performance

SPEED SKILLS

How two Canadians became gurus of the world’s racing elite

Dan Hawaleshka April 3 1995
performance

SPEED SKILLS

How two Canadians became gurus of the world’s racing elite

Dan Hawaleshka April 3 1995

SPEED SKILLS

performance

How two Canadians became gurus of the world’s racing elite

Accelerating out of turn four at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May, IndyCar driver Scott Goodyear lost control. Since his arrival at the Brickyard a few days earlier, the 35-year-old Toronto native had been frustrated by his car’s aerodynamics. Still, he drove his Lola Ford-Cosworth at a wild pace—too fast, as it turned out, for a car that was having problems hugging the road. At 365 km/h, the back end of the car slipped sideways coming out of the tight corner. Goodyear, heart pounding furiously, reacted instinctively, jerking the steering wheel to the right to avoid the outside wall. Suddenly, air turbulence created by the abrupt manoeuvre pushed the chassis up and spun the car around. Goodyear, hurtling backwards, headed towards the infield wall, his locked wheels billowing white smoke. The wrenching impact demolished his car and injured his back and left leg. “With my experience,” Goodyear now confesses, “I should have known better.”

To sharpen his reflexes after that accident, Goodyear visited another racing mecca—Daytona Beach, Fla., home to the Daytona 500 and, more recently, to two unassuming Canadians with swelling global reputations.

As the founders of Human Performance International (HPI), Jacques Dallaire and Dan Marisi are the gurus of the world’s racing elite, with a roster of clients that includes such marquee names as Britain’s Nigel Mansell, American Al Unser Jr. and the late Ayrton Senna of Brazil, perhaps the greatest racer ever. Says Goodyear, a loyal HPI client since 1989 and two-time defending champion of the Michigan 500: “It’s like going out and buying the best chassis and the best motor—you need to have the best of everything. I see this as going out and paying for something that’s going to improve the driver.

For $3,500, physiologist Dallaire, 41, and psychologist Marisi, 54, put drivers through a two-day mental and physical wringer, followed by a year’s worth of consultations. They assess physiological limits, nutritional habits, physical skills, visual acuity and mental conditioning. In one test, drivers shoehorn themselves into the shell of an IndyCar equipped with a string of red lights that race towards the cockpit at speeds that can be lightning fast. The objective is to punch a button on the steering wheel at the exact moment the last bulb flashes. A computer calculates the driver’s reflexes in milliseconds. Later, Marisi will explore the client’s mind. A computer briefly displays a short series of numbers, then tests how accurately the driver recalls what he has just seen. Response times provide a measure of his or her ability to register—and process—information on the fly. There are also questions designed to shed light on personality, in part by examining how the athlete pictures himself when he feels confident or insecure. Marisi talks with them about what he calls “mind-body transduction”—about how a person must think like a champion to become one. “The body will respond to the images you have in your mind,” he says.

It might sound like New Age mush, but Dallaire, a former McGill University professor, and Marisi, who still teaches at McGill, have the evidence and the big names to back it up. About 170 drivers from 18 countries have gone through HPl’s program; the firm’s offices, located within earshot of the Daytona International Speedway, are lined with autographed eight-by-10s of the world’s most famous high-performance drivers. HPl’s board of directors includes Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Eddie Cheever, NASCAR bright light Jeff Gordon and Lyn St. James (1992 Indy 500 rookie of the year).

For all its recent high-profile attention, HPI had humble beginnings. In 1983, a McGill phys ed student submitted an assignment to Dallaire outlining a proposed conditioning program for race-car drivers. Although much work remained to be done, the concept was intriguing. “I took the project and said, ‘Let’s go check into this,’ ”

‘The body will respond to the images in your mind1

recalls Dallaire, a native of Oshawa, Ont. Using borrowed equipment, he and Marisi, who grew up in Saskatoon, later measured the heart rates of several top Formula One drivers—among them Mansell and Nelson Piquet—at the 1984 Montreal Grand Prix. By talking with drivers and conducting more tests, the professors gradually developed a driver assessment and conditioning program and founded the Motor Sport Research Group, a business they ran in their spare time. Eventually, driver Lyn St. James visited Montreal for tests: she liked what she saw and introduced Dallaire and Marisi to Dr. Michael Fulton, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Daytona’s Halifax Medical Center.

In July, 1992, the two Canadians took their know-how to Daytona, establishing HPI in a three-year deal with the hospital. According to Dallaire, hospital politics and a mounting debt (“less than $1 million but more than $10”) ended HPl’s association with the centre a year early. Finally, last October, Human Performance International was incorporated with Dallaire, Marisi, Fulton and St. James as the principals. “I’m ecstatic about it,” says Dallaire.

So are drivers like Ron Fellows, who races in the Trans Am series. The 35-year-old Toronto resident swears by Dallaire and Marisi. “I think the world of those guys,” says Fellows, who has taken HPl’s advice and now rides a stationary bike—his heart pounding at 150 beats per minute—while playing video games to improve his concentration and reflexes. Other Canadian clients include 19-year-old Greg Moore from Maple Ridge, B.C., a rising star on the Indy Lights circuit, and Toronto resident David Empringham of Formula Atlantic.

Diversification has led HPI to assess members of Canada’s men’s and women’s downhill ski teams and the national waterskiing squad, as well as more than 100 firefighters, police SWAT-team members, sky divers, cyclists, tennis players and equestrians. And Dallaire and Marisi are currently in negotiations with a Tennesseebased barge company to develop a fitness program for its ship captains and pilots. The program is also open to any individual who books in advance and can afiford the $3,500 fee.

But HPl’s claim to fame remains its work on behalf of some of the world’s fastest men and women. In a sport in which cars can accelerate from zero to 160 km/h in four seconds and reach top speeds of almost 400 km/h, peak performance and reflexes are essential. “If there’s an accident and you stop to think, ‘Boy, which way should I go?’ you’re already part of the accident,” says

Goodyear. And physical fitness is only part of the story. Through his association with HPI, Goodyear, who will drive for Honda at this year’s Indy 500, has also learned how to warm up his mind before getting behind the wheel. “Before the race, I try to go off and find a half-hour to lie down and close my eyes and run through the event.” Still, even Goodyear admits that there are limits to what training can accomplish: “There’s nobody in their right mind who will tell you that you have control of the race car going backwards at 365 km/h.”

Dan Hawaleshka