Murto: Are drivers athletes?

By Craig Murto

Are race drivers athletes? Is Donovan McNabb woefully ignorant?

The fact that the racing community had to face this question is absurd. McNabb made a comment on national TV that now six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is not an athlete, he’s just a driver.

Even the overweight racer who gasps for air after a 25-lap four-cylinder race at your local dirt track has better eye-hand coordination and powers of focus and concentration than most of us. But why should we have to defend our sport when curling is an Olympic sport. No offense to those who enjoy curling, but are those participants athletes? Are ping-pong players athletes? How about golfers? Why would a golfer be an athlete and not somebody who risks his or her life racing?

McNabb slighted Jimmie Johnson, but how many championship rings does Donovan McNabb possess?

Bruce Jenner — now of reality TV fame — once was an Olympic champion. He also became a world class race car driver. In a 1980 article by Sandra Hinson published in People magazine, Jenner said prior to the running of the Daytona 24-hour endurance sports car race, “In the decathlon I had to stay mentally sharp for 48 hours. In this sport it’s the same thing. Drivers are athletes, and the sport takes a tremendous amount of timing, a tremendous amount of guts, a tremendous amount of judgment.”

When you look at the records that Sebastian Vettel is setting, you have to conclude that Vettel — who just won the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas — is a great athlete. His focus and his reflexes are better than most of his competitors, including Mark Webber, his teammate who should be in identical equipment.

I wonder if McNabb feels that motorcycle racers simply ride. It’s been well documented that motorcycle racers are top athletes, including a study by University of Florida HSC – Jacksonville and Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute that summarized its findings, “This study demonstrates that supercross and motocross are physically demanding sports. The cardiovascular demands are higher than have been reported for professional road cyclists during similar duration events and for professional mountain bikers during events on similar terrain.”

With games such as baseball and football, there are natural breaks in the action, then short spurts of activity. That’s why an hour football game takes three hours to finish. But every moment of a race, from the first drop of the green flag to the waving of the checkered over the final finishing car, requires an endurance of focus and concentration not required by most stick-and-ball sports.

And we haven’t even discussed the conditions in which motorsport athletes must perform. The cockpit of a race car often gets rather warm and racers lose a lot of fluids as a result. Drivers must endure G-forces over extended periods of time most people never experience. Motorcycle racers not only have to be athletic, but they lose fluids as well and have to endure an incredible physical pounding. I can imagine that riding a Supercross event is like being a football player stuck in a play that doesn’t end for 20 minutes.

I don’t think Donovan McNabb would be able to run a single play for 20 minutes, even if he were in the peak of his conditioning.

Part of the misconception may come from motorsports fans themselves. Ball-and-stick fans see Sebastian Vettel get booed and Jimmie Johnson get heckled and think it justifies their view that these guys aren’t athletes because in their circles athleticism is celebrated.

What they don’t see is that the same people who booed Dale Earnhardt Sr. now cherish the fact they saw him race. The same people who were sick of seeing Richard Petty win all the time now brag that they were there to witness the King at work. Fans who tired of Bill Elliot winning every major superspeedway race in 1985 now have No. 9 Ford die casts on their shelves. And road racing fans who got sick of Michael Schumacher’s dominance now look back fondly on his days with Ferrari.

Eventually race fans will look back and say, “I remember watching Jimmie Johnson win all those championships; he was great back then!”

And they’ll remember Sebastian Vettel shattering all the records in Formula one.

Better yet, race fans will be able to look back and ask, “Can you believe that clowns like Donovan McNabb even questioned whether racers were athletes?”

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.