Skip to main content

Every Racecar Driver and Ninja Has to Start Somewhere

Posted on June 4, 2019 in Authentically Iowan

McKenna First Knoxville Feature Win

I didn’t grow up in a racing family and wasn’t exposed to the sport throughout most of my childhood. I didn’t get behind the wheel until I was 13. However, I’ve been around sports most of my life. I played softball, basketball, soccer, and track. Plus, I dabbled in dance, gymnastics, Tae Kwon Do, rock climbing, and more. I was in constant motion. My mom worked in healthcare, so there was a focus on healthy meals. Health and exercise has always been a part of my life in some way.

There comes a point in life where your decisions become your own and self-motivation becomes relevant. The first time I recall facing this reality was in 7th grade. I was in all the regular school sports, plus this was the year I started racing. I was losing interest in school sports. My passion was racing.  At track practice, I distinctly remember only doing the bare minimum and as a result, I was a terrible runner. I also wasn’t eating healthy. During high school, I started attending agility training. These were the toughest workouts I’d ever done. I hated them, convinced they were a special form of torture. Just like in 7th grade track, I tried to do the bare minimum.

This “do what you need to do to get by” attitude ended when I started racing sprint cars at Knoxville Raceway in 2014. I was 17 years old. I didn’t weigh enough to donate blood, yet I thought I was fit enough to wrestle a 1,500+ pound sprint car around one of the most physically challenging and fastest dirt tracks in the world. My racing competitors were large men. It was then that it clicked — I knew I needed to love working out if I wanted to race competitively.

I still remember the day I laced up my running shoes and sheepishly told my mom I was going for a run. She raised her eyebrows and said, “You?” I became the most motivated “Energizer Bunny” at high school agility training. I lifted weights under the watchful eye of our high school football coach. I hadn’t run track since 7th grade, but I chose to train with the track team my senior year of high school. Fun fact: I took first place at the Grand Blue Mile during the Drake Relays that spring.

When I was a student at Drake University, I became friends with the men’s basketball coach who gave me the team’s workouts. I joined the Drake Weightlifting and Tae Kwon Do clubs. Above all, I spent countless hours doing thousands of pushups and sprints on the Drake football field, running the stadium steps, swimming laps, and running on the indoor track. Often, I was the only one in the facility, and I would do every exercise until I tapped out. There was no coach there to tell me what to do, no teammates to fight alongside me, no support group to cheer me on. Motivation was all on me. I had a vision, a purpose, and a passion. I wanted to be successful as a racecar driver. I wanted to win. I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a professional racecar driver.

And, a funny thing occurred.  As I got faster and stronger, I fell in love with training. It became easier. I started looking forward to it. Training provided a mental break from my studies. As a business owner and a college student, time was precious to me. I discovered it wasn’t healthy to work nonstop. I made fitness a priority because I saw the connection between my fitness and diet to my success as a professional racecar driver.

Today, I’m racing sprint cars professionally, and my schedule seems even more crazy. I’ve kept fitness a priority, and I am currently competing in season 11 of American Ninja Warrior that will air this summer.

I’ve had a long fitness journey complete with the highs and lows all athletes face. Along the way I learned these health lessons that I keep in mind as I work toward success — as a racer, business owner and coach.

1. You don’t need fancy equipment and facilities.

I love social media, but one of the biggest downfalls to social media is that it can never fully and accurately depict a person’s life. A lot of people see the photos of me training in fancy ninja gyms and college facilities. But I started at square one, too. Whether it’s racing, ninja, or business, all of my passions began at a young age, and the foundations I laid weren’t displayed via Instagram or Facebook posts. I spent hours reading racing books and websites and watching in awe from the stands long before I ever got behind the wheel. I did box jumps on the boulders in my yard, climbed every tree in sight growing up, did pull ups on the bird house pole in my backyard, and used the monkey bars on my old playset as my original ”ninja gym.” You don’t need to have anything fancy, just get out there and do something. One of my favorite sayings is, “Nothing changes, if nothing changes.” Train for the joy of it and simply to become healthier.

2. Surround yourself with people better than you.

Sometimes when I’m out to dinner someone at the table will say, “Sorry, McKenna, but this place doesn’t have salads for you.” Or we'll be talking about running a 5K and someone will say, “I’d run with you, but you’d put me to shame.” Just because I train, I’m still far from the best and to this day I am still not a great runner. I train with Olympic male gymnasts. They make my workouts very humbling. Surround yourself with people better than you to give you something to strive toward. Even though I know I’ll never be as good as them in many areas, it helps me become the best version of myself. When it comes to diet, I am definitely not the healthiest eater on the planet. I love donuts, tacos, candy, and cookies. But, after training hard, I don’t want to waste the effort by putting garbage into my body. Physical activity automatically makes you more inclined to eat healthier. You don’t have to make big, dramatic changes, but find some healthy favorites and use them as substitutes instead of the office donuts or ballfield walking tacos.

3. Don’t worry about the number on the scale.

In racing, all of our gear is custom made, along with our seats, so I often get asked my weight. Every time someone asks, they always apologize or are hesitant. For me, I’ve never cared what the number on the scale is as much as I care about how strong and healthy I am. I’ve worn the same size clothes across 17 pounds and looked about the same. However, the difference was in my muscle mass. My goal isn’t a weight number but rather a strength measure. Whether it’s me, you or someone else, the number is simply a number. It doesn’t define a person or their worth. I’ve trained with men and women that are different shapes and sizes that are all fantastic athletes. Everyone’s bodies are different.

So my advice, no matter where you are on the fitness scale is to start. Start wherever you are, and work to improve what’s important to you. After all, every ninja has to start somewhere.