We at the AWMA Blog like a good cross-training story. We enjoy digging into what other types of exercise can improve your martial arts training and how that works. And we love learning about athletes from other sports who use martial arts training to raise their game.
We’ve found some pretty interesting combinations of martial arts and sports over the years. Taekwondo and football. Tai Chi and golf. But even we were a little surprised to discover the latest development in the world of unique martial arts cross-training: mixed martial arts can make you a better NASCAR driver.
Harrison Burton, a professional stock car racing driver who currently competes full time in NASCAR Cup Series, recently opened up to NBC Sports about his new training routine and how it’s changed his driving.
How did Harrison Burton get into MMA?
Burton’s introduction to MMA—and to physical combat in general—wasn’t his most role model-y moment. It all started when he got into a fight with fellow driver Noah Gragson at an Xfinity race at the Kentucky Speedway in July, 2020.
Both frustrated with how they’d finished, the two drivers started exchanging words after the race. The argument escalated into a physical altercation involving pushing and punches. Including the first real punch Burton had ever taken.
“It was the first time I had ever been in a real fight, and I was like ‘What the heck do I do?’” he told NBC Sports. “I tackled him and he tried to take my head off with a punch.”
Figuring he should probably learn some basic self defence, Burton started taking MMA lessons. When he started seeing what it could do for him, beyond the giving him the ability to take a track-side punch, he kept going. “Now it’s become a training tool, and it’s something that I just enjoy doing.”
Gragson and Burton have since reconciled their differences without fists.
How does MMA help Harrison Burton’s NASCAR career?
The driver told NBC Sports that MMA has played an important role in developing his mental game for longer races.
“I’ve found it’s more similar to racing than I thought it would be because you’re tired, you’re focusing on things that are happening really quick, have to happen right now and it’s become kind of a really great tool,” he said.
The do-or-die urgency of contact sparring appears to have left an impression on Burton, too. Now he brings that same focus to his driving. Or as he put it: “You better not mess up or you’re going to get punched in the face.”
Do other race car drivers train in MMA?
As far as we know, Burton is the first driver to officially incorporate MMA into his cross-training regimen. Or at least he’s the first to talk about it any depth. But the UFC and NASCAR have done cross-promotions before. And sometimes those crossovers include athletes from each league training with each other for fun.
For example, driver Kevin Harvick rolled with fighter Johny Hendricks back in 2013. The UFC welterweight even gave Harvick some tips on how to defend himself if a fight ever broke out between him and a fellow racer. Hendricks figured grabbing your opponent’s helmet and using that as a makeshift clinch while hitting him in the stomach would do the trick.
“Stay calm,” he added. “Most fights, even the NASCAR fights, get broken up fairly quick.”
NASCAR’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ty Dillon also got an MMA lesson from Cain Velasquez, Cowboy Cerrone, and Forrest Griffin in 2017.
Can MMA improve my driving?
The mental benefits that Burton describes could very well make you a better driver. Maybe not in the way that it’s made him a better driver, because you won’t be racing on the streets. But focus, paying attention to your surroundings, and being able to respond to your surroundings quickly are all important parts of being a responsible and safe driver. And all of them are classic benefits of all martial arts training.
They are also valuable skills that you can apply to many important aspects of your daily life, from work to child and elder care to walking the dog.
We don’t recommend getting into any roadside fights, though. Even if you would be able to skillfully defend yourself.