Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Drivers Wanted

Over the past weekend we saw the 91st running of the Indianapolis 500. The famed race at the Brickyard was won by the husband of Ashley Judd. I mention that because that is the most interesting thing about the entire race. Most people in America wouldn't recognize Dario Franchetti's name, but they would almost certainly recognize his wife. By the way, I promise that this will be my first and only article about this particular "sport".

The Indy 500 has been brought back into the consciousness of the nation through the continued attempts of Danica Patrick to become the first woman ever to win the race. She actually led a couple of laps in 2005 in her first attempt at the 500 and finished in the top 5. That has been her best finish to date (this year she was 8th) and in fact she has yet to win or seriously threaten to win any race on the Indy circuit. The race had three women participate this year, but none was a serious threat to win the race (Sarah Fisher finished 18th, Milka Duno finished 31st). The Indy circuit is relying on the novelty of a woman racing with the men to draw new fans and while it certainly raised the profile of the sport for a while, unless she stars winning races (or at least one) the casual fans will find other distractions. I have no issue with the sex of the drivers, but I do have a problem with a marketing plan that focuses on a driver that hasn't won anything.

NASCAR also had a race this weekend, but I have no idea who won. And I'm sure outside of a small (but loyal) segment of the public, most have no idea either. NASCAR has their own issues to deal with. The casual sports fan can probably name only two drivers, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. If one of those two drivers doesn't win, most people are going to recognize or care who did win. Gordon is having a very good year and currently leads the points standing, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won this year and has done very little winning over the past couple of years. He recently had a very public split with the racing team that bears his father's name and is looking for a new team for next year. And just for clarification, Indy car racing refers to open wheel cars, while NASCAR is for modified street cars. NASCAR used to be referred to as stock car racing, meaning that you could go down to a car dealer and get the same car that the drivers had out of their on-hand stock. While the cars are still based on dealer-available models, they have very little in common with the cars that the general public drives to work everyday.

I'm sure all that racing information was interesting to absolutely no one, but I guess I had to at least provide some background information before I got to my main point, which is, DRIVING A CAR IS NOT A SPORT! About a year ago, I wrote an article about horse racing and concluded that it was also not a sport. However, I do believe that jockeys are better athletes than race car drivers. I understand that driving a car at speeds in excess of 200 MPH requires great reflexes and guts, it is still the car that is doing (for the lack of a better term) all the heavy lifting. You can put the worlds greatest driver in an inferior machine and he will never win a race. He could probably win a race against me, but against drivers of equal skill, he would stand no chance. Therefore, any athletic skills that he might bring to bear would be rendered pointless. The car, in essence, is the athlete, just like the horse is in horse racing. I will say that driving a car around an oval or track for hundreds of miles requires great endurance, but that still doesn't make it a sport. Driving a truck for a living requires great endurance, but I don't see anyone claiming that it's a sport. Handling a speeding car is very hard, but so is flying a jet airliner.

Sports are competitions between people. Not competitions between machines or animals. Horses may like to run, but they don't run at top speed for a mile and half unless something is chasing them. Cars may be built for speed, but they wouldn't move an inch without a driver stepping on the gas pedal. Driving may be further up the sports mountain than say Pool or Poker, but it still isn't close to reaching the plateau of sport. It's a competition, and there's no crime in that. But drivers like A.J. Foyt or Richard Petty can't really be considered athletes because they can drive a car better than the average man. Can they?

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