this is measured not just in how often Johnson visits Victory Lane. As reigning five-time champion, Johnson is very much the face of a sport that's become much more athletic as it's become more competitive, and doesn't always get the credit in that area that it deserves. When he won the AP award following his 2009 season, Johnson received a handwritten note from NASCAR executive vice president Jim France, expressing how important it was to his father and brother -- former NASCAR chairmen Bill France and Bill France Jr., respectively -- that drivers be considered athletes. No one bolsters that claim more than the pilot of the No. 48 car.

NASCAR ambassador that he is, Johnson seems more than willing to spread the message. Comments like Tate's, he believes, stem simply from a fundamental lack of understanding. "I'd just like to show him around and see if we can show him what our sport is about and change his mind," Johnson told reporters at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "There might be other athletes out there who think the same, and they're all welcome to come out. We'd all love to host them and show them around."

So there you go, Golden. The invitation stands. Heck, Johnson might even offer to drive you around the track. Just think of all the things you could learn about NASCAR, and all the pointers on strength and fitness you might pick up.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.