NASCAR: NOT a Sport, But Good Competition

Daymon JohnsonCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2009

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota takes the checkered flag winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 12, 2009 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

It’s a debate that has been hashed out many a time, from the shores of Southern California to the chilly North-East of Maine.  I’ve had this debate several times with friends, enemies and the guy 3 seats down at the local bar, and I’m sticking to my guns here.  However, before we can go forward, we have to go back.  Back to a time when I was a wee lad, working on my Uncle Eugene’s Soy Bean farm in Bunker Hill, Indiana through what then seemed like the hottest, longest days ever which led to unending summers. 


I remember my Uncle Gene fondly.  He was a wonderful man that had a passion for cars, soy beans and of course the occasional Old Milwaukee or Miller High Life (The Champagne as my friends and I refer to it).  He was a gun collector and had many pieces that were priceless, namely, the six shooter used in the original Lone Ranger TV show, he owned 2 of Doc Holliday’s pistols and various guns from other Old West cowboys like Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson and even one from Pearl Hart, who was a notorious female stage coach robber.  He was a man of many layers.  His ultimate passion though, as were his sons’ Rick, Mike, Glenn and David, was Indy Car and NASCAR Racing.  He tried to sway me, but I think I knew early that Hockey, Baseball and Football were more my speed.  I also knew that I didn’t really understand the whole “car racing” thing, but boy he did, and he knew it well. 


The story of Gene’s entry into the sport is a funny one, and one that I’ve heard a hundred times, and it goes like this:  One day in the late 50’s at the “Southern Oaks Drag Strip”, which was a dirt track drag strip out in the middle of nowhere outside Indianapolis, Gene had this really nice 1937 Chevy Sedan Delivery (Which his family still owns) and supposedly it was the fastest, meanest and baddest car around.  Well I guess this guy named A.J. heard about it while in town and went and checked out a race, seeing Eugene out there beating everyone easily, A.J. walked up to Gene and said something along the lines of “Hey, you wanna’ race me kid”?  Well, Gene never backed down from anyone for anything and said to A.J. after he asked “Race? It won’t be a race….I’ll beat you worse than my Old Man does our Mule”.  So, they raced, and A.J. was beaten…pretty badly from all accounts. So, knowing that he obviously had met someone that new a little bit about cars and how to make them go faster, A.J. asked Gene for some advice on his cars, and thus a friendship and partnership was born.  Uncle Gene went on to work for A.J. for years and was the former Pit-Chief and Lead Mechanic for A.J. back in the 60’s and 70’s helping him with the Indy 500 several times.  The A.J. I speak of is one A.J. Foyt.  For those of you that don’t know, A.J. Foyt is now a legend in both Indy Car and NASCAR racing as he’s still the only driver to ever win the Indy 500, Daytona 500, 24 hours of Dayton and 24 hours of LeMans.  All big time accomplishments in the racing world.


Eugene looked at those days fondly throughout his life and held those memories close for as long as I can remember.  Uncle Gene left the sport for several years in the middle-late 70’s and did some consulting work with A.J. and other people in both NASCAR and Indy Racing through the 80’s and then firmly retired in the early 90’s. I remember Gene would say things like “Daymon, racing is the only sport in the world that requires the mental and physical focus it does” or trying to convince me racing was the best thing since sliced bread saying things like “Daymon, don’t you think it would be neat to be a race car driver? Think of how fast you could go while driving around that track”!  Eugene was always trying to plant the seed and spread the gospel of the greatness of racing, he was passionate about it, and for that I say god bless the man. He’s a man who loved the racing game and was always looking forward to the next big race, be it in Indiana, North Carolina or somewhere else.


As I got older, my time in Indiana lessened until I was too busy with baseball to be going back there to work on the soy bean farm during the summers.  I was into baseball and nothing more and played all the time, every season it was available.  Uncle Gene and I would talk on the phone all the time, having the debate of which sport is tougher and why.  There was always some playful razzing and occasionally it would get louder than the typical conversation.  But hey, I had my passion and he had his…..and my view of racing has never ever changed, and likely never ever will.  NASCAR, Indy Car, Drag or any other kind of automotive racing IS NOT A SPORT, it’s competition.


In recent years, ESPN among other sports-news outlets have picked up NASCAR heavily, and it’s now pretty much in their regular rotation.  I can’t debate the numbers, NASCAR is one of the most watched “sporting events” every year, and their merchandising numbers are through the roof….I’m talking on par with NFL merchandising, which is amazing.  I’ll give them their due, they promote and merchandise the hell out their product, and they’re seeing success in the form of product sales and corporate sponsorships.  To their credit, the typical TV program NASCAR airs are some of the more technologically advanced programs on TV and they’re really growing, and somewhat enjoyable to watch.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s NOT A SPORT.


Webster’s Dictionary defines sport as this: Sport: is an athletic activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively. Sports are commonly referred to as activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determiner of the outcome (winning or losing). 


Let’s break that definition down: “is an athletic activity”.  The last time I checked, driving a car at high speeds and turning left is NOT an athletic activity.  It goes on to say “Sports are commonly referred to as activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determiner of the outcome (winning or losing)”.  Now, it may take some dexterity and strength to handle a car at those speeds, however, the drivers physical capabilities have no direct bearing on the outcome as the definition states.  The mechanical capabilities of the car ultimately decide who wins and who looses and frankly, those cars are designed to turn left, thus making it easier for the driver to maneuver.  So, the only conclusion that one can logically come to here, is that racing is NOT A SPORT, rather a competition which I might add is a spirited competition and it’s good competition.


Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all, “you’ve never driven a car a 200 mph and had to keep it on a track” and to that guy I usually say, “neither have you”.  I’ve also heard the old “you don’t understand what it takes to do that” and again my rebuttal is usually something like “neither do you, so how can you speak about it”?….blah, blah blah……  Have any of you out there ever wondered why the typical NASCAR driver looks like the guy in line 5 at your local Home Depot instead of a refined, conditioned athlete along the lines of Tiger Woods, Kevin Garnett, Terrell Owens, Allen Iverson or countless other professional athletes?  The reason is simple, real athletes train for their craft for hours upon hours a day.  They train in weight rooms, and on practice fields and make themselves so firmly conditioned that they can go full speed for several hours with little fatigue.  NASCAR drivers do not spend countless hours in the training rooms and on practice fields and as a matter of fact, most of their “practice” is done on computer gaming systems.  The physical aspect of the race itself is minimal, especially since the cars are “set-up” to allow the driver to succeed. 


Look, you take Tony Stewart out of his car and put him on a basketball court, that guy is going to struggle.  Take Dale Jr. out of his car and put him in the batters box, he doesn’t touch any Brad Lidge pitch that’s thrown.  Better yet, take Jeff Gordon out of his car and put him in a pair of Ice Skates…..that would be a show to see.  If you took other athletes out of their respective sports and put them in another sport, they would at least be competitive.  Put Chauncey Billups in at a WR position in the NFL, he probably is able to perform adequately enough to make the team.  Put Mike Phelps in a baseball uniform, he probably is able to perform equally.  My point here is this: NASCAR drivers are not athletes, because what they do does not require any athletic ability.  Throwing a Curveball, draining a 3 pointer, making a tackle and throwing a TD are things that take athletic talent.  Driving a car doesn’t fit there. Is NASCAR dangerous? Absolutely, no one said that it wasn’t. However, You and I assume an equal amount of danger while driving our car’s/trucks to work every day.  Proof here can be seen in the statistical information on  the amount of fatalities caused in daily driving.  NASCAR and INDY don’t often experience that….RIP Dale Earnhardt Sr.


The bottom line here, is that I don’t feel that NASCAR should be considered a sport for the simple fact that the Crew Chief and his Crew are  ultimately the ones who decide how that car is going to run.  My Uncle Eugene told me once “without a good crew chief, you could have the best driver around and still lose”.  That statement rings with me still, because frankly, he’s right.  If your Crew Chief and his Crew have a good day, and everything is assembled perfectly, chances are the car is going to run better and stronger.  If the Crew Chief and his Crew have a bad day and things don’t go together as smoothly, chances are the car won’t perform up to it’s capabilities.  I look at this debate and I laugh, because let’s be honest, the piece of machinery in which that driver sits is the athlete, not the driver.  The mechanical aptitude of the Crew Chief and Crew members are the key component to someone winning a race.  Think about this, if a NASCAR has an accident and breaks off a piece of the body but the driver is ok with no injuries, the car must be properly repaired before it can be competitive again. The drivers fine, but the car is damaged, the car is the deciding factor…..not the driver.  There are simply too many variables when building a car that can dictate how the vehicle runs to say that the driver is the sole reason that he/she succeeds or doesn’t.


In my mind, NASCAR, at best, can be viewed as mechanical competition, with “competition” being the key word, because it’s not a sport.  In my mind, NASCAR ranks right along side of  Competitive Eating, Dog Shows, RC Car Racing, Billiards and Darts.  I respect the fact that race car drivers put their life on the line every time they’re on the track, however, I don’t think what they do, is any different than what you and I do. Here’s my theory on what is a sport and what is not:


Sports revolve around competition in one or more of several aspects namely speed, strength, endurance and, most subjectively, skill.  Some sports are pure embodiments of a single aspect of competition. Like the 100meter dash is pure speed, powerlifting is nearly pure strength, the Tour De France is pure endurance.  It is when the “skill” aspect becomes predominant that the term “sport” becomes debatable. It seems to me that whether a skill task qualifies as a sport is based upon how complex it is. For instance, Darts is not really a sport because the motor skill required is not complex and is always the same - your always throwing a dart the same distance using the same motion. Move up the scale a notch or two to Bowling - you’re throwing that 16 lb. ball 60ft. but the shots change, lane conditions change, etc - increasing the complexity of the motor task. (sidenote here: Bowling is tough, I know…I have 9 perfect games.) Anyway, go up the scale another notch to Golf - a very complex motor task with many variations for driving 300 yard bombs, chipping into the cup, coming out of the sand, putting the 25 footer, different weather, courses, etc. Thus it becomes more sport like.  Applying this to NASCAR - well it’s a complex motor task, I think it’s less complex than golf, more complex than bowling or darts, but a whole lot more dangerous. Personally, I don’t think it rises to the level of sport.


As I wrote that, I couldn’t help but think about ol’ Uncle Gene, and I can see his cheeks getting red with frustration. I think about it, and I’m sure if Uncle gene were still around he’d have something witty and probably wise-ass to say about now.  Something like “That’s a bunch of Horse S*#t….get me a beer” or “What the Sam Hell are you talking about”.  Oh how I would love to hear that rant just one more time! Ultimately though the definition doesn’t lie and NASCAR doesn’t meet the definition of a sport!