Is a NASCAR Driver an Athlete?

NASCAR is making an ambitious push to change its image using glitzy marketing and hip-hop themed promotions. But one commentator is still at the starting line, wondering whether race car driving is a sport.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this NEWS & NOTES.

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CHIDEYA: NASCAR is apparently trying to change its good ol' boy image, but commentator John McCann says that still doesn't make racecar drivers athletes.

JOHN MCCANN: It's one of the oddest couples you'd ever want to see, rapper T.I. chilling on a TV commercial with NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, Jr. And then I'm looking to a newspaper and catch NBA legend Magic Johnson in an ad with NASCAR driver Jeff Green.

Now, granted, we can call NASCAR a lot of things: hip, cool, tough, making the T.I. association with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at least sensible. Well, pairing that other NASCAR driver with Magic Johnson? Like that NASCAR driver is kind of athlete.

Man, please. Brother Webster defines an athlete as one who participates in competitive sports, or one having the natural aptitudes for physical exercises in sports as strength, agility and endurance.

Now, the key word for me is physical exercises. And I take that as pertaining to the stimulation of cardio-vascular function, the stuff that gets your heart rate up, the kind of work that leaves you breathless and panting for air.

Now, some of you will argue that NASCAR drivers indeed get physical, and that they break a sweat and even lose weight in those space suits and helmets they have to wear. But listen to me. I can put in a horror movie and break a sweat; that doesn't make me an athlete.

Now, let's distinguished between being highly skilled at a sport versus being an athlete. And that's no disrespect to hardworking people like Tiger Woods, whose feats with the golf club I could never duplicate. But to call Tiger an athlete is to concede that Minnesota Fats was one, because both achieved fame for their ability to essentially strike a ball with a stick and make it dance.

Don't tell me about G-forces and all the strength it takes for a NASCAR driver to hold onto a steering wheel, unless you're willing to say a mechanical bull rider is an athlete.

If it's merely about holding on, then we were athletes back in the day when we walked the streets toting boom boxes. I mean, lifting that big radio on our shoulders is like doing weights, plus walking to the neighborhood was aerobic and burned calories.

And but what do I know? So I turned to a guy named Mike Huff, who's the coordinator of sports performance at the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Lab down here at Duke University. Now, his contention is that the physical demands of driving a racecar qualifies NASCAR guys as athletes. He cites the tremendous upper body strength and endurance needed, the mental concentration and the hand-eye coordination and quick reactions.

Ah, what does he know? I mean, after all, he's only an expert. NASCAR is wildly popular as it is. No need to try to force us to view the drivers as athletes to drum up more interest. Now, when NASCAR drivers start peddling the cars with their feet like Fred Flintstone, then they'll be athletes.

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CHIDEYA: John McCann is a columnist for the Herald Sun in Durham, North Carolina.

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