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NASCAR Drivers Are Definitely Athletes

[1]After Jimmie Johnson was up for an ESPY for Athlete of the Year, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate tweeted:

Driving a car does not show athleticism.

Racing reporter Jeff Gluck called Tate ignorant, a sentiment Johnson agreed with. And, honestly, there’s no argument, Tate is ignorant. That’s not say he is wrong, or that he should change his opinion.

The fact that he is ignorant stems from being misinformed or ill-informed.

An athlete is defined as a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina per Merriam-Webster [2].

“Driving a car,” in Tate’s mind, does not really take any of those skills. And, I would agree with that. The problem is that Tate is using his definition of driving a car. He’s using his experiences driving as his frame of reference.

Driving a car down the highway at 70-80 mph is very different from driving a race car around a track at 200 mph for four hours. For starters, the temperature inside of a race car can get as hot as 120 degrees. Sure, the drivers have air boxes that blow cool air into their helmets, but their bodies still take the physical abuse of the extreme temperatures. I think it takes physical skill and stamina to deal with that.

Second, getting your car around a corner on the highway doesn’t take as much physical strength as it does in a NASCAR stock car. While stock cars do have power steering, it isn’t the same as what’s in our cars. The cars are much heavier and harder to turn. When you add in the differences in handling and the length of races, turning your car for 400-500 miles requires both strength and stamina.

So, in that regard, yes I would call drivers athletes.

Tate went on to tweet that someone could be trained to drive a race car, while you can’t be trained to run a 4.4 40-yard dash.┬áThat, too, is an ignorant statement.

If drivers could be trained, there’d be a lot more successful drivers in NASCAR. You don’t think 1999 Winston Cup champion and 32-time winner Dale Jarrett and two-time Cup champion, 50-time winner, and NASCAR hall-of-famer Ned Jarrett ┬átried to train Jason Jarrett to be a driver? The third generation Jarrett was not successful in Nationwide or Sprint Cup.

But, if Tate’s comments were accurate, he should have been.

You can be trained to drive a race car, yes. But it takes much more physical skill to be successful.

Offensive and defensive linemen cannot run 4.4 40s. Does that make them any less of an athlete than a wide receiver? No, it makes them a different type of athlete.

Mike Sando, or ESPN.com [3], agreed with Tate, but said he took the wrong tack. He wrote:

[I]f the 100 best football players spent five years training as drivers while the 100 best drivers spent five years training as football players, I suspect the football players would be closer to competing admirably in their new sport.

This is the statement of someone who knows little about racing. Yes, football is a difficult game, and yes it is physically demanding to play. But football players get a lot more down time than NASCAR racers. They get more breaks to rest. NASCAR drivers do not get much time to rest. A pit stop is about 50 seconds, including time on and off pit road. Tv timeouts are longer than that.

Football players get half time. NASCAR drivers get cautions. And, football players are not on the field 100% of the time.

Also, football players play 16 games a season. NASCAR drivers compete is 36 races per season. Drivers compete in 144 hours (if a race is four hours), compared to 48 hours for football players (games are roughly three hours). I’m sure, without doing a statistical comparison, that drivers have more “up” time than football players per race/game, so it’s safe to say they have to deal with more physical demands over a season than a football player.

To be fair, a football player gets hit more often than a driver, and probably are more dangerous. But the impacts for drivers — at over 180 mph in most cases — are no cakewalk.

So, to say that a football player would be better at racing than a race car driver would be at football is ignorant at best. There are more factors to driving a race car than Sando knows.

Sando also goes on to write:

It’s possible for top racing drivers to remain competitive well past their physical primes.

He uses Mark Martin as an example. Martin is 52 years old, but he must not know much about Martin because Martin has one of the most rigorous fitness regiments I’ve ever heard of — probably one that the majority of football players in their prime couldn’t complete while competing in races every week.

At the end of the day, football players and NASCAR drivers are different types of athletes, but both are athletes. One is not more of an athlete than another, just like an apple is not more of a fruit than an orange.