NASCAR Drivers Are Athletes

by Jim on March 13, 2008 · 6 comments

If you hang out with sports fans long enough and you disclose that you follow NASCAR, this issue is sure to come up. I’m a relative neophyte to what Jim Rome referred to as the “Left Turn League,” but in the short time I’ve been around the sport on more than a casual level, I can tell you this discussion gets spirited in a huge hurry.

See if you haven’t heard this before.“All they do is drive around in circles for four hours.” “All the drivers do is turn their steering wheels and push their feet to the floor. Anybody can do that.” “NASCAR stand for Non-Athletic driverS Circling Around Rednecks.” The list doesn’t end there, but the point they make is that the likes of Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Tom Brady and just about anyone else you can think of will be held up as examples of those being more athletic than your average NASCAR racer.


To establish credibility,let me quickly give you my background. I’ve been a player of sports, a fan, a coach, and a commentator for 30 years. My current job as a radio sports guy requires me to be conversant on all of them. I’ve become quite familiar with the skills necessary to make a jump shot, hit a baseball, successfully complete a forward pass and yes, successfully take the checkered flag in a race.

With that out of the way, let’s consider the skills need to compete as a NASCAR driver. First you need good vision. Imagine driving 180 miles an hour, about 3 times faster than you will on the freeway on a typical day. Now, imagine 42 other guys are doing the same thing in a confined space.

Then, you need cat-quick reflexes. When you’re driving at break neck speeds, things come at you fast. Thankfully, besides the great vision, you have a crew chief and spotters to help guide you around the track. Nonetheless, if a driver 6 car lengths ahead of you wrecks, you will need to respond, very quickly to something you may not yet see yet. That’s where the advice to drive to the spot of the wreck comes in handy. You figure any collision in front of you at great speed and impact will result in scattering cars and debris. A flick of the steering wheel in the wrong direction and you may just find yourself collected into the collision.

Third- you must be conditioned for endurance. Let me paint a picture for you. The average race is 500 miles. That distance spans a trip from my home near Medford, Oregon to San Francisco. Now- do that with 40+ other guys driving at excessive speeds. Stressful- isn’t it? Not only that, there’s extreme heat inside your car….in excess of 100 degrees. You have no air conditioning. On top of that, you’re in a fire suit. Not real comfortable is it?

On top of that, there’s no rest stops, and no time to eat. If you’re lucky, you’ll get enough fluid to get you through the race. Not too much, though. Yeah, you need to time you’re eating just right so you don’t pee your pants during the race. OR worse.

Believe it or not, some strength is needed too. From time to time, a driver’s power steering will go out. You ever drove a car with manual steering? You’ll get a workout.

I haven’t even delved into the athleticism needed to be a member of the pit crew. Many are former college athletes. Think about the agility needed to get over the wall, the strength to carry tires, the quickness to get the tires on, pump the jack and the speed to perform the other tasks. And you say this isn’t a sport?

Many current NASCAR have excelled at other sports. Dale Jarrett has enough golf skills to be a PGA golfer. Kyle Petty was recruited to play college football and baseball. Elliott Sadler was headed for a college basketball career at James Madison before a knee injury changed that. Michael Waltrip has run marathons. Have you ever seen Mark Martin lift weights? Pretty buff for a guy 5-6. Carl Edwards is ripped and displays his athletic ability by doing a celebratory back flip when he wins.

Yes- things have changed since the days of Junior Johnson. Heck- even Bobby Allison had a training ritual. He’d hone his endurance by driving around rural Alabama with the windows up and the heat running full blast in the summertime.

Another illustration of challenging driving a “stock” car is comes from the ABC series last summer, “Fast Cars and Superstars.” Greats from other sports, namely John Elway, John Salley, Bill Cowher, and Serena Williams- among others- tried their hand at making their way around Lowe’s Motor Speedway in a number of challenges. Elway and rodeo champ Ty Murray got the hang of it, Salley and Williams looked thoroughly lost.

All of that to say, it takes athleticism to compete in NASCAR. I won’t deny that the machinery is a part of it in a way no other sport is, but like golf, I think it takes a different TYPE of skill from a stick and ball sport.

Can we agree on that? Heck, even Jim Rome has come over to our point of view.

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1 Becca March 15, 2008 at 9:30 am

You got all that right Jim! And although that show on making celebrities into drivers wasn’t all that successful in ratings, it proved a point that it’s not as easy as it looks! And those celebrities had some of our elite drivers as their coaches!

Great Blog and I love reading it!

2 Nascar Jackets March 15, 2008 at 3:10 pm

Let’s also not forget that sometimes it’s 100+ degrees in those cockpits. Just enduring that heat for a few hours makes anyone an athlete in my book.

3 Lefty Turner March 16, 2008 at 6:04 am

While I may or may not agree with the fact that race car drivers are athletes, for arguments sake, I won’t devulge where I stand at this time. I will simply bring up what I believe is a logical question to pose, based on the reasons often given for saying they are athletes. And that would be, are Astronauts athletes ? Are fighter pilots athletes ? Are Navy Seals and Army Rangers Athletes ?

Those examples all fall into the categories mentioned in determining that drivers are in fact athletes, yet, these heroes of America are not considered athletes.

To answer this argument, one need only look at the text book definition of Athlete. defines Athlete as “a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.”

Do Nascar Drivers fit that definition ? Well, they are trained or gifted in contests involving agility and stamina, and yes, strength too. They are a participant in excercise, or a game requiring physical skill. So far so good. The only thing left to determine from the definition of athlete is, are they a participant in a sport. So now we must determine what is a sport.

Sport is defined as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.” Does racing require skill ? Why yes, it does. Does it require physical prowess ? Sure it does, as stated by previous commenters and the author. Is it of a competitive nature ? Beyond the shadow of a doubt it is.

So from that, we can all see, Nascar is a sport, and it’s drivers are athletes.
That being said, I am content to just say they are Race Car Drivers. Enough said.

4 Jim March 16, 2008 at 6:55 am

Nicely articulated Lefty. You almost have me thinking you’re attorney. Very forcefully put forward. A slam dunk. I would add that I think astronauts and army ranger are indeed athletes, though not necessarily competing in a sport.

5 kllrbeez17 March 18, 2008 at 9:30 am

You know that they are athletes, I get so tired of hearing they are not. It is refreshing to see that someone took the right aproach and single handedly proved that to be a driver, you must be an athlete. Excellent, must tell others about you excellent blog.

6 Becca March 18, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Wow Lefty you had me worried when you brought up the astonauts and other military personel. Unlike Jim I do not believe them to be athletes (Hero’s yes) as they are not competing for a win which awards them a trophy, title or money. And before you go getting all technical you know what I mean. LOL

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