Four Days of Physical and Mental Training Are Mixed with Fun Activities Like Karting, Axe Throwing and Table Tennis to Develop Better Teamwork
By John Oreovicz
INDIANAPOLIS – The idea was sparked in the autumn of 2019. Racer turned team owner Bryan Herta and Jim Leo, the founder of PitFit Training, were bouncing around ideas for how to maximize value in the growing relationship between Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai.
Herta joined forces with Hyundai in late 2018. The following season, in the first year of the manufacturer’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition, drivers Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkins delivered the first of what has been three consecutive Touring Car (TCR) class championships for BHA and Hyundai. How, Herta and Leo wondered, could they take a good thing and make it better?
“I had seen driver training camps executed in Europe for many years, usually for a select few factory drivers in the offseason,” Herta said. “But after a conversation with Jim, we started to think that we may be able to put something together that could benefit more than just the drivers on our BHA squad. We spoke to our partners at Hyundai, and after getting the green light, we laid out a jam-packed itinerary and sent out invites to our inaugural camp to all of the Hyundai racers across North America.”
That experimental effort was successful, enough so that the third annual Hyundai Drivers Camp wrapped up a busy four-day curriculum in Indianapolis earlier this year that saw 16 participants mix business with pleasure. And it’s hard to argue the results. Heading into the Michelin Pilot Challenge season finale on Sept. 30, the Fox Factory 120 at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, BHA teams occupy four of the top five spots in the standings as they chase a “four-peat” of TCR titles.
Most of the camp’s opening day was spent at PitFit, established by Leo in 1998 as a pioneer in training specialized for motorsports. Leo’s introduction to racing came when he coached Team Penske’s IndyCar pit crew during their highly successful 1994 season. He has built the program into a thriving business that offers specialized training for drivers and crewmembers.
Leo’s chief goal during the Hyundai camp is to train the drivers on how to train.
“We want to educate them on how to do things properly; that’s critical,” Leo noted. “The objective here is to make every driver healthier, more fit and safer through our program. I think there’s a lot of miseducation and misinformation out there that you can glean off the internet, but we want to make sure when they come in here, they’re learning the proper way to do things.”
Getting to Know You
After initial fitness assessments and a half day of training, the drivers were treated to dinner and an evening of leisure activities that included spirited games of table tennis and visits to an escape room and a local axe-throwing facility. The activities offered the drivers an opportunity to become better acquainted with their teammates on a human level without the intense focus and pressure that’s omnipresent at the racetrack.
“It’s really fun, just getting to know your teammates where you can have sort of a chill time where you’re not working 24 hours a day the entire time you’re there,” said Tyler Maxson, co-driver of BHA’s No. 77 Hyundai Elantra N TCR. “Everyone starts loosening up and we start to find out more about each other and we can have more fun.
“The camp is something I definitely look forward to every year,” he added. “It’s really cool to walk out of here with a lot of new skills and just things that I may have known but not had a greater understanding of. It’s really valuable to us, not only short term, because it teaches us a lot of long-term skills that can help us out in racing.”
The drivers started the second day at Speedway Indoor Karting, located a block from BHA’s race shop and in the shadow of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Leo devised a program that alternates seven intervals of driving karts with cardiovascular exercises including rope pulls, rowing machines, weighted medicine balls and various grip strength drills.
The afternoon curriculum included presentations from a pair of sports psychologists, Drs. Deidra Rausch and Laura Weaver, followed by a Hyundai corporate session and a refresher course on the use of data acquisition. The day’s formal activities wrapped up with a private tour of the nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, including access to the exclusive basement collection.
“I’ve been in a program like this for a while, so I’ve heard a lot of the messages and am pretty familiar. But it’s good to get refreshed,” said two-time TCR champion Lewis. He and co-driver Taylor Hagler paired up to win last year’s title and are poised to repeat in 2022 driving the No. 1 Elantra N TCR. They lead the TCR standings by 100 points heading to the finale.
