By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Eddie Gossage thinks I'm an April Fool.
Texas Motor Speedway's president told me so—in no uncertain terms—when I trial-ballooned my thesis that NASCAR drivers aren't athletes.
"You've lost your mind," Gossage retorted from his office overlooking TMS, home to this weekend's Samsung 500 out in Fort Worth. "That's the dumbest thing you've ever said, and that's saying something."
I stubbornly repeat: NASCAR drivers are not athletes.
Gentlemen, start your angers! This is gonna dadgum piss off sum racin' rednecks.
Before you start hollerin' about how I couldn't tell the difference between a toy Yoda and a Toyota, let me preface my premise. No, I've never been behind the wheel of a stock car. I've also never sacked Tony Romo, yet I have a pretty good feeling for how difficult that would be.
I was at TMS the day Kenny Brack's IRL car crashed and disintegrated into vapor. I took an aerial tour of the track in a blimp piloted by Casey Mears. I served as an honorary member on Ken Schrader's pit crew. I've attended—and chronicled—dozens of races. Even went to the Daytona 500 and gave the three-fingered salute in front of Dale Earnhardt's statue.
I know NASCAR. I just don't get it.
The racing, I mean. I totally appreciate the event. What's not to like?
This week approximately 180,000 fans will transform TMS into a Woodstock on wheels. Around the infield and adjacent campgrounds, NASCAR nuts with blue collars and red necks will basically spend their vacations smoking, drinking and chasing women. There will be $1 million RVs and $12 pup tents. There will be seniors rooting for Junior, Chevy stickers peeing on Ford, Confederate flags proudly flying and Santa Claus hung in effigy because December is the only month without racin'.
On Sunday the crowd will look for big wrecks, but during the week it's obsessed with big racks. Trust me, NASCAR fans attend races just as much for chicks with loose morals as cars with tight steering. Walk around the infield and there's so much focus on the female anatomy you'd think the Sprint Cup was Victoria Secret's sleek, new bra.
Combine weekend concerts by Pat Green and Foreigner with the most fun, fellowship and frivolity this side of a Hee-Haw reunion, and if the Samsung 500 were canceled, most of the fans wouldn't leave. Or, for that matter, even notice.
Which is totally understandable. Because in NASCAR, when the green flag starts, the fun stops.
I respect that the sport doesn't have labor disputes or drug problems or Terrell Owens. But it also doesn't have any athletes.
"That's just not true," Gossage contends. "In fact, they are every bit as athletic as anyone in other sports. I'm telling you right now, if they stood side-by-side with a driver and took their shirts off, there would be some NFL players pretty embarrassed."
Maybe, but there's a difference between being in shape and being an athlete.
Psst, it's the car that moves the man, not the man moving the car. Capiche?
Certainly there is amazing hand-eye dexterity required to be a NASCAR driver. But maneuvering a pampered car around an oval track in what most of us civilians would consider "light" traffic is a refined skill, not an athletic feat.
"Nonsense," Gossage says. "It's very dependent on cardiovascular conditioning. You sit in a car for a 500-mile race for three hours in 140-degree temperatures inside the cockpit with no timeouts or no halftime and tell me fitness isn't at a premium. If you're not an athlete, you'll spend the last 100 miles falling out of your seat. Bobby Allison used to stay in shape by taking his rowing machine into the sauna and working out for 90 minutes every night."
Sorry, you lost me at "sit."
G-force, heat and lack of power steering notwithstanding, driving is a sedentary endeavor. I just imagine Jimmie Johnson winning another thrilling race and being offered a comfy chair to rest his weary body. "No thanks. Been sittin' all day."
I saw Carl Edwards win a race and celebrate with a backflip off his car, making NASCAR the only sport where the athleticism takes place after the competition.
"Jeff Gordon didn't have a good year in 2008," Gossage says. "But he made a commitment to his conditioning, and now he's leading the points race. It's a year-round thing with these guys."
NASCAR drivers are no more athletes than jockeys. Both are powered by—and at the mercy of—horsepower. Drivers, in fact, rank below golfers on the athletic scale because while Tiger Woods actively swings his club, Tony Stewart is passively propelled by his engine. Lance Armstrong's machine moves only when he pedals; Kurt Busch's machine moves when he simply pushes a pedal.
If you don't grasp that, then swig a beer, ogle some boobs and listen up. NASCAR is 75 percent machine and 25 percent man.
The worst driver in the best car might win Sunday's race. But the best driver in the worst car won't even finish. I was at TMS one year when Greg Biffle was done in by a loose lug nut. Imagine the Mavericks losing because Dirk Nowitzki snapped a shoelace.
Above all other sports, NASCAR drivers are reliant upon their equipment. Right, Eddie?
"Well, if your car is 100 horsepower behind another car or your crew is giving you 18-second pit stops when the leader's getting 11, then no amount of conditioning is going to help you," Gossage admits.
I think that's it. The maximum mechanical element ruins it for me. Fans pass down like heirlooms the family rooting rights based on car companies. Some at Sunday's race will cheer for every driver in a Ford; others will pull in general for Chevy. Me? I just can't justify clapping for cars. And I envision how ridiculous it would be for NFL fans to pick their favorite quarterback—or even team—based on what brand of shoe he/it wears.
I remember asking Edwards about his strategy at a past TMS race.
"My team makes my job easy," he explained. "When I turn the key and step on the gas, the car goes fast."
Feels like the NASCAR craze has peaked. Last weekend in the metroplex, more TV viewers watched Nowitzki get humiliated in Cleveland than Johnson win in Martinsville. Like professional wrestling, poker, women's basketball and those annoyingly smug "reporters" on TMZ, I predict NASCAR's fad is headed toward an exclusive cult following on ESPN4.
Unless...OK, I'll give Gossage one more shot. If—let's pretend for a moment—I agree that NASCAR drivers are indeed athletes, where should I rank them on the 1-10 scale?
"No doubt, 10," he says. "Golfers? Well, I used to ride motorcycles with Davis Love III, and it's an amazing skill. But athletic? About a five. Bowling and darts? Anything where you can drink beer isn't really a sport, is it? Seriously, I'd put our guys up against any elite athletes."
Any? How about soccer players?
"Drivers are a 10," Gossage says, "and soccer players are about a seven. They do a lot of standing around."
Who's the fool now?