VIDEO / BLOG: The Case For Racers Being Athletes

Nick Graziano Carolinas Racing, Featured, MidSouth, Midwest, NASCAR, Nick Graziano Blog, Northeast, Southeast, Video, West 0 Comments

December 3, 2013 – By RaceChaser Staff Writer Nick Graziano –

Recently former NFL quarterback, Donovan McNabb, brought up an age-old argument involving NASCAR. It wasn’t whether or not NASCAR is a sport; which was settled years ago anyways by Ernst Hemingway when he said “There are only three sports: bullfighting, mountaineering and motor racing; the rest are merely games.”

McNabb demonstrated his ignorance for the sport by stating Jimmie Johnson, now six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is not an athlete. The ignorance is assumed, considering all of the facts and evidence proving the excessive athleticism needed to be a NASCAR driver.

ESPN’s “Sports Science” did a study with NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin last year to study the physical tribulations drivers go through every race. ESPN looked at the temperatures drivers must endure, strength needed to wheel a race car and more.

Using a thermocouple, which records temperatures, and a sensor that Hamlin actually swallowed, ESPN found the average temperature in the car to be 130 degrees and that Hamlin’s core body temperature during the race peaked at 101 degrees. And these are temperatures drivers must deal with for three to four hours straight. ESPN brought to light the severity of Hamlin’s core body temperature with the fact that hyperthermia can set in at 102 degrees.

In order for drivers not to experience hyperthermia during a race, drivers can sweet up to three and a half pints an hour and loose about 13 pounds of water weight in a single race, according to the ESPN study. In 2011, NASCAR driver Brian Vickers talked with Yahoo Sports on how he lost 16 pounds during a single race years ago. Vickers said it was a “perfect storm” with temperatures already reaching more than 100 degrees outside and his air unit and water bottle weren’t working.

The air unit Vickers mentioned is not the traditional air conditioning unit casual drivers may find in their street cars. NASCAR drivers have a small air cooling unit that sends cool air into their helmet. It only reduces the temperature a little bit, but it is enough to provide a small amount of comfort for the driver.

That small amount of comfort helps to keep the most important part of a driver’s body working, the brain. Driver’s keep their brain working harder and faster than average during every race. They need to hit their mark on the track perfectly every corner. They need to be able to predict an accident or a driver’s counter move three cars ahead of them.

When they drive their car 200 mph into a corner they need to be ready manhandle the steering wheel and step dance with the peddles to get around the track as fast and smooth as they can. Then adding the extreme temperatures and aggressive g-forces, there is a lot for the brain to processes.

The Discovery Channel did a special a few years ago focusing on the brain power of a NASCAR driver and according to the special, without cooling, the brain can over heat like an engine overheats without enough air. The same catastrophic outcome will occur when both get too hot. With no cooling the brain would raise one degree every five minutes.

Ten minutes without cooling will cause disorientation; 20 minutes can do permanent damage and after 50 minutes if the brain gets too hot, you’re dead according to the special. To cool themselves, drivers rely on their cooling system, any air they can get to come into the cockpit and a drink inside the car. But as in Vicker’s case, there are times when all they have to rely on is the sweat dripping from their face. These conditions cause drivers to tempt fate every race, even without considering the chance of an accident.



The reason they put their life at risk every race is not because they are looking for a death wise or some kind of adrenaline high, it is because they can handle it and enjoy the physical challenge. On average drivers deal with three g-forces of pressure on them every corner, according to the ESPN study. They found where the drivers feel the most pressure is on their neck which is forced to hold a weight of 40 pounds. During a 400 lap race it equivocates to the neck performing 800 40 pound reps.

Like the brain, the more physical attributes a driver performs the harder the heart has to work. ESPN measured during a race that Hamlin’s heart rate was 130 beats per minutes, equal to an elite endurance racer. His heart also sustained that rate for about 30,000 beats, twice the amount of beats of a world class runner running a marathon, according to ESPN.

Drivers go through a similar exercise regimen as a runner and sometimes more extensive as they need upper body strength as well. It is hard to find a driver that doesn’t follow some kind of workout regimen or are physically fit. Many may target Tony Stewart, who fills up this fire suit more than other drivers, as an exception, but just because Stewart may not appear physically fit does not mean he does not have the physical and mental strength to be called an athlete. Like in football, when a player is more rounded than others nobody is saying he can’t perform and looks at his as not being an athlete.

Recently former NFL quarterback and NASCAR team owner, Troy Aikman spoke with Sporting News and attributed to Johnson’s physical fitness and why he is an athlete.

“A few months ago I was walking my dog at my house, here in Dallas, and Jimmie Johnson came jogging by with a stroller and this kids and he doesn’t even live here in the area,” Aikman said. “He is in shape and takes it very, very seriously and I think that his conditioning is what helps him have some of the success he has on the track.”

Johnson’s records speak for themselves as in 12 years of racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series he has six championships, five of them being in a row, 66 career victories, two Daytona 500 victories, never finishing worse than sixth in points and many more accolades. Without the physical training and forming himself to be a top athlete, Jimmie Johnson may be the name of a driver Jeff Gordon took a chance on, but failed to make it.

If all of these facts were not apparent to McNabb then it is time for him to stop thinking he can compare driving his street car to a race car and take Jeff Gordon up on his offer to see how one feels. But if he did, then I guess since just about everyone can pick up a football and throw it, he should consider himself to not be an athlete as well.


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