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'The Voice in My Head': Hit and Run

Are race car drivers athletes?

By Russ Espinoza, 4:20PM, Mon. Jan. 28, 2013

Tony Stewart in action at the Texas Motor Speedway
Tony Stewart in action at the Texas Motor Speedway

I came across a poll on ESPN.com the other night, made a face, and felt a feeling. It asked, “Who’s auto sports’ greatest?” To which I replied in my head, rather dryly, “Who gives a damn?”

I was the A.J. Foyt of snark right then.

But who the devil went down to Georgia is A.J. Foyt? This is what I’m saying:

No one above the Mason-Dixon line cares, so stop NASCAR-ing my precious, precious sports with your zoom-zoom and those twisted metal snuff films where the flaming car goes rocketing into the wonderful whites of West Virginia.

While “racing” is a sport – an actual sport – in most respects because it’s a competition to distinguish which person’s the fastest, it’s not in others: Most would call Stan and Randy Marsh “hobbyists,” not “sportsmen,” for building that pinewood derby car that shot into space and eventually got Earth busted for hoarding all that glittering “space cash.”

That sure was some sweet coin – muah!

And when I spot a contestant in the turtle races at Little Woodrow’s down south wearing a little sweatband I’ll let you know. It’d be double the cute if Fox Sports would stick a microphone in the winner’s desiccated little micro-face.

Race car driving’s a bumpy ride – no doubt about it. So I went into the field on Saturday night and watched a girl ride a mechanical bull on Sixth Street. She was hot: Nonetheless, I couldn’t justify calling her an athlete despite all that turbulence then being bucked off. For one thing, a trainer didn’t sprint out to administer a baseline concussion test, nor did the little lady praise Christ once the nostril smoke cleared.

I’m serious, though: I own a car and I’ve driven at high-speeds from Westwood to Los Angeles during a Monday rush hour. Ipso-facto, I was in NASCAR once. Plus, that fun California sun was all up in my cataracts. It was extremely disorienting. Point is: we’ve all driven through some tough conditions, yet we don’t have the audacity to insist we’re athletes as a result. For example: Ice Road Truckers still don’t cut it, even if Jeff Gordon might buy it and die in the Alaskan tundra.

I don’t have a replacement term for the race car drivers, except maybe “stuntmen” – which may even out-cool your average professional athlete. But if you’re gonna liberally apply “athlete” to car people, then, hell, astronauts are athletes too.

Space: Just Do It.

Like race car drivers, they too are strapped in and rattling around: in space shuttles during takeoff, re-entry, and landing – and at heightened mortal risk. If you doubt it, weigh the dangers of going left very fast in traffic versus going into freaking space in a tube with flames shooting out of it.

Neil Armstrong, then, is like the Karl Malone of space, and Buzz Aldrin gets the assist – just like good ol' John Stockton back in the day.

I’ve heard the arguments for why NASCAR and Formula One, etc., are legitimate sports, and I’m not buying it. Michael Jordan: athlete. Babe Ruth: fat athlete who did the hardest thing in sports better than anyone else in his day. Ray Lewis: loud, obnoxious, proselytizing athlete. Wayne Gretzky: athlete.

Was Kobe Bryant seated when he scored 81 points against Toronto seven years ago?

NASCAR’s Tony Stewart: paunchy guy whose range of motion during a race is best described as “Ten and two.” Don’t bother countering with, “But it gets hot in there,” because menopausal women know exactly what you’re talking about.

I grow increasingly concerned that NASCAR will overtake baseball in popularity one day. We’re probably a ways away from a scenario that foul, but it’s conceivable in my lifetime – birth rates by region being what they are. Not good.

I take my cue to focus on baseball once the Super Bowl ends: pitchers and catchers report just weeks later. However, the death of football also opens the door for expanded NASCAR coverage. It’s all gone too far: NASCAR just ain’t a sport, so kindly report on it somewhere else. Maybe Cinemax after dark: The married men of America need their beauty rest.

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