March 7, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 46

The stock car racer/athlete debate is always in high gear

Crunch Time

It’s been 70 races since Carl Edwards last got to do his accustomed backflip to celebrate a NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car victory.

But the 33-year-old Missouri native still didn’t miss a beat as he hopped out of his Subway-sponsored Ford Fusion in front of cheering fans at Phoenix International Raceway.

Edwards promptly launched himself into the air and made a landing at the start-finish line that could even make an Olympic gymnast – and even those stodgy scorers – happy. Not a 10 but easily a good 8.5 as he landed on both feet, but stumbled just a bit following victory at the Subway Fresh 500.

The whole scene, plus Edwards’ leap over the retaining wall, through the gate and into the stands to exchange high-fives with fans was the perfect launch-point for the age-old debate over just how much of an athlete a race car driver might be.

The topic moved to the front page of many sports sections a couple of years ago when Seattle Seahawks’ wide receiver Golden Tate wrote in a Twitter post, “Driving a car does not show athleticism,” as he challenged the nomination of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as “Best Male Athlete” at the 2011 ESPN’s Espy Awards.

Tate also tweeted: “Give me 6 months of training and I bet I could compete.” Edwards suggested to Tate, and a USA Today interview, bring it on.

“I personally would invite anyone, including Golden Tate or anyone who thinks that Jimmie Johnson isn’t an athlete, to come out and compete with him in just about anything,” Edwards offered. “He might not be able to lift as much weight as those (football) guys, but I have followed Jimmie Johnson on a motocross track and watched what he is able to do and a lot of people don’t realize how much of an athlete he is.”

Blogger Jerry Bonkowski contributed a piece to the Bleacher Report where he highlighted 54-year-old Mark Martin, who Jillian Michaels, star of the “Biggest Loser,” - and a fitness fanatic - calls “her hero.”

See even the old guys get noticed for their efforts. Martin, who we all thought was on his retirement tour after 2006, showed he’s still got what it takes with his late charge to a third-place finish at the Daytona 500.

Martin earns Michaels’ adoration with a real “Biggest Loser” workout regimen. “Right now, it’s five days a week -- five or four depending on what the schedule is, but usually five days a week,” Martin told motorsports.com.

“There are people in this garage that are very good athletes,” Edwards said. “Tony Kanaan in the Indy Car series — I would put that guy up against anyone in an endurance endeavor like bicycling, running or swimming.”

Cup drivers are naturally prejudiced when it comes to defending their athleticism to the critics.

“It’s one of those things where everybody thinks their sport is better,” Kevin Harvick told USA Today. “I think our sport is different. I think you could say a lot of guys are athletes and some of them aren’t.”

So the line between being an athlete/driver and simply being fit can be blurred.

It’s hard to compare traditional sports with getting behind the wheel of a race car. But think about what it takes to be poured into the seat of a stock car where you’ll sit for five hours and then be glued to the bumper of your opponent at nearly 200 miles per hour. Athletic stamina and reflexes seem to be a must for success – and survival.

“In the last 10 years there has been a major push on the fitness side,” Johnson said.

Edwards is the perfect example as while on the road crisscrossing the U.S. from February through much of November, he does so with a mountain bike. He has a home gym and finds places to hit the weights and elliptical when he’s on the road.

“Driving is 90 percent mental—and the last 10 percent is where the physical side helps you,” Edwards said in an interview with Men’s Fitness magazine. “Just like someone who sits in an office all day, you’re going to make better decisions if you’re well-rested and in good physical shape.

“I think NASCAR guys have realized in the last few years that if there’s a way to get ahead, the gym is the best place to start,” Edwards added.

Even on the local level, preparation for a race takes on the need for training. Former Spokane late-model stock car driver Ron Turner who used to run the longer 200-lap events said he did long training runs two to three times a week. Turner, who raced into his 60s, would lose 10 pounds in a 200-lap race.

The discussion will of course continue, perhaps endlessly.

Until, of course, we start talking about Danica Patrick wanting to share the playground with all the boys.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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