Jim Leo and PitFit Training are Transforming Drivers Into Elite Athletes
Writer & Photographer / Lynda Hedberg Thies
Meet Jim Leo, owner of PitFit Training and the founder of an industry that was built out of curiosity.
Leo’s grandfather sent him a newspaper clipping at the Diesel Engine Manufacturing plant in Michigan where he was working for Roger Penske, as a corporate fitness trainer in 1993. The brief article shared that Penske’s NASCAR pit crew team was taking aerobics classes and they were fast and they were winning. Leo became inspired and wondered whether this concept would work for Penske’s Indy Car team.
He pitched the idea to Penske and a response came back with just three words, “Go for it!”
By the time the 1994 season started, Penske Racing had established a full fitness center, a conditioning program and Leo focused on improving team pit stops and their overall wellness. When the season ended, Penske Racing dominated their competition by winning 12 of 16 races, the CART championship and the Indy 500.
He soon realized this would require a huge leap of faith, but he needed to make it his life’s work. There was a time when he was overcome by fear and questioned whether this work could be sustained. He was also torn because of his respect for Penske, but then he asked himself, “What would Roger do? It was a tough decision. There was doubt and fear, but ultimately I knew what the answer was, and so I jumped in with both feet.”
“To work for a man like Roger Penske and get to impact the thing that is the biggest entity that he is involved in, it was terrifying but I was either too young or dumb to be afraid,” Leo says. “I just plowed ahead.”
Leo launched PitFit Training when he moved to Indianapolis after a successful 1997 season. He met Scott Dixon who, at the time, was 30 pounds overweight. Leo helped Dixon transform physically, creating an intense fitness and nutrition program. He began setting records and winning races. Clients started coming to Leo because they saw firsthand how he transformed drivers into elite athletes who were winning. More doors opened.
Leo’s timing was perfect. He had resigned from his job and by then his business was prepared for impact and seamlessly hit the ground running.
“As we’ve grown, we have also created our own competition,” Leo says. “Before, there was no one doing what PitFit was doing. Now, I know of a dozen trainers around the world that are specializing in doing what we do. I know every single one of them and have helped many of them get their start. I have answered many questions, had trainers from China and Australia come over and train, others from around the country to come in and see what it is that we are doing.”
His client list is a who’s who of auto-racing. His work with James Hinchcliffe is legendary, leading him to return to auto-racing more fit than he has ever been as a driver. He not only won the pole in the Indy 500 the following year, he participated in the ABC show, “Dancing With The Stars” and most recently won the California Grand Prix.
PitFit also trains Scott Dixon, Wade Cunningham, J.R. Hildebrand, Pippa Mann, Sebastian Saavedra and Charlie Kimball. He now has clients from Formula One, IndyCar, Nascar, NHRA, Grand-Am, ALMS and USAC.
Leo has even been called upon to rehabilitate drivers, even though he is not a physical therapist, he has a very good relationship with the doctors.
The death of Tony Renna, a client and close friend, almost caused Leo to call it quits, though.
“Renna and Dixon are my best friends and when Tony died, I just said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t be in an environment where every time they go out there, there is a chance I could lose another best friend,’” Leo said.
Renna’s father was the one that told him, “You can’t do that. You’re the reason so many of these guys are alive. You have a responsibility.”
Young drivers don’t always want to hear about safety, but Leo says it continues to be a main focus for PitFit Training.
“Our goal is to make the driver as safe as possible,” Leo says. “Safety is the primary focus. The performance is certainly the part that is a little sexier and you can sell a little more, but what it comes down to, the bottom line, is that we want to reduce the chance of a driver being seriously injured or dying. And if they do get injured, we want them to be at a level of fitness that their recovery is faster or saves their life.”
Leo knew that this opportunity was his dream job, and he cherishes what he gets to do each day.
“I still jump out of bed everyday excited to do this work,” he says. “I love what we do. I still feel like we are at 10 percent of what our capacity is, and I still get excited to get better every day.”
PitFit continues to grow and evolve. Today, PitFit Training is a comprehensive fitness and wellness facility with complementary businesses under one roof. Now, in addition to training, clients can see a chiropractor, a massage therapist, a stretching specialist, athletic trainers and racing simulators. Because of the ever-growing nature of his business, Leo also offers state-of-the-art training for concussion management that is changing the way concussions are treated.
PitFit is also now offering a limited number of memberships for fitness classes and training services. Leo will not rest until everyone they train is at their best. For more information contact Jim Leo at 317-388-1000 or visit pitfit.com/fitness-programs.