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Racing champion Max Wilson explains how martial arts training helped driving career

Max Wilson racing for Indy in 1998
Max Wilson’s Instagram

A StockCar racing vehicle can reach up to 168 mph at full speed — a speed which Max Wilson reached multiple times over the 2010 season to win the biggest championship of his racing career in Brazil. A former test driver for the Williams Formula 1 team and IndyCar driver, Wilson gives credit to martial arts for part of his on-track evolution.

“It’s amazing how sports in general, like judo for example, helped me a lot in my racing career in terms of balance with the levers, and the center of gravity,” Wilson told MMA Fighting’s Trocação Franca. “It all has to do with the sport I’m a professional at. You have to be precise in fighting, to have that precision in racing, and martial arts give you that — the same way racing a go-kart or a car would add a lot to the career of a professional fighter.”

Still active on track when he’s not working as a color commentator for Formula 1 in Brazil, Wilson loves to put the gloves on and train. Wilson’s first try in martial arts was with judo at 2 years old. He has since trained jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and kung fu. Wilson currently trains Muay Thai under the same roof as former UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira at Chute Boxe Diego Lima.

“Both sports are very similar. To have resilience, to deal with frustration. For example, I spar every week with my coach Kaue [Favero] and I punch him like one time per session,” Wilson said with a laugh while comparing racing to fighting. “To deal with that frustration and have the resilience to endure a difficult situation and try to bounce back and not quit, that’s very positive. Frustration is something negative in life, and you can turn that into a positive.”

Early in his racing career, way before he was close to being considered for a Formula 1 team, Wilson heard a quote from boxing heavyweight legend Mike Tyson that changed his life, a line about “waking up at 4 a.m. because my opponent wouldn’t do it, and it gives me an edge.”

“I won’t say I set my alarm for 4 a.m. the next day because I know that’s not what he meant in the interview,” Wilson said, “but it’s the effort, the dedication, to overcome yourself and others in a way. That’s the message I got and still carry with me to this day.

“Racing and fighting are not individual sports in a way because the driver has a team around him, and so does the fighter, but you’re alone in there when you’re competing, you don’t have someone throwing you the ball, so that’s why both sports are similar. You depend a lot on you and your dedication, your discipline.”

Max Wilson
Photo via Miguel Costa Junior

Inspired by influence of Bruce Lee and his movies to try martial arts in real life, Wilson has competed in small jiu-jitsu tournaments in Sao Paulo, but racing eventually dominated his interest. Coach Favero is still trying to convince him to do an amateur Muay Thai match in 2023 — and the 50-year-old Wilson won’t rule it out just yet, but knows it demands caution since he’s still active as a racer.

Even if he never really competes in an amateur bout, Wilson will forever be linked to martial arts. From being a fan of Royce Gracie back in the UFC 1 days to admiring the likes of Marco Ruas, Pedro Rizzo, and Jose Aldo in the following decades, Wilson now loves watching Oliveira compete — and that’s not because they are teammates.

“Charles’ story is inspiring just like other athletes, like Jose Aldo’s,” Wilson said. “The big difference about Charles is that unlike most of UFC champions, he’s had bad results for some time, he’s had ups and downs, but he still went there to win the belt. Champions usually win a bunch in a row, or at least like nine out of 10, and eventually win the belt.

“Charles had times where he probably went 5-5 out of 10 fights, and that’s credit to his resilience and persistence. Few people have that resilience. Charles is an example not only for athletes, but anyone really. If you want something, go after it, try again. If you do that, you’ll have a chance at succeeding in anything in life.”

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