ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch: Are NASCAR Drivers Athletes?

James WilliamsAnalyst IIIMarch 3, 2012

ESPN Broadcaster Dr. Jerry Punch knows his sports. Photo- ESPN
ESPN Broadcaster Dr. Jerry Punch knows his sports. Photo- ESPN

Right around the start of the NASCAR season, we get sports talk radio hosts and writers who feel the need to pose the same old question: Are race drivers athletes?

That really shows a lack of understanding about what drivers go though when racing on either the NASCAR or Indy Car circuits.

Dr. Jerry Punch has a unique perspective on this question. He played college football as a quarterback at North Carolina State for coach Lou Holtz. He went on to earn a degree in medicine from Wake Forest.

As a broadcaster for ESPN, he began as a medical reporter, then served as a college basketball and football analyst. In 2002 Dr. Punch began to cover NASCAR for the network and has become one of racing’s most respected and best analysts. So who better to talk about race drivers being athletes than the good doctor? 

Question: Compare the thought process of a driver to that of an NFL quarterback?

Punch: Just like a quarterback, a race driver must process information at a high rate of speed and make many decisions. Quarterbacks look at the field to evaluate what play works against the defensive scheme the opposition is offering. A driver must understand track conditions, the feel of the car, what part of the track the car runs best on, all while communicating with his crew chief.

Just like a quarterback, a driver uses his footwork—both feet, one on the clutch, the other on the gas—and uses both arms and both hands to move the car all over the track. There are a great many similarities between quarterbacks and drivers. But then drivers don’t get downs off, and if they get hit the consequences are far direr than getting hit by a linebacker.      

Question: How about the hand-eye coordination?


Punch: We use what is called rapid visual acuity. That tells you about an athlete’s eyesight and how well they can see the ball in baseball. The better you see the ball, the better the chance you have to be a good hitter. There is much that goes into the test, but one of the examples of the test is having a player read the label of a record as it spun at three different speeds. Most quality baseball players can read a label at 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute while most NASCAR drivers can read a label at 78.

Drivers' eyes are able to slow down and focus better than others in sports. The elite drivers can even make out faces in the crowd as they are driving down the backstretch at Daytona at over 180 miles an hour.        

JW: How about the overall physical punishment?

Punch: The G forces that drivers' face each time they go into and exit a turn is like having your head pulled from your body. Then you are in a car that has a cockpit temperature of 135 degrees. The floor board of the cars is so hot that without the new shoes drivers have, they would burn their feet. The heart rate of a driver goes from that of marathon runner to a sprinter throughout a race. Finally, a driver can lose anywhere from 10 to as much as 20 pounds during the course of a race because of hydration.

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