I am a NASCAR driver and I am not just an athlete.
If you are even a mild NASCAR fan you will have seen the major debate throughout our sport at the moment, as to whether or not drivers are athletes. The debate was sparked by an outsider from the sport, a man who made his living throwing a pigskin from one end of a 100 yard field to another.
This outsider was none other than Donovan McNabb, best known for his decade long tenure as quarterback for the Philladelphia Eagles in the NFL. A career that never netted a Super Bowl ring, but one that anyone could be proud of as Philadelphia retired his #5 jersey when he stopped playing.
(I must insert a slight comment here in that, although I am a Football fan (GO GIANTS!) I am definitely not what you would consider very knowledgeable.)
McNabb is now an analyst on Fox Sports 1, where a couple weeks ago, he was asked about the soon to be six-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson. The question was whether or not Jimmie Johnson could be compared to other sports greats such as Michael Jordan and, if Jimmie Johnson or any race car driver is an athlete?
This absolutely infuriated many of the sport's elite, like Kevin Harvick who made a quip at Mr. Mcnabb via Twitter.
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) November 20, 2013
Many voiced their opinions on the reasons they were athletes or, more specifically, why Jimmie Johnson was an athlete. Things like Jimmie's work-out regime of running 20+ miles a day or the dedication to his craft or the mental capacity to be able to balance so many distractions all while winning six championships quicker than anyone.
All of these were very valid points and I think proved that Jimmie Johnson undeniably works hard. The problem with many of their responses was, how does this prove him to be an athlete? Sure, a simple Webster's dictionary definition of an athlete that states "a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength."
By that definition you cannot deny that Jimmie Johnson is an athlete, and he is paid because of his mental and physical abilities behind the wheel of a racecar. The problem that lies here is exactly that one qualification: Behind the wheel of a racecar.
Is his physical strength a benefit behind the wheel of a race car, or after a certain point does increased physical strength become a negligible benefit? Is his ability to run farther than any driver in the garage directly related to his speed on track? Probably not, although his stamina is inarguably a benefit at the end of a race.
Therefore, like much in the sport of professional auto racing, this argument is not black and white. There is plenty of gray. Which brings me to the points I made on Twitter in the last few days: This argument is undeniably futile.
The futility of this argument is because of a factor that many professional athletes don't deal with each and every time they lace-up their boots for competition. For most professional athletes, the result of making an error can result in the loss of a game. At worst, at least over the short-term, a season- or career-ending injury.
In professional auto racing, the result of an error can be far more dire. The cruel and brutal reality is that anytime a racecar driver suits up and steps behind the wheel of a race car, their life is on the line. In other sports, when you practice, you know you are just practicing, the danger is limited.
This isn't the case in racing , there is no taking it easy in a race car, if you take it easy in testing a race car you won't learn a thing. Same goes for practice, and most definitely for qualifying. There was a great response in OppositeLock a lot of people in motorsports passed around that made a similar point, that the difference between an athlete and a race car driver is just that; one's an athlete, one's a race car driver.
This doesn't mean that athletes are any less athletes or what they do is any less impressive. I have massive respect for professional athletes. To get to the highest level means you have to be physically astonishing and most definitely skilled.
The biggest appeal of sports, especially in our society, is that difference between the successful and unsuccessful is so seemingly easy to quantify. It speaks to our belief that we live in a truly meritocratic society. If you can play the game and do it better than everyone else, you will get a shot.
So what's that have to do with racing? As long as a guy like Jimmie Johnson can make a very nice living being good at something like racing cars, there will be someone who wants to beat him to that living. Even at the cost of their life. It's this concept that's most dear to our society's perception of what is or is not athleticism and in auto racing it's at its most extreme.
Does this make Jimmie Johnson, or any race car driver, an athlete? There's no denying that many are very athletic, very highly skilled physical specimens. Strength, stamina, and skill are the markers of success in most professional sports but they're a minimum for success in racing.
So McNabb is right, a racecar driver is not simply an athlete, a racecar driver is a racecar driver, something that requires both athletic ability and the strength to balance one's own mortality with one's will to win.
Parker Kligerman is a professional race car driver who competes in NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.