Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jimmie Johnson wins 6th Sprint Cup series championship. But is he an athlete?

Sunday, Jimmie Johnson took home a historic sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship down at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  That puts him one away from tying the record of seven, held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  And as of right now, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that he can’t beat that record.  Old-school NASCAR fans cringe at the thought, but Johnson’s Chad Knaus-led team is just that strong.

During the week leading up to this event, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb stated that Jimmie Johnson was “absolutely not an athlete.”  Understandably, this raised the ire of auto racing fans everywhere.  Johnson in particular is extremely athletic, jogging 14 miles-a-week, working out or bicycling pretty much daily, and competing in triathlons when not at the track.
But there have always been people that don’t believe racecar drivers are athletes.  “Anyone can drive a car,” critics say.  “Why don’t we call my bus driver an athlete then?”

Jimmie Johnson is one of the most physically-fit, disciplined, well-conditioned people in all of sports.  But the question remains—is a racecar driver an athlete?

Pretend you had to drive from Topeka, Kan., to Denver, Colo., this afternoon.  That trek is a little more than 500 miles.  If all goes well, that’s a straight shot across Interstate 70.  It should take about eight hours.  Now, I will admit, even when I make a drive like that, I usually arrive pretty tired.  But let’s throw some wrenches into the scenario.

Now let’s say you need to make this eight hour trip in under four hours, or it will cost you $1-million.  That means, instead of loping along at 70-mph, you need to crank it up to an average of around 150.  Is your car going to hold up under those speeds?  You might blow a tire.  You might not make it to the gas station when the tank runs dry.  You might get picked up for speeding.  No, stop thinking about this—you’re getting stressed out.  But, it’s a million bucks!  Stay calm.

OK, now we’re going to make things a little less comfortable.  Instead of a plush, leather captain’s chair, let’s put you in a thinly padded, steel barrel.  Need to stop and stretch your legs, or even adjust your back while you’re driving?  Forget it.  Every part of your body, from your hips to your head, will be secured so tightly that you will not be able to move an inch for the whole trip.  Not one inch.

Oh, and you’re going to be driving with the driver’s window rolled down.  All the carpets, upholstery, and sound-deadening material will also be removed.  Do you like a plush, compliant ride?  Well, that’s tough, because your car’s springs will be clamped down so there’s no travel at all.  At least you’ll be able to listen to the breeze as the country rolls by, right?  Wrong.  Your car will be fitted with an 800-hp, carbureted V8, and the mufflers will be removed.  And instead of routing the tailpipes out the back, they’ll be sent directly under you, under the driver’s door.

Climate control?  Ha!  You get to make this trip in the middle of July, when it’s 115-degrees in Western Kansas.  Oh yeah, and you get to wear your winter gear, complete with parka, snow pants, boots, and a wool-lined hood.  Oh, and a five-pound helmet might be fun to put on over that, too.

And I forgot to tell you, it isn’t enough that you make this trip in three-and-a-half hours.  If you don’t beat 42 other commuters, forget that big payday.  They’re all driving the same kind of car you are, so you can’t just outrun ‘em.  They also happen to be the absolute best drivers in the world.  Don’t let that bother you, though.  You can take them.  Heck, from where you are right now, you only have to pass 29 of them!

I-70 is a little straight for this drive.  Instead, why don’t we just make it one big, continuous left turn.  Try not to get vertigo while you’re cranking around there.  I know, the temperature inside the car reads 210-degrees.  Suck it up, Sally.  There’s no puking in racing!  At least the turn is banked, so you can hold yourself up while you lean over on your left side the whole time.  The G-force of hitting the turn at 170-mph won’t quite suck your eyeballs out of their sockets or anything.

At least there are rumble strips if you accidentally veer off the left shoulder.  Thank God, because the way you’re squealing around this continuous turn, your car just wants to launch off the road over there.  Oh crap!  There aren’t any rumble strips!  A concrete wall—what the hell?  There isn’t any shoulder at all.

Just drive steady, and you won’t tag that wall.  Hey, why is that guy there where you’re trying to drive steady?  Man, it would be nice to drive a little higher in the turn, the car wants to spin out down here.  Why does there have to be some sonofabiscuit everywhere you want to drive?  Don’t they know that you need that part of the track?  Don’t they even care?

Hey—these jerks are running into you!  If this terrible-handling car doesn’t skeeter out of control on its own, one of these guys is going to knock it out for you.

There should be some emotional baggage that goes along with this.  Let’s say that 200 men and women worked 20-hour days for a whole year to get you in this seat.  You certainly don’t want to let them down.  They don’t even get to see their families because they put their lives on hold for you to be here.  If you jack this up, all their work was for nothing.  Oh yeah, and they could lose their jobs.

Why are all these people watching you?  There must be 150,000 people sitting in chairs along the side of the road scrutinizing everything that you’re doing.  They want you to mess up.  They love to throw beer cans at the heads of people they think mess up.  Oh, and there are a few million more people watching what you do on TV.  You really can’t get anything past them.  They have the luxury of instant replay.  Do something they don’t like, and they’ll get on the radio and say nasty, personal things about you and your family.  And anyway, one little kid that you met in the burn hospital yesterday told you he would die if you didn’t win.  His death will be on you if you don’t make this work.

One more time around this circle of hell, and you’re home free.  You can do it.  Steady.  The checkered flag!  One million dollars!  Now, you just have to make 1,100 public appearances and sign 100,000 autographs before you get to drive back to Topeka next weekend.

And they say racecar drivers aren’t athletes.


  1. Good stuff Craig - remember, the carbs finally went away though!

    1. That's a good point. I guess I wasn't thinking about the EFI. I still accidentally call it the Winston Cup Series on occasion too, though.