'Oh Hell Yeah'
Fall 1998

There is a preconceived notion by sports followers that race car drivers aren't athletes. Most of the criticism comes from ignorant sportswriters and sports editors in the northeastern part of the United States. It's time to dispel their myths.

Bob Page has been a sports commentator for over twenty years. He has worked in Detroit and New York, where he made a name for himself as the outspoken host of MSG Network's "Sportsdesk." In 1996, he interviewed Ricky Rudd before the NASCAR banquet. Page called racing "an activity." The same term one would use for walking down the street, or playing hopscotch. An activity? Get real.

NASCAR racing is given its due in the southeastern part of the country. The Charlotte Observer, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Richmond Times Dispatch, and other news outlets do a great job in covering the sport. But, if you live in the northeast, you rely on Winston Cup Scene and ESPN. Why? Because of deep-rooted stereotypes held by the people who decide what gets coverage in the northeastern media markets.

The Winston Cup series draws 120,000 people twice a year in Dover, Delaware, 110,000 people twice a year in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, 100,000 once a year at Watkins Glen, New York, and 80,000 people twice a year up in Loudon, New Hampshire. Yet, the "big city" newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York hardly give NASCAR a thought. The winner might be mentioned in a "furthermore" type roundup column. But, usually you'll just find a listing of the results on the transactions page. It's no secret why the sport receives little coverage in the big cities of the east.

The sports editors of those newspapers grew up watching baseball. Either the Yankees or the Red Sox. They follow the local NBA and NFL teams and will assign a beat reporter to the local NHL team. But NASCAR? Not even a thought.

The reason is simple: Stock car racing was born in the south like hockey was born in Canada. To the northeast sports editors, it's considered a "regional" sport; it's a "southern thing." Someone fax the attendance figures to the New York Post and Boston Globe. But, there's another reason why racing receives little coverage. There's a notion that race car drivers aren't "athletes." Whereas hockey is "foreign," it is still played with a stick and a ball (puck). But racing? Everyone drives they figure. Surely Aunt Shelby in the minivan can't be considered an athlete they reason.

Athletics are about competition, skill, and movement of some kind. The "stick and ball" sports followers from the northeast see a race driver sitting in a car while the machine does the work. But, that's not entirely accurate. When Jeff Gordon gets into his car on Sunday afternoon, he doesn't exactly turn on the air conditioner, put in his favorite CD, and go for a four hour drive.

In terms of endurance, racing beats every sport; including marathon running. No athlete on the planet deals with the one substance that race drivers deal with; carbon monoxide. The colorless, odorless gas that will turn your stomach in a hurry. Contact with another car can knock out a crush panel. When that goes, the fumes come into the car. It doesn't go away. You don't get a halftime break to escape the fumes, you don't get to call a timeout to take a breather, you can't go back to the clubhouse for a soda in between innings. You're in a steel oven all afternoon.

The term "steel oven" seems appropriate. After all, temperatures inside the car reach in excess of 170 degrees. If a driver's cooling system fails, as was the case for Ricky Rudd at Martinsville, you bake... all day long. When it's hot, concentration can lapse. Combined with the g-forces in the car trying to throw your body out of the right side window, driving in a race requires more stamina and endurance than most sports will ever know.

When a driver crashes, they usually walk away unscathed or with minor injuries. Because of the NASCAR points setup, a driver can't miss a race and still contend for the driving title. As a result, drivers have gotten behind the wheel with broken shoulders, broken legs, punctured lungs, and the list goes on.

Mark Martin gets up every morning at 5:30 am to workout at his gym in Daytona Beach. Pushups, situps, bench presses, running, aerobics, you name it, he does it. The 39-year-old Martin is considered to be the best conditioned driver on the NASCAR circuit. At Martinsville, he had to be pulled out of his car, his driving suit wet with perspiration and his eyes stinging from sweat. When Jeff Gordon emerged from his car at Martinsville, he was able to stand on his own two feet; he was one of the lucky ones. The normally energetic champion looked weak and thoroughly exhausted. His 150 pound frame looked like it lost at least 10 pounds. But he stood and answered questions.

I'd love to see Vic Zeigel, sports editor of the New York Daily News, strap into a Winston Cup car and take ten laps around the track. If he's still breathing after that, I'd ask him if race car drivers can now be considered athletes. Would he change his opinion? Probably. But, it's unlikely he'd "lower" himself to visit a NASCAR track. He prefers to write about sports where the athletes get arrested for domestic violence and drug abuse. Sports where the athletes openly take performance enhancing stimulants. Have the obese Mike Francesa, a bloated New York sports radio talk show host, strap into a Winston Cup car. How many laps before Mr. Stick and Ball passes out? The over/under is 5.

Ricky Rudd drives 500 laps in 91 degree heat with no cooling equipment inside the car. Battling g-forces in the turns and carbon monoxide all day long. Mark Martin drives until sweat blinds his eyes in an attempt to catch Jeff Gordon in the closing laps.

"Those people who say we're not athletes, I want to see them run 500 laps at Martinsville," Gordon said recently. NASCAR drivers are not only athletes, but they're the best on the planet. Stamina, endurance, and skill; the three prerequisites for racing on the circuit. These guys are athletes; Oh hell yeah.

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