Can the Keto Diet Make You a Better NASCAR Driver?

NASCAR Matt Tifft talks about being keto-fueled.
NASCAR Matt Tifft talks about being keto-fueled. Getty Images
It’s safe to say diets and athleticism have had some connection since sports became a thing. Sure, skill, practice, and electrolytes also seem to have something to do with it. But for endurance athletes like race car drivers (yes, they’re athletes), it may not be the same old carbo-load routine. Professional stock car racer Matt Tifft can explain.

Tifft is a driver for Front Row Motorsports in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series as one of three rookies competing in the series this season. He was behind the wheel at the 2019 Daytona 500, where he made his debut driving car number 36.

In 2016, at age 20, Tifft had surgery to remove a brain tumor. And being 20, he did return to racing less than three months later, but with this experience Tifft decided to adopt a major nutritional change. More than two years later, Tifft credits the ketogenic diet as being instrumental to his post-surgery brain health.

The diet’s affect on Tifft was “a little unexpected,” he says via phone, “because of the fact I had the brain tumor and brain surgery.”

click to enlarge The car is running on fuel; Tifft is running on protein. - HAROLD HINSON PHOTOGRAPHY
The car is running on fuel; Tifft is running on protein.
Harold Hinson Photography
To back up, a ketogenic diet — or simply “keto” — is like most weight-loss diets, only a little more intense. It’s high in fat and protein, and especially low in carbohydrates, sugar, starches, and most other things. According to the National Cancer Institute, it "causes the body to break down fat into molecules called ketones. Ketones circulate in the blood and become the main source of energy for many cells in the body." That means your body utilizes already stored fat as its energy source.

Returning to Tifft.

After the surgery, Tifft says he struggled with inflammation, fatigue, and brain fog. A friend recommended the diet (which he says his doctor backed up). He felt a jump in mental clarity, lost 45 pounds (that’s a given), and even saw positive effects like reduced inflammation in post-op brain scans.

Tifft says he gets out to the Phoenix International Raceway with NASCAR about twice a year, but he also has family living in the west Valley (Surprise, then Buckeye). When he’d come to the Valley, before the keto diet, his go-to was “definitely Oregano’s.”

Now he’s re-evaluated, and likes spots like Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers. He could go on about his love for the Bacon PB&J Burger there (although it’s safe to say he orders that sans bun, and maybe with some asparagus spears).

And that’s the thing with keto and other low-carb diets. Many restaurants have started making accommodations for people in this lifestyle. “In the time I’ve been doing this, they’ve made so many changes,” Tifft says. “Even in the first six months, from 2017 to early 2018, (keto-friendly food) wasn't as accessible.”

Now when Tifft dines out, he has some go-tos. He’ll opt for the fajitas, vegetables, guacamole, and queso at a Mexican food restaurant, or find whatever high-protein option an eatery offers. “The hardest places are Italian,” he says, “But they usually have steak and chicken options. Just stay away from the red sauce.”

click to enlarge Tifft had to give up Oregano’s Pizza Bistro when visiting the Valley. - COURTESY OF OREGANO'S
Tifft had to give up Oregano’s Pizza Bistro when visiting the Valley.
Courtesy of Oregano's
It was not his intention to become any sort of spokesperson for the keto diet, but he attributes the lifestyle to “how much better I felt on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “For me and my fiancée and friends.”

Tifft says he’s been feeling better after races, and the diet helps him feel more steady during hours of high-speed driving next to walls, medians, and fellow cars. “We’re really racing inches away from one another and the wall,” he says.

He’s now been on the diet for a year and a half. “I’ve thought of going off it at times, but that’s just impulse,” he says, “It’s ingrained in my brain — I guess I know too much now.” Tifft’s referring to what’s he’s learned along the way, like debunking how fats are bad, and all athletes need carbs.

“Keto is interesting because explosive athletes need carbs,” he says. “But for endurance athletes like us in a 140- to 150-degree car, it is so important to feel satiated with the food you have had.”

Learn more at Matt Tifft's website, or keep up with him on Instagram.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano