Handling those hot wheels

CARY CASTAGNA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

She's widely known as the reigning beauty queen of open-wheel auto racing.

And for good reason. Her pretty face and dangerous curves have landed her in the 2008 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

Her racy pin-up portfolio also includes a smokin' photo spread in FHM - where she was dubbed "the hottest thing on wheels since Roller Girl."

But when IndyCar sensation Danica Patrick works out during the racing season, her No. 1 concern isn't on toning her abs or tightening her glutes so she can fit nicely into her itsy bitsy teenie weenie white bikini.

Rather, the main focus of her weight-training sessions is more practical than cosmetic, she says.

"During the season is not the ideal time to be upping the weights and changing the program and getting sore, because the only important thing you need to do is drive the car - not get a cut and defined bicep," the 26-year-old product of Roscoe, Ill., tells Sun Media in an exclusive one-on-one interview.

At a diminutive five-foot-two and 110 pounds, Patrick knows she needs to be as physically strong as possible in the macho, male-dominated Indy Racing League.

After all, the spicy brunette is wrestling with 1,500 pounds of untamed high-octane machinery at speeds routinely exceeding 300 kmh - without power steering.

And don't forget there's a 3.5-litre V8 engine in her No. 7 car that unleashes 420 horsepower at 8,200 RPM.

"There's no power steering or anything like that," she says. "It's physically demanding."

That's why Patrick, who gave Alberta a dose of Danica Mania this past weekend at the Rexall Edmonton Indy, races to the weight room up to three times a week.

Indy's highest-paid driver won't reveal exactly which exercises she enjoys hitting with a sweaty vengeance - she doesn't want to give away all her weight-training secrets.

But suffice it to say that Patrick performs three sets of 10 to 12 reps of movements that work mainly her upper body.

"From the waist up, really. So, your back, your shoulders and your arms, those are all critical areas," she explains.

"You want to be fatigued at the end of your workout just a little bit.

"During the season, ideally I like to do the weights that don't make me sore but maintain strength. I try to keep the routine pretty consistent and similar the whole season."

There's also the cardio component of her training, which isn't to be neglected, considering a road-rage-inducing race lasts the better part of three hours.

"They're long races. Cardiovascular is very important," notes the former high school cheerleader. "Our heart rate is as if we're running the whole time - 160, 180 beats per minute the whole time - so your cardio has to be very strong, too."

So Patrick, the first and only woman to win an IndyCar race, tries to do as much as 50 minutes of cardio every day.

The photogenic speed demon, who sets men's pulses racing whether she's on or off the track, likes to get her heart pumping on the treadmill or the elliptical machine, although she prefers running outside when she gets the chance.

"I'll just throw my tennis shoes on and go. I usually run for time, not distance," she explains. "Sometimes I only have time for half an hour. Sometimes that's all I want to do."

The petite fan favourite also likes to keep limber with yoga.

"It helps to just stretch you out and puts you in different positions than normal," she says. "I go to a class maybe once a month during the season."

Yoga, incidentally, led Patrick to her husband Paul Hospenthal.

She admits that one fateful morning circa 2002 she was doing yoga in her living room to a TV show called Inhale when she injured her hip flexor.

"It was early in the morning. I wasn't stretched out. I'm competitive and I was trying to compete with everybody in the class on TV," she recalls with a chuckle. "I pushed a little bit much."

She ended up seeing a physical therapist - and later asked him out. They married in November 2005.

The duo often pumps iron together. They have a fully equipped gym in their Phoenix home and they're members of a nearby fitness centre.

"I'm on the road a lot, too, so my husband and I will just pay a day membership and go in and lift weights wherever we're at," she says, noting her hubby's expertise comes in handy.

"He's a physical therapist (and personal trainer) so he can obviously help out a lot from an exercise standpoint and from recovery and just a wide base of knowledge of what it takes to be healthy and have a body that's ready to do the job - and that's drive."

As for putting fuel in her body, Patrick says she strives to eat a balanced diet but she admits she's not perfect.

"I have a cookie or chocolate every day, or something like that, but I don't have the whole cookie. It's not necessary. A little bit here and there."

Indeed, you could say Patrick goes the extra mile to keep fit - and that has kept her right on track.

\ DANICA PATRICK'S FITNESS ADVICE:

"It's not bad to eat bad food, just don't eat a lot of it. If you can't work out, then go for a walk or do something to get moving.

"Stay active, whatever it is. Try to pick something you like to do, because if you don't like to do it, you probably won't."


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