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.
THEY’RE WRONG- AND I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.
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.