Try to imagine this. You’re about to go for a five-mile run wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt over a long sleeve tee shirt, shoes and socks. On your head is a wool beanie and on your hands are gloves. Only, it isn’t the dead of winter, but rather, the height of summer at mid-day. Crazy you say? Well, that is what drivers in the IMSA TUDOR Championship face as the racing season heats up both literally and metaphorically.
With their fireproof underwear and driving suits, plus gloves and helmet, there isn’t a sliver of skin exposed. When the air temperature hits the mid-80s, the result can be temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit inside the racecar cockpit. As we sit comfortably in our air-conditioned cars during a commute or road trip when the mercury climbs, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to endure that added challenge of extreme heat on top of all the usual race pressure.
“It sounds obvious, but breathing is really critical to keeping cool,” says two-time Daytona Prototype champion driver, João Barbosa. “A lot of drivers hold their breath for long periods during a lap and that can really cause you to overheat. I remind myself to breathe steadily no matter what is happening around me or where I am on the lap.”
Being from the warm climate of Portugal might give him a leg up, but Barbosa has trained himself to remain acclimated to exertion in hot conditions. As a result, neither he, nor his co-driver Christian Fittipaldi, have worn a “cool suit” during races for the last two seasons. Cool suits are like a standard fireproof driving suit, but have a web of tubes bonded to the fabric where ice-cold water flows to cool a driver’s torso. A problem is that they require the driver to be tethered to a pump and ice cooler which is cumbersome.
“We don’t use the cool suits because the ice cooler and pump add extra weight, plus it makes the driver changes much slower and more difficult,” says Barbosa. “We both use a helmet blower though, and we’ve found that’s all we need. If your head stays cool, the rest of your body can put up with the heat for a stint behind the wheel.”
The helmet blower Barbosa refers to is a simple flexible hose that attaches to a port in the helmet, usually near top, with the other end connected to a fan feeding fresh air into the helmet. The team also makes sure that the racecar has adequate and efficient ventilation into the cockpit without disrupting its overall aerodynamic efficiency.
What’s most remarkable about Barbossa is that he does not drink in the car, whereas most drivers keep a cool bottle of water or sports drink connected to a sip tube that comes in through an opening in the helmet.
“I make sure that I stay really hydrated, especially before I get in the car,” he reveals. “I have a few different sports drinks and electrolyte mixes that I use, and I’ve learned over time to know how to keep my fluid levels right regardless of the temperature.”
Between races, Barbossa lives in the balmy climate of Miami, Florida, so heat is something he’s pretty accustomed to. Nevertheless, he routinely coordinates his workout schedule for the afternoon when the days are at their hottest to maintain his level of heat acclimation. While he shrugs off the challenges heat can bring, he acknowledges that the challenges are very real.
“The last thing you want is to overheat. Once you do, that’s it, you’re not coming back from that quickly. And it does happen to a lot of drivers. I’m fortunate that I have a good tolerance,” he says. Even so, occasionally the heat does require adjustments, “If it’s really hot, especially during one of the endurance races, we might switch our strategy to avoid a double-stint in order to stay fresher and have more recovery time.
In a typically laid back Portuguese way he concludes, “Really, we do whatever we have to do to be competitive and if that means being hot for a couple of hours, it’s no problem.”