You Tell Me- Are Drivers Athletes? I Say…

by Jim on April 2, 2009 · 5 comments

Edwards shirtless by harajukuroxy The only question that comes up more often is what a driver does about going to the bathroom. I learned earlier today from the daily edition of “Rowdy’s Big 3 Burning Questions” that the topic came up again with Texas Motor Speedway man Eddie Gossage.

I originally addressed this topic in March of last year after seeing it come up a number of times on Yahoo! Answers. I’ve updated this some- so it has been refreshed for 2009,but here’s the perspective of a guy who’s played, coach and reported sports from back in the days when Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman were in diapers.

If you hang out with sports fans long enough and you disclose that you follow NASCAR, this issue is sure to come up. My record for career starts in  what Jim Rome derisively called  the “Left Turn League” may be a bit shorter than that of Jerry Bonkowski or Mike Mulhern, 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.

Tell me 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.

IT’S NOT QUITE THAT SIMPLE, BUT I HAVE SOME PERSPECTIVE

I’ve been a player of sports (football, basketball, baseball, distance running, go kart racing and soccer), a fan, a coach (basketball, softball and soccer) and a commentator for over 32 years. My current job as a radio sports guy requires me to be conversant on all of them. I know firsthand 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.

Let’s consider the skills need to compete as a NASCAR driver.

First you need good vision. Imagine driving somewhere around 180 miles an hour (it will vary from track to track), 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 in a 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. I have a friend, Mike Caplinger, who raced modifieds at Southern Oregon Speedway for several years. He was telling me about a 100 lap event he ran once in Redding, California- and that’s not a cool place mind you. He said afterwards- he gained a new respect for his brethren that ran the 250-500 lap events. Even with air flow into his helmet, he said he was dying.

On top of that, there’s no intermission, 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 eating just right so you don’t, uh, need a pit stop of another kind.

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 and former NASCAR stars 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 -foot-6. Carl Edwards is ripped and displays his athletic ability by doing a celebratory back flip when he wins. In spite of his diminutive stature, Jeff Burton was a multi-sport athlete in school. Kevin Harvick wrestled. You get the idea.

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 from two summer ago called “Fast Cars and Superstars.” Greats from other sports, namely John Elway, John Salley, Bill Cowher, Ty Murray 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 Murray got the hang of it, Salley and Williams looked thoroughly petrified.

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 to some degree.

What say you?

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PHOTO CREDITS- Edwards by hukojuoroxy. More of this photogrpaher’s work may be seen by clicking on the hyperlink, or visiting flickr.com.


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{ 5 comments }

1 Michael Huff April 3, 2009 at 7:30 am

Of course drivers are atheletes.Strength may not be as big a factor as endurance or mental alertness,but even go to a go-kart track and do 20mins. on one and see what your arms, legs and butt feel like.

2 Janine April 3, 2009 at 10:12 am

Drivers are definetly atheletes. You see what these guys look like after getting out of the cars at Bristols Night race where it’s usually about 100 degrees even at night. And thanks for the picture on this web site of Carl with his fire suit down to his waist. He looks GREAT!

3 Chris W April 3, 2009 at 11:10 am

I hate the exact conversation you mention. People always go on about all the drivers do is sit in a car and turn left for 3 hours. Just because of that these people assume the drivers are not athletes. I always end up having to explain to them how difficult the sport can be on the body. Many drivers take part in two races over the weekend, plus all the practices and qualifying that go along with those. Then add in the 100+ degree temperatures inside the car and many races take part in areas of the country where it can be 100 degrees outside too. Factor in the length of the season and the amount of travel, plus how difficult the cars can be to handle and tell me these drivers aren’t athletes. I’d love to see some of these NASCAR bashers go out and take part in an entire weekend of racing and see if they are left standing by the time the actual race is even ready to begin.

Also, I think a driver like Carl Edwards has done a lot to change that view of NASCAR drivers not being athletes. Most people aren’t going to look at him and say he is not an athlete.

4 Patrick April 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm

A lot of non race fans equate driving a race car to driving their street car. They are two entirely different things. If they drive a car on the street they make their argument of how non-athletic that is. One has NOTHING to do with the other.

I can go to a sporting goods store, buy a basketball hoop, hang it on my garage, and play. That doesn’t mean I am ready for the NBA.

And the “What kind of shape is Tony Stewart in?” point holds no water either. Are all football players athletes? Of course thay are. Have a lineman take off his shirt, stand next to Stewart, and tell me who is in better shape.

Hint: Tony is climbing to the top of the fence first.

Yes, race car drivers are athletes.

5 dawg April 3, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Drivers from an earlier era, used to condition themselves, for race conditions by driving around in their street cars with the windows up, & the heater going full blast. This was in the days before power steering, or cool suits.
Today’s drivers are hitting the gym, not only for the physical demands. But for the mental ones as well. If a driver becomes fatigued, it’s impossible to maintain the concentration necessary for success.

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