Pictures courtesy of Jay Prasuhn

Imagine yourself strapped into a 700 horsepower machine, and told to haul the mail around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at nearly 200 miles per hour, tucked into the middle of a pack—trying not just to crash, but to win a 300-mile race. Could there be anything scarier? For NASCAR Xfinity Series champion driver and Wattie Ink. ambassador Justin Allgaier, there is: the prospect of the open water swim in a half-ironman. 

“Man, that swim is the thing I’m most nervous about,” Allgaier says with a laugh. “I was lucky to swim with pro triathlete Brad Williams this winter in Tulsa, and while he gave me some tips, I didn’t realize how fast these guys go, and how difficult it is! I’ve swum to have fun, but to swim and go fast? That’s a scary deal!”

You wouldn't expect that wariness from one of the most successful NASCAR Xfinity drivers on the circuit, but context is everything, no? Once his firesuit and helmet are on and he’s behind the wheel of his firetruck-red No. 7 Chevy Camaro, watch out. A true veteran of the NASCAR circuit, he’s probably better versed on the effects of aerodynamics than any triathlete, carving a path to the front of the field. In 2019 he won the Xfinity Series title, and this year sits, as expected, ensconced in the top ten at the opening of the season. 

The recent Coronavirus has put the season on hiatus, but it’s provided him a bit more time to train for his new goal: his first triathlon, at Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga this summer. Allgaier selected the race as the crown jewel of a challenge he set for himself two years ago: to get fitter than just a simple weights program in the gym. In fact, an unexpected surgery kept him from his first planned triathlon with friends several years ago in 2011. After he’d recovered from the surgery, he pushed off his tri plans a year. Then two. Then five. 

Last year, he’d had enough. “I hit my birthday and decided I was tired of where I was,” he says. “I was riding a bit, but wasn’t really training, and felt stale.” It was time to put in a two-year plan: get running, riding, swimming, and put a race on the docket in 2020. He picked Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, on May 17th. His trainer decided to join him in his endeavor. 

“Most start with a sprint or Olympic, but my trainer and I decided to set our goals high. In my day job I always have goals, but with this, I have no expectations,” he says. “I just need to experience it, and see where I’m at.” Allgaier has literally been following the steps of his fellow NASCAR drivers such as fellow Wattie Ink. athlete and IndyCar champ Tony Kanaan. Drivers Jimmie Johnson and Landon Cassill, also, have found triathlon to be the thing that helps provide balanced fitness to their day job. 

“Jimmie has for years been the guy who, when it comes to the last few laps of a race, gets it done,” Allgaier says. “People say ‘that’s just Jimmie,’ but it’s not just that. There’s a reason he’s that good; he puts the time and effort into it off the track. It’s being on the bike, and in the pool. He’s regimented about. It, and for me, it’s a huge part of what’s made me focus on multisport as a tool to improve in my job as a driver.”

Has he seen the effect in the car? Oh yeah. He shed so much weight running, his race team had to outfit him in a new carbon fiber seat for his race car this year. “I’d lost so much that by the end of the year last year, I was sliding around a bit in my seat,” he says. “Not super safe!”

The biggest benefit, he says, is the mental acuity he has late in the race. In the pressure cooker of driving every Saturday with the expectation of winning, or coming close, the fitness triathlon training has provided makes him less stressed when it comes down to making the key moves on the track.

“I’ve seen huge improvement with my heart rate in the car,” he says. “I used to think I was in good physical condition, but it’s different now; late in a race, I can maintain a low heart rate, and it’s been a big help. I’m just much stronger late. And even when the car isn’t where I want it, being mentally sharper is taking me better places. I can adjust better.”

Happily, once that first tri is upon him, that low heart rate will take him through that swim with ease—especially since he learned it’s a point-to-point downstream swim in the Tennessee River.  “With the bike I’ll rely on past experience; I feel comfortable there,” he says. “And the run, I feel that’s my strength, where I’ll be at my best.” But three-second splash-and-go pitstops like he’s used to in the car? Might take a little longer there, Justin!