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November 27, 2014

In My Opinion: Are race-car drivers athletes? Absolutely yes

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Posted: Friday, May 2, 2014 3:28 pm

Years ago, when I first started in the sports writing business, one of the veteran sports writers at my newspaper told me he thought auto racers were the best athletes in the world.

Most of that argument depends on what your definition of an athlete is. Does the combination of speed and strength make a football player an athlete? Does the hand-eye coordination needed to hit a fast-moving baseball consistently make you an athlete? Does running long distances with such speed make you an athlete?

Auto racers rely on a car to perform in their sport, but baseball players need a bat, tennis players need a racket, and golfers need clubs. Are they any different?

A friend once told me that if auto racers are athletes because they drive as fast as possible through thick traffic and dodge accidents, then all big-city cab drivers must be athletes, too.

Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb probably might agree with that idea, as he famously said in November about NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, “Do I think he’s an athlete? Absolutely not.”

I’ve thought a lot about this point since that veteran sports writer told me his thoughts years ago, and it’s hard for me to imagine how you can’t consider a race-car driver an athlete by any definition.

Race-car drivers need physical endurance to perform even in less-than-ideal conditions just as McNabb did. (The inside of those cars get as hot at 130 degrees during Sprint Cup races, which last for hours. In addition, they’re doing this while the inertia of the car’s movement presses down on them about three times their body weight.)

Race car drivers need exceptional hand-eye coordination and incredible fine control over their bodies. (Just like in pretty much every other athlete in every other sport.) If they don’t, they run a high risk of physical pain. That’s the same as McNabb when he played football.

That should be plenty to prove the point, but here’s one more: To perform in their sport, race-car drivers need to achieve a high level of fitness just as football, baseball, basketball players and other athletes do.

Race-car drivers just look like athletes. Away from the track, they move and react like finely tuned athletes. I wonder if Jeff Gordon had put his efforts into baseball all those years ago, maybe he would’ve wound up playing second base for the Orioles or somebody like that. Maybe if the 6-foot-0, 165-pound Dale Earnhardt Jr. had grown up as Joe Montana Jr. or Ken Griffey III (or Ken Griffey Junior Jr., if you prefer), he might’ve been an ace in those sports.

Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at medwards@annistonstar.com. Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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