Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mike Lepp: Fitness expert at Joe Gibbs Racing

Mike Lepp, athletic director at JGR
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke  
As athletic director at Joe Gibbs Racing, Mike Lepp oversees the health and wellness of about 80 people who go to the track every week - drivers, crew chiefs, engineers, mechanics, pit crew members and hauler drivers.

“I’m responsible on the road to make sure they’re all healthy and operating properly,” he said.

L to R: Front tire carrier Brandon Pegram, jackman Nate Bolling,
and front tire changer Dustin Necaise in action
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke 
Although he coaches several teams, Lepp likes to think of himself more as a teacher. That’s because although he trains pit crews now, he used to teach ABCs and 123s. Lepp taught kindergarten before earning a master’s degree in exercise physiology and launching a career in sports medicine.

Later, Lepp transitioned into motorsports, bringing his teaching ability, scientific perspective and problem-solving philosophy into a professional team sport – elite pit crew athletes.

His years of work experience in cardiology and endurance sports like soccer and pro-cycling prepared him for his first assignment at JGR: to improve the times on pit stops.

L to R: Gasman Scott Wood, rear tire carrier Heath Cherry,
and rear tire changer Mike Hicks on the wall.
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke 


When I got here six years ago there were seven guys going over the wall instead of the six we have now. The average at the time was about 13.6. Today with 6 guys ... we’re running upper 11s. We kinda shot ahead of a lot of teams and they’re catching us now. A lot of it has been related to a bunch of little things from the shoes we use to the firesuits to how we train the guys, hydration, all those things.

According to Lepp, faster pit stops are essential in NASCAR today, because the cars are more equal, making it more difficult to pass on the race track. As a result, the human element on pit road becomes a key variable. When they execute a stop well, the pit crew athletes can gain track position for their driver.

Necaise limbering up before the race
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
“When you’re dealing with human performance, nutrition and physical training are a critical part of that,” he said. “I think in the last 20 years, all sports have innovated and improved because they’ve taken a more scientific approach to how they train and develop athletes.”

Lepp shared how his own scientific approach earned him a unique nickname, “Dr. Evil,” like the scheming antagonist from the Austin Powers movies:

Pre-race stretches for Pegram and Bolling.
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke


Coy Gibbs gave it to me – Joe’s other son who does our motocross program. It was like four or five years ago. I said something like, “This is all based on science, Coy, peer-reviewed science.” And he said, “You’re a freaking Dr. Evil.”

At the track, if someone is not feeling well, they say, “Go find Dr. Evil.” When they label my bags, they put it on there. I always say when you stop calling me anything is when I need to be worried.

Day to day, Lepp wears many hats as athletic director: recruiter, trainer, problem solver, motivator, encourager. He describes his relationship with the JGR drivers and crew members:

Fresh fruit is always available in the hauler.
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
With drivers, I’m an advisor. They know they can come to me if they want to know about something, like “Is this a good thing to eat?” or “Is that a good way to work out?”

With my crew guys I’m somewhere between a teacher and a father, I guess. I spend more time with these guys than I do my own family. I think because I’m older, a lot of my guys look up to me. I care about them as people first, and that comes from the guy I work for, Joe Gibbs.

What does Lepp do for fun? He spends time with his 23-year-old daughter. He enjoys hanging out with the guys away from racing, something he says he doesn’t get to do enough, and loves coming up with goofy physical challenges for himself.

“Last year I kicked a 40-yard field goal and hit a baseball 300 feet. That is my stress relief, doing stupid challenges.” Lepp’s most recent challenge will be catching a football thrown from ten yards away by Trey Burklin, a reserve jack man who was a quarterback at Miami.

Lepp keeps everything running smoothly for the Gibbs crews by using checklists on his iPad for each day and activity.

“I’m a checklist freak. I think that process gets your mind in the game and gets you focused on what you’re doing. I make them for just about everything – practices, film review, raceday.”

