Retired NFL star Donovan McNabb recently found himself bombarded with criticism from racing drivers and fans alike after he claimed on Fox Sports Live that drivers aren't really athletes. OppositeLock's Phathead argues instead that drivers are actually more impressive, for their sport is vastly more dangerous.
We all have that moment. That one second behind the wheel of a vehicle where we thought, "This is it." Perhaps a corner was taken a little too fast, perhaps there was a sudden lack of grip but for that brief moment there was an acceptance that death was near.
There are two ways to respond to surviving this moment. Some embrace the fear, aching never to repeat it again. Others relish in it, skirting on the edge of control and the edge of death, yet coming out victorious. The latter… well those are motorsports fans.
It's a visceral feeling to control something that is seemingly uncontrollable, to push beyond a limit that seems immovable. Race car drivers live to find that limit which borders on lunacy regardless of whatever dangers it may pose. It is a feeling which is as infectious as it is powerful.
Which makes the comments by famed former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb that much more interesting. To him, the physical attributes to throw a semi-spherical object far outweighs the ability to handle a 900 horsepower, self-possessed monster. To him, racecar drivers are not athletes, football players are, baseball players are and anyone else that has to run and jump are.
And he's right.
Race car drivers are not athletes. To be an athlete, according to most definitions, there is no component of fear… because athletes do not regularly face fear. But race car drivers do. The physical and mental qualities required to drive at speeds which would make normal men and women, athletes included, shudder in fear.
They may not admit it, they may not acknowledge it, but in some way that fear must be accounted for. Unlike in football or baseball or soccer, death is always a possibility in motorsports. Sean Edwards, Jason Leffer, Dale Earnhardt, Aryton Senna… these are men who gave their lives doing what they love. Not their mental capacity, not their livelihood, their physical lives. How many athletes, Mr. McNabb included, can lay claim to this?
Some may ask what the interest in NASCAR and Formula 1 is as it is merely grown men driving in circles. In reality those men are teetering on the very edge of that circle, a small movement away from gaining that crucial tenth of a second or an untimely death. Motorsports is perhaps as safe as it ever has been but the inherent danger remains, ever present. A fact that is lurking around every corner, hiding in brake dust and reappearing far too often.
As a motorsports fan I have watched my heroes race, I have watched them win and I have watched them die. As a traditional stick and ball sports fan, I have watched these aforementioned athletes play their sport, I have watched them win and I have watched them grow old and critical of that which is new and different.
And if that is what it means to be an athlete… well count me out.