It’s the oldest debate in sports: are race drivers athletes?
The Associated Press thinks they are, recently choosing four-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson as the 2009 Male Athlete of the Year.
The driver beat out such sports luminaries as tennis ace Roger Federer, Olympics sprinter Usain Bolt and golfer Tiger Woods. (and before you snicker, remember that Tiger won Athlete of the Decade despite his recent string of bimbo bogeys.)
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Johnson’s selection would have set off an uproar in Sports Departments around the country. Lots of Sports Editors felt auto racing wasn’t a sport. (Not mine; John Bibb was a staunch supporter of racing).
But there was unquestionably a mainstream media bias against racing. If it wasn’t considered a sport then drivers couldn’t be considered athletes.
Even during NASCAR’s boon years when racing regularly trounced every sport except the NFL in attendance and TV ratings, it played second-fiddle to the stick-and-ball stuff. (That “ignore-your-readers” philosophy helps explain the decline of newspapers, but that’s another rant for another time.)
Anyone who has ever been up-close to racing and racers knows it’s an absurd argument. Of course auto racing is a sport — Hemingway in fact claimed it was one of the three most demanding sports.
If golf is a sport — whacking a little ball with a stick as it lies helpless on the ground before a shushed gallery — then surely wresting a screeching 3,400-pound stock car around skyscraper banks at 200 mph meets the criteria.
Yes, we all drive cars. But only a gifted, elite few can drive RACE cars.
There’s no question that racing is physically demanding — a driver sweats more in one race at Bristol than a golfer perspires in a career. And mentally there’s nothing more challenging than tickling the concrete at Talladega lap after lap.
It took the AP 87 years to finally acknowledge that drivers are athletes — or at least to select one as it top athlete. There have been plenty of past seasons when race drivers deserved consideration (Richard Petty and A.J. Foyt come to mind) but it took Johnson’s record-breaking four-straight championships to finally get AP’s vote.
It all goes back to the original premise: a racer has to be acknowledged as an “athlete” before he can win Athlete of the Year. That’s what makes Johnson’s award so significant; it officially puts the debate to rest forever. AP deemed racers not only athletes, but selected one as the greatest athlete.
There are just two things I’d like to say about racers’ long-overdue recognition: Congrats, Jimmie. And it’s about time.