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Harris: Drivers Not Athletes? Guess Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 23 2009
Let's see Bret Favre do this. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Let's see Brett Favre do this. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

When Jimmie Johnson was named AP’s Male Athlete of the Year for 2009 earlier this week, I felt a real shot of pride.

Finally, after all these years, the sport that I chose to follow got some serious attention as an athletic endeavor.

Then, listening to a local sports talk show, I heard Joe from Apex say, “I got nothin’ against Jimmie Johnson, but what kind of an athlete is it that just goes out there and turns left a bunch of times? That ain’t no athlete!’’

OK, it’s the age-old argument: Are race drivers athletes?

I went to dictionary.com on the web for a definition and here’s what I found.

“ATHLETE, pronounced ath-leet.

“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.’’

To my mind, that leaves absolutely no doubt that drivers are athletes.

Is there any doubt that it takes training, stamina and a certain amount of physical strength to drive a race car?

Let’s just take NASCAR.

Start with the fact that everyone agrees with – race car drivers must have great hand-eye coordination.

But that’s only the starting point.

Think about it. Drivers must spend up to four hours in a cramped cockpit, tightly buckled down with head restraints and padding all around, heat from the engines raising temperatures to around 130 degrees in that enclosed space.

G Forces in the corners, even on the flattest oval track, can make a driver’s head feel like it weighs about 100 pounds. And those constant gravitational pulls can sap strength in a hurry if a driver isn’t spending some time in the weight room and doing those aerobic exercises on a regular basis.

In a race situation, each car is surrounded by 42 others, some of them only inches away, at speeds up to 200 mph.

I agree that there are drivers out there that don’t look like athletes. Many don’t show defined muscles. A few even have a beer gut. Most look like your average guy.

But don’t let that fool you. By the above definition, these guys are participating in a sport and they are athletes.

Longtime NASCAR driver Dave Marcis didn’t look much like an athlete. He looked like a farmer in a driver’s suit, especially wearing those black wing-tipped shoes that he favored for racing.

But Marcis was one of the strongest people I ever met. His grip was as firm as a steelworker’s, and he handled those big stock cars in the days before power steering like they were kiddie cars.

Nowadays, you don’t have to be Hercules to drive a stock car, but you do have to be in shape, and there is no way you can let your mind wander at the speeds you are traveling.

Then there’s the crashes.

We’ve all seen cars barrel-rolling and going end-over-end down a racetrack and then having the drivers walk away without injury. They get checked out at the infield care center, then walk out to a battery of microphones and talk about what they just went through as if it’s just part of a day’s work _ because it is.

Hey, Joe from Apex. Could you do that? Could most ordinary people?

Medical studies have been done on race drivers from all categories of the sport that show their heart rates and blood pressure remain impressively low at even the most stressful times.

So, yes, these drivers may not look like LeBron James, Tom Brady or Derek Jeter. But they are athletes just the same.

Way to go Jimmie.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 23 2009