GM Racing

Zen and the Art of Auto Racing

Karate Helps O'Connell Prepare Physically and Mentally for 24 Hours of Le Mans

Walking down a dark alley in a dodgy part of town, Johnny O'Connell is the man you want at your back. Along with two championships and 22 career victories in the American Le Mans Series, O'Connell also has a black belt in karate.

In O'Connell's world, racing and martial arts are closely related disciplines; both demand mental focus and physical toughness. As preparations begin for Corvette Racing's sixth assault on the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 18-19, karate is a key component of O'Connell's training regimen.

"The discipline, the concentration and the ability to be self-critical are very similar in martial arts and auto racing," O'Connell said. "The mental aspect is crucial. You must be able to focus on the smallest details to do either sport correctly.

"I work with a karate master who has more than 30 years of training, a very lethal guy," O'Connell continued. "One day we were talking about racing, and he said that I was a master at driving. Later I realized what he meant. When you spend your life perfecting your craft, whether it's doing karate forms or driving a race car, it becomes as automatic as breathing. When you achieve that in karate, you are a master. It's much the same in racing - you aren't thinking, you're just doing.

"There are times on the race track when you get into that Zen state where you are completely with the car," O'Connell confided. "You're not thinking about technique, you're just performing."

O'Connell has tasted victory twice at Le Mans with Corvette Racing, scoring two of the team's four GT1 class victories in 2001 and 2002. He produced the team's first overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona and he's won the Sebring 12-hour race a record-tying six times. The 42-year-old driver is painfully aware of the physical demands of endurance racing.

"I do martial arts training two days a week as part of my physical fitness program," O'Connell reported. "I also do weight training for strength and work out on a stair climber to build up my cardiovascular system. Getting ready for Le Mans, I'm ramping up my cardio work and doing strength training for my shoulders and neck. As the race gets closer, I'll increase my workouts to optimize my endurance."

As a veteran of previous Le Mans campaigns, O'Connell knows the importance of earnest preparation for a 24-hour race that's a test of endurance for both teams and machines.

"While Le Mans is an extremely smooth track, there is one serious bump at the entry to the Porsche Curves," he noted. "It's never a problem until about 10 o'clock on Sunday morning after you've been driving for hours. Then it feels like you're jumping your car off a cliff. You wince every time you come up to that area. The Corvette Racing team has a massage therapist at Le Mans because in the late hours feeling relaxed makes a huge difference."

O'Connell took up karate in self-defense. "My wife was studying kick-boxing and my son wanted to learn karate, so if I wanted to survive in my household, I had to learn a martial art as well," he laughs. "My son, Canaan, and I got our first-degree black belts in October. You become a master at the fourth degree, so if I pass all of the tests, that would happen eight years from now. It would be very cool to become a karate master at 50."

If O'Connell is as focused on karate as he is on racing, he will surely add "karate master" to his resume' alongside "Le Mans winner and ALMS champion."

Release Date: May 17, 2005