Keeping Pace

Drivers Are Indeed Athletes

A big day for Jimmie Johnson. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A big day for Jimmie Johnson. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Jimmie Johnson made sports history in 2009, and the Associated Press recognized that and rewarded him for it.

Guest Column by Cathy Elliott

I think the first really in-depth piece of NASCAR-related writing I ever did was for inclusion in a USA Today special section during NASCAR Champion's Week six or seven years ago. The story was titled,

"Drivers are athletes."

I did my due diligence, researched the topic thoroughly, and put together a convincing argument lauding NASCAR drivers' athletic and competitive skills. Whether it swayed anyone's opinion, I will never know.

But the real questions in my mind were then, and continue to be, why are we even having this conversation, and what is there to argue about?

This issue reared its head once again on December 21 when the Associated Press announced Jimmie Johnson as its Athlete of the Year. He is the first race car driver ever to receive the award in its 78-year history.

Internet message boards are now exploding with discourse on this topic. Some question the AP’s choice; others question whether NASCAR is even a sport. I even saw one comment saying that when the drivers start pushing their cars around the track, then they’ll be considered athletes.

Oh, really? Does this mean that Lance Armstrong now has to get off his bike and push it up the sides of mountains in order to be taken seriously as an athlete? Give me a break.

It is so easy to get testy on this topic if you’re a NASCAR fan, because it seems ludicrous to us that anyone would question the physical abilities of our drivers.

But when you think about it, the AP has a pretty daunting challenge when it comes to selecting an athlete of the year. The skills required to excel in any particular sport -- just pick one, it doesn’t matter which one it is -- are for the most part unique to that sport.

Anyone can toss a ball, but very few can throw one accurately from left field to home plate.

Anyone can swing a tennis racquet, but very few can use one to accurately place a ball into a small box at more than 100 mph.

A 7-foot-tall basketball player wouldn’t make much of a jockey, and a 300-pound defensive lineman probably wouldn’t accomplish much as a sprinter.

(Speaking of sprinting, on a side note, Johnson commented recently that his personal best time for a five-mile run was 34 minutes, 55 seconds. It takes me that long to drive five miles.)

And anyone can drive a 3,400-pound car, but the number of those who can do it for 400 or 500 miles at a stretch, at speeds which sometimes exceed 180 mph, packed like sardines into a moving mass of other cars traveling just as fast in the same direction, with no air conditioning, is very small. Last time I checked, there were about 43 of them.

Jimmie Johnson is an athlete. Period. He has every physical and mental characteristic required to transform into a driver into a racer. He is streamlined, has exceptional reflexes and hand/eye coordination.

He’s smart. He knows what a car needs, and he knows how to ask for it. He can anticipate potential trouble on the track, and can usually avoid it and sometimes even take advantage of it. He has endurance and stamina, and he has courage.

The numbers back him up. He won seven races this season on the way to his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, and propped those victories up with 16 top five and 24 top 10 finishes.

Perhaps just as important when discussing awards like this one is the fact that Johnson is more than just a superior athlete; he is a stellar representative of his sport.

This is not the time or the place to add my name to the list of Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez or Michael Phelps detractors. But I do feel that being the face of a sport bears a certain burden of responsibility off the playing field as well as on it.

Jimmie Johnson made sports history in 2009, and the Associated Press recognized that and rewarded him for it. I, along with millions of other NASCAR fans, am so proud of him. He combines talent and character, drive and determination into one winning package. When fans of any sport look at Johnson, they see achievement, not controversy.

The face of our sport is the face of a worthy champion, and he makes NASCAR look awfully good.




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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.




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