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Woody: Jimmie Wins Award, Debate

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 28 2009
Jimmie Johnson brought the driver-as-athlete debate to a boil this off season. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson brought the driver-as-athlete debate to a boil this off season. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The argument began about the time the caveman invented the wheel and he and a buddy loaded up their coolers and took it for a spin:

Are race drivers athletes?

There was a time when much of the media ignored auto racing because subjective sports editors didn’t think it belonged in the sports section. Even during NASCAR’s boon years racing always played second-fiddle to the stick-and-ball stuff because the media didn’t take it seriously as a sport.

And if racing isn’t a legitimate sport, then by definition drivers can’t be athletes.

Anyone who knows anything about racing or racers knows it’s a silly argument. Of course racing is a sport and you bet your bippy drivers are athletes.

If golf is a sport – whacking a little ball with a stick as it lies helplessly on the ground – then surely wresting a screeching 3,400-pound stock car around concrete walls at 200 mph meets the criteria.

Yes, we all drive cars. But only a select, gifted few are able to drive RACE cars.

There’s no question that racing is physically exacting – a drive sweats more in one lap at Bristol than a golfer perspires in a career – and mentally I can’t imagine anything more demanding than tickling the walls at Talladega lap after lap.

Those of us who have waged the drivers-are-athletes argument for so many decades were gratified by the selection of Jimmie Johnson as Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.

Johnson beat out such sports luminaries as tennis ace Roger Federer and Olympics sprinter Usian Bolt. Tiger Woods won Athlete of the Decade but lost to Johnson in the vote for the 2009 award, as did NBA star Kobe Bryant and baseball slugger Albert Pujols.

How ‘bout that: A race driver beat the stick-and-ball boys!

If you think it’s rare, it is. It was the first time in the 87-year history of the award that a driver has won it.

There’s no question that Johnson deserved it, slicing through the competition to capture a record-breaking fourth-consecutive Sprint Cup championship.

But I admit I’m surprised that the “mainstream media” acknowledged his amazing accomplishment.

I think there have been plenty of times over the past 87 years when a race driver probably deserved the award, or certainly deserved consideration. But seldom was one even remotely in the running.

It all goes back to the original premise: a racer has to be considered an “athlete” before he can win Athlete of the Year.

That’s what makes Johnson’s award so special and significant. It officially puts the debate to rest forever. A race driver is indeed an athlete – and this year the nation’s top athlete – and he has the award to prove it.

There are just two things I’d like to say about racers’ long-overdue recognition:

Congrats, Jimmie

It’s about time.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 28 2009
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