Friday, April 21, 2006

Stop me if you've heard this one about racers as athletes ...

Every once in a while a story will pop up somewhere about how NASCAR is not a sport, or somebody looking for a little bit of attention will spout off about how race car drivers are not athletes.
It'll even come up every once in a while in a setting where people ought to know better. Last year, when I was doing a regular weekly NASCAR segment on ESPN's "Cold Pizza," a regular contributor on that show named Skip Bayless started in on the whole racers aren't athletes thing.
Bayless, and I am paraphrasing here, basically said that any competitor who doesn't have to run while competing is not an athlete. That, of course, is poppycock. By his definition, swimmers are not athletes. Neither are skiers, nor hockey players.
They don't "run" while competing, do they?
That's an arbitrary definition of what makes an athlete, and it just doesn't work. In countering that argument, I made this analogy - if a guy who plays guitar with incredible skill and talent cannot play the piano, does that mean he's not a musician?
There are many, many types of musical talent. Someone who plays the French horn in a symphony orchestra might not be able to play the fiddle for a country music band, but both of them have musical talent and ability.
Those guys in the "Blue Man Group" or the ones who wham on garbage cans in "Stomp" are immensely talented and skilled, but their performances hardly fit any classical definition of music. That doesn't make what they do any less entertaining for those who enjoy it.
I went to and looked up the word "sport." Here's the most pertinent meaning given there: "An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively."
Without question, driving a race car involves physical exertion and skill. And the definition of "athlete" fits, too.
"A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive contexts."
The skills it takes to be a NASCAR driver are specific, in many cases, to the sport itself. But that's true of just about any sport. Each game requires its own level of things like hand-to-eye coordination, vision, concentration and, yes, physical ability.
A racer doesn't necessarily have to be able to run a mile or throw a baseball without looking uncoordinated, but he does need strength and agility and reflexes in various aspects of his job.
It's not the same skill set as a basketball player, but it's still a set of athletic skills.
Football fans should be able to understand this as well as anybody. That game has become so specialized at the highest levels, but even at its most basic football is a game where certain positions require certain skills.
A good offensive lineman can have quickness without having raw speed. Receivers must know how to catch, to run patterns, to improvise when a play breaks down and to block when that's what a play requires.
Does a defensive back need to know how to kick a 35-yard field goal to be a good football player? Of course not. So let's put this argument to rest, shall we?


Anonymous said...

David Poole sets the record straight, again!

Anonymous said...

Yes, this one comes up every so often. Are racers athletes? Yes. Is racing an athletic competition? No. There are many who believe that this is what separates racing from so called "legit" sports.

I actually think its unfortunate that racing feels a need to validate itself against other sports. It's different. And so what if it is?

Anonymous said...

David I am sorry racing is NOT a sport...It's a LIFESTYLE!

Marc said...

Let's start with this Earnest Hemingway quote:

"Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games."

The American College of Sports Medicine in 2002 conducted this study that pretty much blows all the non-believers out of the water.

Anonymous said...

Having spent any time at all with Mr. Bayless, You realize of course that he IS the final word on all athletics. He is, after all, his own biggest fan. Personally, I dismiss about 90% of everything he says.


Walt Bratten said...

Good article. My son-in-law is a well-known personal trainer. He specializes in Motorcycles. GP road bikes and motocross(Johnny Hopkins, Jeremy McGrath, Josh Nelson, Grant Langston, etc.). He has also trained some automobiles racers (Eddie Cheever). I can't speak for all drivers/riders, but many of them have seen the importance of diet, exercise & strength training. My son-in-law puts them thru a rigorous routine of swimming, mountain biking, free weights, etc. & the results show the importance of it. The obvipus exception is Tony Stewart who's only exercise (probably) is lifting cheeseburgers. Cheers, Walt Bratten

Monkeesfan said...

The NASCAR-haters in the MSM's sports departments will never put to rest this "are they athletes" argument because they have never had to endure the enormous physical stresses involved in racing a racecar.

Paul Hull said...

Skip Bayless...what can I say? I remember two years ago when he wrote a column claiming that Lance Armstrong wasn't an athlete because riding a bicycle didn't take eye hand coordination. What a putz.

Of course he wouldn't take me up on an offer to go off the top of one of our local mountains on a bicycle at over 50mph. Skip's career is built on saying idiotic things so that people will talk about him. Look! it worked again.

Remembering Jeff Gordon's 300+ laps on a short track with no power steering a few years ago...

Paul Hull

Anonymous said...

I remember watching an old superstars program 30 years ago and Howard Cosell asked Richard Petty if racers were athletes. The King told him that he wasn't sure but here is what he new. If a baseball player makes a mistake its an error. Basketball players make turnovers. Race car drivers make a midtake and an ambulance comes out to get them and take them to the hospital...what do you think?

Anonymous said...

Tongue in cheek...what athletic sport has the girl or boy friends sitting on the bench, and running to the other teams when something goes wrong!

Anonymous said...