Why Racing Doesn’t Need “Athletes” To Be Great

Instead of talking about a driver’s fitness, let’s concentrate on the actual job.

Are race-car drivers athletes? You’re probably heard this question before, but if you’re like me, you’ve never had a satisfying answer.

Acknowledged: Drivers are in incredible shape. They have resting heart rates you could measure on a calendar. Their muscle density must be gauged with ground-penetrating radar. You’d be a masochist to emulate their diets, which probably take as much endurance and pain tolerance as an actual race, with the possible exception of Tony Stewart’s.

Acknowledged: What racers do is physically punishing. The stresses of racing are sufficient to pop ribs loose, displace vertebrae, detach retinas. Drivers can lose, depending on whose measurement you believe, between 12 and 20 lbs of water weight during a race. Their bodies are marvels of careful conditioning, with the possible exception of Tony Stewart’s.

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Is it clear I’m not, in fact, ragging on Tony Stewart here? Because that guy—even retired—is the best kind of sportsman. The stick/ball sports equivalent would be a gym rat, a guy who’s just working out all the time, and who seems to have or require no life outside this activity. Stewart is either racing a car or going somewhere to race a car or, I suppose, sleeping. And while his athleticism may not be apparent, it’s demonstrably, undeniably there. His physical fitness comes from nothing more complicated or sophisticated than competing. Constantly. Which means, gruff public image aside, he derives a lot of joy from doing what he does. Talk about intangibles. What more, aside from winning, could you want?

Oh, right. The athlete thing.

Take the physical-fitness evidence and Webster’s Unabridged arguments, then add the stuff we haven’t talked about, like the chance, always diminishing but impossible to eliminate, that these guys could actually die while competing. Throw them all together and it still won’t matter.

Race car drivers aren’t athletes. They may never be. Understand: I am not saying that. I’m saying it’s not for me to say. “Athlete” is not defined by Webster’s, by ESPN and certainly not by me. It’s defined by social consensus, and society has largely decided that an athlete wears special shoes and carries a special stick or glove. You’re not allowed to operate a machine unless it’s propelled by your muscles.

Here’s an idea: Instead of talking about aerobic fitness—a quality that allows a driver to concentrate on the actual job—let’s concentrate on the actual job.

Anyone who follows golf has seen Tiger Woods’ swing evolve, devolve, break down and be rebuilt over the years through hours of analysis. Football fans love critiquing the style of running backs; hockey fans have strong, informed opinions about goalie styles. And don’t ask the average baseball fan to compare two pitchers unless you’ve had a healthy lunch and a full night’s sleep.

But two different drivers? Seb Vettel versus Lewis Hamilton? Tony Stewart versus Jimmie Johnson? Very different strengths and weaknesses, very different approaches and comfort zones—and all worth talking about. But no one does.

Oh, you can easily learn how they like their cars set up. You hear stuff like This one’s a great qualifier and This one finds speed when he really needs it, or That one makes every car he drives better, and so on. But the process of how this actually happens might as well be magic.

John Kanuit/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Usually I’m all for that kind of mystery, because there’s not enough romance to daily life; too much is measured to death by marketers and pollsters and demographers, and other people who should be locked up. But I believe racing, like astrophysics and sound design, will become more elegant and enjoyable the more we know about it.

I have been around racers just enough to know that formula guys drive differently than sports car guys, that guys who started in karts or motorcycles or dirt tracks have different advantages and disadvantages. These lessons were given by experts: smart, experienced folks who learned the hard way—by spending as much time at the track as possible. If I can understand what they’re saying, the average fan certainly shouldn’t have a problem.

Sports fanhood thrives on information. Putting more of it out there will generate more interest. Plus, the personality-driven stuff would allow us to know more about how our favorite drivers actually do their jobs. That’s the best kind of pure fan bait.

And we could use this new information to make much more informed—though still ultimately emotional—arguments over which driver is better, even across different eras and different kinds of racing. That kind of argument would actually be fun. That kind of argument is what sports fanhood is actually for.

John Krewson has been a writer and editor at The Onion for 25 years. He has no regrets, except maybe dipping his cookies in soda that one time.