Michael McDowell is the man to beat this Sunday at the Great American Race. In 2021, the NASCAR Cup Series veteran became the 63rd winner of the Daytona 500, driving his No. 34 Ford Mustang for Front Row Sports.
In addition to exhilarating competition behind the wheel, the 37-year-old understands that failing to prepare is like preparing to fail, so ahead of this year’s Daytona 500, M&F sat down with the champion and Celsius athlete to find out how he trains for life in the fast lane.
Daytona must be quite the adrenaline rush?
It’s insane. I’ve never been a fighter pilot, but that’s what I compare it to. You stay laser focused on the task, and you don’t really have a whole lot of extra capacity to be thinking about anything else, you’re just fixated on what you have to do in the car — literally to stay alive, right? I mean, it’s just crazy. You’re three, four [cars deep], 200 miles an hour, inches apart, and you’re making decisive and calculated moves with only a matter of inches away from disaster. You just stay so intense and so focused that even when the race is over, it’s hard to unwind because you’re just in that mode of fight or flight for so long.
How do you feel about returning to Daytona, to defend your championship?
This year it’s been awesome. I think it’s fun, you know, to go there this weekend and be the reigning champion. Coming back to a place that was really special for us last year. There’ll be a lot of buzz, a lot of hype, and a lot of fun. So, I’m just taking it in and enjoying it. I’m also realizing that we have the opportunity to do it again and to go back-to-back. We are always thankful for the results and the accomplishments that we’ve achieved, but we’re always looking for the next one, too. So, no better way to kick off the season than to try and go back-to-back at Daytona.
Has racing always been your sport of choice?
I raced BMX bikes growing up, so yeah, I’ve always been racing something.
You spend time in locations with hot climates. Does that help you to prepare for driving 500 miles on a humid course?
Living in North Carolina now, and being from Phoenix, are like completely different heats. In Phoenix, you have that dry-hot, 125 degrees — not that much fun. So, they are both hot. I find the East Coast is closer to what it’s like inside the racecar. The heat inside the car has that “hard to breathe” kind of heat to it, whereas in the desert, it’s just like, you can’t touch anything.
It sounds like there’s no substitute for acclimatizing to the actual heat inside the car?
You can train in the offseason all you want, but nothing trains you for the race car like the race car itself. Just the [race] duration and all those things. Those first five races [in the winter months] are pretty mild temperatures, so it’s easy to get back in the swing and then then as you get into the late spring and early summer, it all starts to ramp up. It gets pretty difficult, so the hotter it is, the harder it is for sure. Honestly, not turning on air conditioning when I get in your car is something that I do. I just literally sweat it out to get used to the heat.
Do you train physically in the heat, too?
I try and get out during the hottest part of the day. So, most people wake up and do their workout in the morning, or they do it in the evening after work. I try to do mine at noon, you know, in the summertime, in the hottest part of the day. Whether that’s cardio or cycling or running … just trying to be in, you know, high-intensity situations while it’s hot. The sauna, steam room, all those things help.
How do you fuel your body?
Those long duration races are over four hours. So, you’ve got to fuel your body well, and you have to understand your body to know what your body needs to sustain energy for that long.
For me, it’s just finding organic food, nothing processed. It’s been a bit of a trial-and-error process … because you know, you don’t want to go into the race so loaded up that you feel slow and lethargic. But, you also need to have enough food … so even as crazy as sounds, just having the right body fat percentage and not being too lean for me is a huge thing. When I get too lean, I’m good for about two and a half hours but the last hour and a half, I’m really struggling.
How often do you work out?
You know, I woke up this morning and took the kids to school, had a Celsius on the way to the gym. My wife and I did a kind of cross training session, bootcamp style, for speed, agility… kind of fast-paced stuff. Today was squats, jump squats, deadlifts, hamstring curls, jumping lunges, reverse lunges. Two or three days out of the week it will be something like that. And then for the other two or three days, I’ll either cycle or run outside.
Do you find that training with your wife helps you to stay accountable?
Jami is beast mode. She’s highly competitive, and super Fit. So, she keeps me motivated, for sure.
Racing requires such fast cognitive skills. Do you do any type of reactive drills?
We do different training throughout the year and in the offseason. We’ll do hand-eye coordination training and simulation. When you’ve as long as I’ve done it, and you’ve seen a lot of different situations, you just rely on gut, and it’s usually the best judge of what you need to do. But staying sharp and staying focused is a huge part of our sport, for sure. When you stay sharp, you stay focused and you stay healthy. You’re able to draw back on those experiences in half the reaction time, and have that hand-eye coordination and be able to process things at a quicker rate. So, I think it’s a combination of training and experience.
The kind of training that you do is putting yourself in those types of miserable situations, whether it’s training while fasting, you know, doubling workout durations and things like that, in which you just literally feel like you don’t have any more energy to go, and you’ve just got to be able to find that extra gear.
Mental toughness must be non-negotiable when you are in the midst of a long race?
I’m astonished with just how hard you can push through things. So, I feel like for me, as long as I don’t ever get to the point where I go off [mentally], and it’s hot, or even thinking about being tired; I’m fine, I can push through it. But as soon as you start thinking about those things, you’ve already lost the battle. So, it’s just keeping in the right frame of mind and keeping your brain fixated on the right stuff.
Do you take Celsius with you into the car?
I drink it before the race, and that just really helps with getting the clarity and focus, and energy, that you need to get going and to be sharper… to be ready to go. I use it the same way as I would as a pre-workout.
So how do you calm down in your downtime?
For me, it’s hunting. It’s the opposite of what I do for a living. Like, you’ve got to be still and quiet and you can’t move fast. I think that’s why I do it so much, because it’s really relaxing.
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