AP Says NASCAR Drivers are Athletes


Four-time NASCAR Chase Cup winner Jimmie Johnson just won the AP Male Athlete of the Year Award, beating out perennials like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, and Olympic phenom Usain Bolt.  He is the first race car driver to win the award in its nearly 80-year history.

I’m sure this will bring up the ever-present question of whether or not NASCAR drivers should be considered athletes.  Johnson wholeheartedly thinks they should:

““I’ve looked at other sports, particularly baseball, and I’ve seen plenty of out-of-shape, fat players.  So to anyone who wants to go head-to-head with me in athletic ability, let’s go. I talked a lot with Jason Sehorn about this, and I don’t know how exactly you measure athletic ability, but I know my 5-mile run time will destroy most NFL players.”

I’m not saying that Jimmie Johnson isn’t in shape or can’t run a sub-7 minute mile, but at what point does he simply become an athlete who happens to drive a car professionally?  It’s also a pretty futile examination to compare players from different sports with one another – I can’t imagine many golfers could handle the NFL combine, for example, but they’re still athletes… right? – so I don’t know that his argument holds that since he could potentially out-run a linebacker that it means he’s an athlete by trade.  Perhaps he’s simply a driver who has an affinity for working out.

The notion that a driver needs to be in good shape to handle the rigors of driving a race car seems pretty obvious.  One needs to be lean enough to fit into the car, have the stamina to withstand the intense heat and duration of the confined space for hours at a time in a high-stress environment, and have the muscle strength and tone to fight off the centrifugal force while flying around a circular track at nearly 200 miles per hour.  And they compete against other drivers for the Chase Cup, they have teammates, there’s a high amount of skill involved.  All signs point to athlete and sport.

But, what about a poker players?  Games can last for well over several hours, which would require stamina, endurance, mental fortitude, a strong back to withstand sitting for that long.  They compete for an ultimate prize at the end of a season, also a high level of skill necessary to be successful.

So, poker is a sport?

I’m being only half-serious here, but the issue remains: Are NASCAR drivers athletes?

The Associated Press says they are.



  1. No.

  2. I’m going to say yes, BUT not on par with gymnasts, hockey players, boxers etc.

    It’s because they use a technology which, if it fails, renders all and any athletic advantage they may have moot.

    They are really a team sport, and it’s a team of people including mechanics & managers, not to mention the car quality itself. It’s more akin to yachting than anything else.

    So yes, they are ‘athletes'(although everyone has a slightly different semantic nuance in meaning they ascribe to this word)who compete.

    However, they shouldn’t win individual awards in the same category with traditional athletes like Tiger Woods, or Michael Jordan due to success in their sport hindering, not on their own individual athletic prowess, but rather the technology used.

    Athlete: 1520s, from L. athleta, from Gk. athletes “contestant in the games,” agent noun from athlein “to contest for a prize,” rel. to athlos “a contest” and athlon “a prize,” of unknown origin. Before 1750, always in L. form. In this sense, O.E. had plegmann

    • You make an interesting argument but it seems that one of your points pretty much renders the whole notion of them being athletes moot: if the car breaks down, that’s it. The car IS the athlete in this sport. Everyone else involved would be akin to the coaching staff. And coaches aren’t the athletes. (Unless you’re Bill Russell in the ’70s, but that’s quite the exception.)

      Even if we look at it as a team sport, when one person goes down, there are reserves there to take that place. In this case, there’s only the one car. There are no replacements. That’d be like playing football with only one ball. So, in this analogy, the car isn’t the ball; it’s the player.

      You hit the nail on the head with the yacht analogy. Boaters, while skilled and talented in their own craft, aren’t professional athletes. I conclude that neither then are NASCAR drivers. I think you are, too, with your second-class citizen ranking of athlete*. They are contestants, performers, drivers, competitors, and players. But, they just don’t fit the bill of professional athlete.

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