I was once asked a series of questions regarding the term ‘athlete’ and who did and didn’t qualify as one. Baseball and football players are athletes — that was an easy response.
But what Â about race car drivers? That was a bit more complicated. I came to the conclusion that drivers were not athletes because a machine was the primary factor in the result of the races.
This blog is being written from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in my second year covering “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and I can firmly say I was wrong about race car drivers. These athletes may not be able to play professional football or baseball, but there is no way that Prince Fielder survives an Indianapolis 500. And when I say survive, I mean literally survive.
Until you are up close at one of these races, it is impossible to comprehend the extreme elements that each driver must overcome in order to win. Physically, an Indy Car race is unlike anything I have ever seen. Simply standing on the track makes you want to pass out. I cannot imagine the conditioning it takes to drive at 220-plus MPH for 200 laps in a cramped little car. Plus, there’s the whole issue of having to beat 30 or more other drivers doing whatever it takes to pass you.
Think of the G-force you feel on an intense roller coaster and multiply it exponentially. All of this stated, I have not even mentioned that one false move and you are dead. Another false move and you may kill over 30 people. Think about the mental stress on some hitters after knocking a pitcher out with a line drive. NFL careers have never been the same for some players who cause serious harm to an opponent. That possibility exists every second that these drivers are racing.
From my observations, I gather that racing is a regionally based culture. The sport is hugely popular in the Midwest and the South. Most of the biggest racing fans I have met have parents, siblings, or grandparents who have influenced them. The racing culture on the coasts is nowhere near as strong.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles with little exposure to racing. The stereotype that the sport is pointless and anyone could race was something I have often heard. That is beyond ridiculous. The coordination required by each driver to survive, let alone win, is equal to any other sport.
I used to make the argument, and often continue to hear, that there is no strategy in racing. Yet all one has to do is talk to the strategist and team leaders for each driver. Most of the time it sounds like they are speaking a different language. It is often as hard to comprehend as advanced physics. Changes are made every single day and every single pit.
Speaking of those team leaders, it should be made clear this is a team sport. If a group is unable to work together fluidly, then there is no chance they will succeed. Decisions are team efforts and changes to the car come from multiple sources. Emotions and relationships play a role like every other sport. For the racing enthusiast this may seem obvious, but these are beliefs held by many racing novices.
There was a time I could not be convinced that watching racing was worth my time. I won’t lie, racing is still not high on my list of favorite sports. However, during my second year covering the Indianapolis 500, I have gained the utmost respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line every time they step into a car.
I now have a different outlook on racing. Helio Castroneves does not win races because of his car. Yes, having a faster car obviously makes a huge difference, but making the car fast is not random. Teams work tirelessly to improve their cars.
Baseball players use a certain kind of bat and Phil Mickelson uses a certain kind of golf club. These professionals choose the tool they feel will give them the best chance to win. Although having a better tool (the car) may be more important in racing, the same concept holds true. The enormous physical and mental stress a race car driver goes through should allot them the title of athlete. That title is something anyone attending an Indianapolis 500 could never question.