One look at Patrick Long, a Porsche endurance sports car racer for each of the last 20 years, is all you need to see that he keeps himself race-ready. Talking to him as I did this time last year, one will understand how seriously he treats the nutrition he’s consuming before and during lengthy events, such as this weekend’s Rolex 24 — as in 24 hours — in which he’ll share a Porsche 911 GT3R with three other drivers, taking turns, “stints,” in two to three-hour intervals on Daytona’s road circuit.
The gravity with which he treats his caloric intake is a point of pride, probably why a 2010 American Le Mans Series race at Laguna Seca sticks in his crawl. It was the only time he ever tapped out, abandoning a stint before the end of its scheduled distance.
“I had to get out,” Long recalled. “What I actually attributed it to was an excess amount of sports drink intake and I think I had an adverse reaction to too much sugar. It reacted in a really weird way. It was combined with some heavy fumes from under (caution conditions) and so I had a kind of a nauseous feel.”
The sports drink was a team sponsor marketed as “university grade,” so Long, with idle time before a long stint in a difficult race, treated himself.
“I think I drank four of those things and literally made myself sick,” he said. “So, a real lack of knowledge that you can overdo it and probably a real mismanagement of the timing of my meals. My system was full of sports drink and it was empty on food. It was a pretty gnarly reaction.”
Don’t let Long’s one mistake long ago fool you; he knows his stuff, thanks to years of trials by fire and an incentivized curiosity of all things nutrition-related. He admits a staple of his endurance outings is an iconic duo between two slices of bread.
“I would say if I had one rescue and recovery, like if I could have one meal to get through (a 24-hour race), it would be a peanut butter and jelly on wheat.”
Not that the sandwich needs its virtues extolled — a 2016 survey suggests 53 percent of Americans regularly consume PB&Js — but it does require regulating. To do so, Long’s taken to journaling what he eats.
“I’m not looking for that sugar, but I realize that I need to replenish lost salts and sugars, especially on hot days,” said Long, whose bona fides include class victories in endurance races at Le Mans, Daytona, Bathurst and Germany’s Nürburgring. “I’ve started to write down what I eat and when through 24 hours because you really do lose track. You’re taking in maybe 4,000 to 5,000 calories. It all starts to blur together and you forget how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you’ve eaten.”
In moderation, the sandwich’s advantages are simply too good to ignore.
“I can pound that in my system five minutes before I get in the car and not have to worry about breaking down complex proteins or having a gut full of pasta or eggs and bacon or whatever.”
While Long is progressively post-pasta, the noodle-and-shell category of the food pyramid remains the go-to for sports car drivers between stints in these daylong events, though drivers are starting to distance themselves from the heavy fare.
Dane Cameron gravitated towards rice from traditional pasta a few years ago. Ricky Taylor downs rice after a debrief with his engineer and appointment with the team physio. Hélio Castroneves still dares to dine on “a little pasta,” shunning steak. “You know, I think it’s too heavy,” he said.
Zach Veach, recently converted from IndyCar and preparing for his first Rolex 24 start, joked that he’s planning to sacrifice sushi, his favorite on the eve of races. He’s been coached by his Vasser Sullivan teammates to carbo-load like most.
“Definitely a lot of pastas, a lot of carbohydrates for the race,” he said. “At least that’s what the guys have been telling me. And a lot of Pedialyte, just trying to get those electrolytes and hydration back in is really important.”
Another Porsche product, Laurens Vanthoor, is an avid cyclist in addition to being a championship-winning driver. With his hobby and job regularly coalescing, he’s become more in tune with what he’s eating.
“This sport is a bit special in its way in that it requires physical fitness, mental fitness and so on,” he said. “Maybe 70 percent of your result on the track is your talent, the ability to drive the car, and the other 30 percent is the way you’re prepared, the way you’re working off the track.”
That preparation includes food, and Vanthoor experiments with a little bit of everything. He went vegan for a spell last year but moved away from it, its underlying point to help build discipline, something he believes he lacked during the formative years of his career.
“After really tough races I’d often reward myself with a couple of burgers,” he told IMSA.com. “But afterwards I always felt as if I shouldn’t have. These days I simply choose not to.”
Vanthoor moderates his food intake during the race, drinking water and eating carbs days beforehand, so it’s all stored in his body. Between stints, he slowly replenishes fluids and now eats a small, simple meal of rice or vegetables — it used to be chicken — a requirement his fatigued brain, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, finds difficult to process.
“In the beginning (of the race) it’s easy to eat. You eat whatever’s on your plate,” he said. “When you’re asked to get up at 3 at night, it starts to be more complicated. You kind of look for whatever you’re in the mood for. And when your stomach starts to complain, you follow whatever you desire in the worst cases.”
An additional challenge in recent endurance races, also present in this weekend’s event, is the impact of COVID-19 on meal-planning. For one, teams aren’t preparing food for their drivers and crew as they normally would. This leaves some drivers in the lurch, forcing them to meal-prep on their own.
“I go out myself and prepare my own food,” said Felipe Nasr, part of the pole-winning Action Express Racing team. “I stock it in the RV, in the motorhome. Actually, I’ve been practicing that since last year, because we don’t get the luxury anymore to have someone cooking for us.”
“A snack? That could be an extra risk, having someone (make it) that is not within our group and we don’t know.”
The preparation, especially in the thick of a global pandemic, is everything, a truism among the most time-tested drivers. Mainstays like Long won’t stress too much. The idea of a 24-hour-long race seems maddening when you think about it, but if you’re drilled enough to achieve expert status, its execution is old-hat.
“I’m aware of my hydration,” said Long. “I’m aware of my nutrition, I’m not carb-packing and you don’t see a bottle in my hand right now. I’m not at the point where I’m all about the science of it.”