Hicks warms up with some stretches behind the pit box
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke 
Here’s a glimpse inside Lepp’s checklists and schedule for a week:

Saturday & Sunday (race days):
  • Pre-race: Check if everybody is healthy. Give everyone hydration solution. Make sure everyone does stretches and warm-ups. Be sure overhead and helmet cams are set up. Double check with crew chief on anything crew should know about car setup.
  • During race: Observe pit stops, check on crew members mid-race. Watch other teams.
  • Post-race: Rehydrate everybody. Check if anyone is injured. Give a team health report to medical staff back at headquarters.
Monday:
Watch and analyze films from pit stops. Work with Paul Alepa, JGR’s pit crew coach, to write a practice plan for the week. Light cardio workout for all three teams. Each team watches their own film.

Tuesday:
Strength training practice and crossfit workouts for teams.

Wednesday:
Interval cardio training and sprinting at team practice.

Thursday and Friday:
Off days for the teams. This is their “weekend” when they’re home with their families.

***

Eat, drink, sleep … and be fit

Lunch side dishes: piping hot veggies & red beans with rice
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
Lepp likes to “optimize the environment” for his teams at JGR by giving them everything they need to succeed. He starts by recruiting guys who are already fit and giving them simple ways to train, hydrate and eat.

Because the NASCAR season is so long, Lepp focuses not only on training, but also recovery strategies.

“The guys that recover the most so they can be fresh every week is a big, big deal. Obviously, in that recovery, nutrition plays a big role,” he said.

Lepp mixes hydration solution for the pit crew.
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
Hydration is critical, too. “This is the most dehydrated sport I’ve ever been in because they wear these heavy firesuits and most of your season is in the heat. I don’t do it as much anymore, but I would check guys on Mondays and every one of them was massively dehydrated. Once you’re 2% dehydrated ... mental function is affected.”

Now Lepp mixes hydration solutions to help his teams pre-hydrate and to replete them after workouts and races.

“I’m a big hydration guy,” he said.


Varied cereal choices in the hauler drawer
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
Eating right is important for athletes, so Lepp practices what he preaches, eating mostly a “whole foods,” low-glycemic type of diet. But he doesn’t force grown men to follow food rules.

“Most of our guys know hot dogs aren’t good. When they go to Martinsville, are they gonna grab one of those stupid things? Probably. Possibly not all of them,” he said, with a chuckle.

Lepp said he pushes their flight attendants to serve decent food on the plane. The haulers stock a mix of healthy and not-so-healthy foods and the guys can choose.

“This is a performance-related business and if you choose to do things that hurt performance, you’re probably not gonna be in it very long,” he said.

Hodel grills a pre-race lunch for the team
Photo by Beth Bence Reinke
Frank Hodel, hauler driver for the No. 11 team, is also their on-the-road chef. He grills meat and cooks healthy side dishes for pre-race meals and stocks the hauler with groceries. As a member of the behind-the-wall pit crew, Hodel has to keep fit, too.

Adequate sleep is another essential for good performance. With intense practices, races and lots of travelling, fatigue is a constant battle. A few years back, Lepp tried a new way to get the teams more rest.

“We kinda broke the mold and started having our (Cup) pit crew guys do Nationwide races. A benefit to that is less fatigue, because instead of travelling on Sundays and getting up at three in the morning, our guys started getting more rest because they were already there (at the track) on Saturday or Friday nights.”

Training. Nutrition. Hydration. Rest. The bottom line is that when guys follow the fitness program, it can help win races.

When it comes down to the money stop, the last pit stop, the athlete that is the least fatigued, most hydrated, (with his) brain functioning properly, is the guy that’s gonna deliver the fastest pit stop - and how you train and how you eat determines that.  ~ Mike Lepp 

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Beth Bence Reinke is a columnist, support editor & media rep for Skirts and Scuffs. She writes "Gibbs Garage," Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup team recaps, for the 2012 season. Her column, “Faith on the Frontstretch,” explores the role of faith in motorsports. Beth is also the author of Race Fans’ Devotions to Go, a devotional book geared toward female NASCAR fans. Follow her on Twitter at @bbreinke or reach her at bbreinke@skirtsandScuffs.com

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