Alright everyone, gather ’round. I am going to set the record straight, once and for all, on the subject of whether or not race car drivers are athletes.
Retired Professional Football Player and analyst, Donovan McNabb has made it perfectly clear that he does not think race car drivers (Jimmie Johnson, in particular) are athletes. He is not the only one. I have heard this debate before and have gotten into heated discussions on the subject.
Some say they don’t have physical stamina and I respect their argument, but it is only because you see what a driver does not knowing the intricacies of their environment.
NFL Players endure intense training and exercise – so do race car drivers. Sure, you have Tony Stewart, but even Smoke mustn’t exceed certain weight and dietary restrictions. By the way, isn’t the NFL the same league that had in its ranks a man called “The Fridge”?
Pit crews weight train for months just for 13-second performances and most of them are NCAA-caliber players. The drivers also train heavily (Mark Martin and Carl Edwards come to mind immediately) to perform.
Yes, they do sit down in a car and there’s little perceptible physical exertion on the part of the driver, but there are massive amounts of strength required. Dwayne Wade goes up for a layup and he must contort his body, position his feet and propel himself in a manner that results in perfect execution. This is no small feat. However, when the engine of John Force’s car takes off from the line, controlling his body is not the main job. He is doing all he can to hold the body together. He battles G-forces, inertia and gravity, itself – all this, inside a 3400-pound car with generators whirring, tubes of hot air flowing and little or no ventilation. We’re not saying that Luol Deng doesn’t battle physics, but Sam Hornish wrestles with a car at 160-mph that wants to go right when he needs to go left. It’s like Bull Riding, you want to stay on, but it’s really up to the bull. It becomes your will against his. These bulls are branded Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet.
In a 500 mile race, a driver can lose about 20-percent of their liquid body mass. That’s as much as Kobe loses in an intense game — plus overtime. Matt Kenseth doesn’t get to sit on the bench nor does Helio Castroneves get a rest. They have to strap in and go all the way.
Finally, when we see Ol’ Six-Time on Late Night with Letterman or Good Morning America, we don’t see the hundreds of people back at Hendrick Motorsports that put in countless hours to get him on that couch. Because Jimmie gets the spotlight, we forget that racing is based on the one element common to all sports: the team. When Payton Manning wins, the entire team wins. So it is with motorsports. Teams share the euphoria of victory as well as the heartbreak of defeat. Athletes don’t win championships, teams win championships. Jimmie Johnson and Michael Jordan both have six, enough said. The Team element is also evident in the emotional altercations that tend to erupt between crews when one driver puts another into the wall. Reminds you of the Detroit Pistons, doesn’t it?
Racing has more familiar attributes to stick-and-ball athletics than Mr. McNabb cares to examine: trading, free-agency, rivalries and even fighting, both outside and inside. LeBron James (2010) and Mark Weber (2013) have a lot in common in terms of friction within the team, if you really think about it.
Although Donovan’s assessment seemed “uneducated”, it isn’t without merit. Because we fail to realize that racing is played on a whole different level than baseball, we tend to misunderstand its legitimacy. Until you decide to examine it within its parameters, you will forget that it is not just a sport, but a league of heroes that make it interesting to the likes of Randy Johnson, Randy Moss and even you, Donovan, visited with Jeff Gordon. Proving one thing: athletes respect athletes. It’s far more visceral than you might imagine and can’t be done by the average guy off the street. Maybe you were right, Mr. McNabb, sit back and eat your Chunky Soup and watch a race. Perhaps you will find that they are athletes in the technical sense. Then, you will find that they are so much more.