An oft-heard definition of NASCAR? “Non-Athletic Sport Centered Around Rednecks.” If you’ve followed the sport more than two months, you’ve heard it as your non-NASCAR friends bellow like this is some new shtick. Seriously, get some new material!
The truth of the matter is the joke is on them. They’re not bad people, most of them, they’re just ignorant, attempting to perpetuate an aging myth. These are the same people who, because they watched Talladega Nights once (I refuse. To say that Will Farrell’s humor is aimed at 8-year old boys is an insult to the 8-year olds) think they are authorities on the topic. With that, and maybe a faded image of Junior Johnson in mind, these poor souls carry around a stereotype of auto racing better suited to 1952, not 2012.
Let’s be clear, auto racing is unique. Let’s all say it together, nice and slow, “NASCAR is a motor sport.” There’s no denying there’s a distinction. It requires a different skill set and ability, just the same as golf, long distance running and martial arts do. I won’t attempt the argument that Jimmie Johnson is NFL material, or that Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed his calling by not gunning for the NBA.; but did you know that scouts were looking a high school QB named (former Sprint Cup driver) Kyle Petty as a possible college prospect? How about Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler? He was set for a college basketball career before blowing out a knee. If he hadn’t been the son of a NASCAR legend and broadcaster, there’s a good chance Dale Jarrett would have made his name in golf, instead of stock cars.
Today’s NASCAR driver is a different breed of cat. Many of the smarter ones have conditioned themselves for the demanding role of piloting a 3,500 pound car at roughly 200 miles per hour for four to five hundred miles with 42 other competitors by turning to the weight room, the mountain bike or the treadmill. Mark Martin may started much of it when about 20 years ago, he ditched the booze and the burgers. At 53, the winner of close to 100 NASCAR events is a lean, mean driving machine, the envy of a lot of dudes half his age.
How about Carl Edwards? In some ways, this driver has a mindset better suited for the “X” games. Edwards is a mountain and road bike fanatic, sky jumps, runs, lifts weights like a fiend, and he even tried his hand (his foot actually) trying to kick field goals for the Miami Dolphins (he had the leg, not the accuracy). No wonder he’s a pitchman for Subway.
The list goes on and on. In their first ever triathlon event, teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne finished seventh and fourth respectively in their age groups, the day after racing in the Coke Zero 400! Michael Waltrip runs marathons, Denny Hamlin is an avid golfer and basketball player, Kevin Harvick wrestled back in the day.
To be sure, not every driver’s physique backs my argument, recalling the portly forms of Tony Stewart, Brendan Gaughan and others. On the other hand, just how much athleticism in needed to kick a football? Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is a world class hitter, but come on, athlete? In his own right, he is. Outside of their God-given size and strength, just how athletic are offensive lineman? How would a tennis player fair on the basketball court?
Greg Biffle will likely never win the 100 meters in the Olympics; Brad Keselowski may only excel in the world of motor sports, but never sell short what it takes for them to be the best of the best in auto racing. It takes focus, cat quick reflexes, a wise regime of hydration, endurance, calm under extreme stress and even strength (I even hear shaking Danica Patrick’s hand can be be a bone crushing experience) to hold up in this sport. Trying to compare different sports and whether one is more “athletic” than the other is about as silly as trying to determine whether brunettes or blondes are prettier. It’s all good if you ask me, just a matter of taste.
Jim McCoy is a TV and radio sports anchor living in Oregon with his wife and three kids. Jim also moonlights as a radio play-by-play man and writes about his true sports passion: NASCAR. To paraphrase, racing is a sport, the others are just games.