“I’ve been through (the drivers camp) a lot, but I saw some of the younger guys taking notes, so it’s cool for them to be in tune with it,” Lewis continued. “I was really honing in on the mental exercises, to understand that it’s OK to have bad days. That message is really strong, and even though you’re aware of that, sometimes you put on this mask and try to push through it. It’s good to be open and the lesson we learned about that was really good.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The third camp day saw the drivers return to PitFit, where they were divided into three teams to cycle through many of the firm’s groundbreaking driver training exercises, focused on maximizing performance of both body and mind. Physical training emphasizes strengthening key muscles, especially in the neck, while working on conditioning to develop the stamina required for competitive driving.
Aside from learning ways to enhance their individual training programs, the team competition element to this phase of the camp boosted camaraderie among the drivers.
“I train five days a week as it is, but it’s good to see different variations of training since I’m kind of phasing out of snowboarding into fulltime racing, and there is a different training philosophy,” said AJ Muss, who shares the No. 2 Elantra N TCR with Ryan Norman. “You always push yourself a little harder because we’re all competitive. We all want to lift the most weight or have the best score on the heart rate monitors.
“The biggest thing for me is meeting new teammates I’ve never met before,” he added. “I think we’ve all bonded in a professional setting where we can kind of let our guard down and be people and not just race car drivers, because driving race cars is what we do, not who we are. It’s really nice to get to know the true people I’m driving with, and not the ‘other drivers,’ if that makes sense.”
Hyundai boasts an incredibly diverse group of drivers, from 17-year-old Maxson to the hugely experienced Wilkins, along with Hagler, who in 2021 became the first female champion in Michelin Pilot Challenge history. BHA also fields specially modified cars with hand controls for Robert Wickens and Michael Johnson, both paraplegic and both eager participants in the camp.
“It’s just a great team-building exercise for the team and I’m grateful to Hyundai for doing this for us because it helps us perform better on the track,” said Wilkins, the 2019 TCR champion with Lewis who now shares the No. 33 Elantra N TCR with Wickens. The all-Canadian, Wilkins-Wickens pairing debuted with an emotional third-place finish in this year’s season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the first race for Wickens since the 2018 IndyCar crash that severely injured him, and they teamed later in the season for back-to-back wins at Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
“It helps us work together better,” Wilkins added, “and with six cars in our camp, the more we work together, the better we’ll do. That’s the whole goal. The team aspect really encourages everyone to keep pushing on to do their best, and I think it’s really great for our young drivers coming onto the Hyundai ladder, so to speak.
“I remember as a kid growing up that it was always about me and my driving, and you sort of learn as you get on that it’s about the team – it’s about the crew and everybody and all those parts coming together to create the magic and get the wins. So, I think for those (younger) guys especially, to come here and see everyone working collectively and that whole team aspect is really beneficial for them moving forward as they get their careers going.”
Herta Learned from Super Team Experience in IndyCar
Herta learned about the power of positive team relations during his time running alongside Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon at Andretti Green Racing during the latter stages of his IndyCar career. He’s carried that same philosophy into team ownership. With two wins in the Indianapolis 500 and three consecutive TCR championships, the formula is clearly working. And Herta believes out-of-the-box thinking like the Hyundai Drivers Camp continues to build on his organization’s success.
“We learned a lot from the first one,” he said, “and as inquiries and recognition came into all of our social channels as it happened, we knew we were onto something that had really spoken to not only these drivers, but to the broader motorsports community as a whole. It’s only gotten better.”
Perhaps best of all, Hyundai recognizes the benefits of the camp.
“It ends up being a great team-building exercise that adds camaraderie for the Hyundai drivers, no matter what team they race for,” said Ross Rosenberg, manager of Experiential and N Brand Marketing for Hyundai. “Whether it’s through the workouts or through other activities like axe throwing, it definitely builds up those relationships, even if they didn’t know each other beforehand.
“Ultimately, it’s for all drivers who are racing Hyundais to come out of this better equipped with the tools that they need to be successful on the track. It’s designed to help make them as successful as possible, as well as to establish Hyundai as a great place to come to race.”