Drivers may not be athletes, but what they do is no game

8/23/2008 - NASCAR

There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering, all the others being games.

-- Observation attributed to Ernest Hemingway

Q. Are race drivers athletes?

A. No.*

*It doesn't matter, so stop bickering with the stick-and-ball crowd, will you? Both sides will feel a lot better.

This is an issue that needs settling once and for all.

The argument broke out again in an online reader discussion after a column last week. This was at least the 10,000th time I've encountered the question. Enough is enough.

The larger, even more heated debate is whether motor racing is a sport, and we'll finish that one off here, too.

To open the athlete silliness with a fine for instance: Take the three drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing, currently NASCAR's hottest team.

Denny Hamlin is a fitness fanatic, works out daily, has a personal trainer, the whole deal. He has one Cup win this year.

Kyle Busch used to work out regularly, but he doesn't anymore because his schedule is overloaded with running Craftsman trucks and Nationwide cars in addition to his Cup racing.

Busch has 17 wins: eight in Cup, six in Nationwide, three in the Truck series.

So the more he wins the less he trains, and the less he trains the more he wins.

Remember Tony Stewart's big fitness fixation in the spring of 2007? He noticeably lost weight before it dawned on him in midseason that he wasn't winning anyway. So he said the heck with it.

The fatter, happier Stewart went on his usual midsummer tear of three wins in four races.

Second best to Busch in this season's Cup wins column is Carl Edwards with five. Edwards trains the most obsessively of anyone in NASCAR.

Senior statesman Jeff Gordon -- NASCAR's winningest active driver with 81 victories and four championships -- bicycles and scuba dives, but just for recreation.

"Race shape" is what he calls his professional conditioning, figuring he's working the same muscles over and over and building stamina in the 140-degree cockpit whenever he's testing or racing. To train for racing, he races.

So you see? It doesn't matter. There is no pattern. Who cares?

How did this argument get started in the first place?

It is all the fault of NASCAR -- and that other governing body that wreaks much misery and madness in all our lives, Congress.

NASCAR made it an issue because of -- hard as you might find this to believe -- money.

During the national energy shortages of 1973-74, Congress went on a rationing binge, but it exempted sports activities, using the terms "athletic" and "athletes" a lot.

So William Henry Getty France, "Big Bill," founder of NASCAR and quite the politician in his time, led an entourage to Washington to lobby for the inclusion of NASCAR racing in the exemptions.

Part of his point was to try to show that drivers are athletes.

A NASCAR propaganda campaign ensued. Media people were encouraged to use "athletes" as a synonym for "drivers." Thus arose the term you still read or hear to this day, "these athletes."

It's obnoxious because it's such a reach at best.

I never bought it. All I knew was that if I ever approached A.J. Foyt in his prime as the toughest SOB ever to drive a race car and called him "an athlete," he probably would have punched my lights out -- taking "athlete" as a synonym for some sort of sissy running around in cute little shorts.

Foyt won his fourth Indy 500 on a breakfast of chili and cheeseburgers. "Squash, green beans; I don't eat any of that crap," he once told me. Yet he kept his fighter-pilot vision. And there was a time that if you held an alley fight between A.J. and the toughest linebacker in the NFL, I'd have taken A.J. for all the money you wanted to bet. He actually proposed to Parnelli Jones one time that they fight Muhammad Ali in his prime, taking alternating rounds with the champ -- "We'd whip his ass," Foyt assured Parnelli.

NASCAR and its crony pundits have dragged out this athlete nonsense ad nauseam. Who can blame the stick-and-ball crowd for gagging every time it hears "these athletes"?

Blame the stick-and-ballers, however, for escalating the war by claiming motor racing -- because it is not purely athletic -- is not a sport.

Now we get to the comment attributed to Ernest Hemingway: "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering, all the others being games."

So there, race fans say. Your silly little running and jumping almost never has catastrophic consequences for the participant.

Now the anti-racing crowd, allied with anti-bullfighters, has enlisted Hemingway scholars to claim he might not have said that. So let's snuff that argument, too.

Venerable racing journalist Chris Economaki, in his youth, met Hemingway in New York, in the back room of a mutual friend's restaurant, not long before Hemingway killed himself in 1961.

Economaki asked Hemingway whether he actually had made the "three sports" remark.

And Hemingway confirmed that he had.

By this point, "Papa" was white-haired, chronically boozing, emotionally dying. But we can take this at a minimum from their dialogue: Even if Hemingway hadn't said it, he claimed he had, meaning he wished he had. So he must have believed it to be true.

I've often wondered just when and how the American public's definition of "sport" narrowed so radically to "athletics." If anybody bothered to pay attention to Webster anymore, they'd find under "sport," 1. A source of diversion: PASTIME.

The early sports newspapers, late in the 19th century, didn't limit themselves to baseball and boxing. They covered music halls, burlesque, vaudeville -- "the sporting life." Even brothels were known as "sporting houses."

Who can argue the explosion of hold 'em poker as a spectator source of diversion? It's mesmerizing just to watch Phil Ivey dribble chips between his fingers, or hear Phil Hellmuth talk smack. But I wonder what their times would be in the 40-yard dash. (Factor in Hemingway's catastrophic-consequences element, and I'd say blowing a million-dollar pot is harder on a guy than missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer or getting drilled for three hits in the bottom of the ninth.)

Show me an NFL lineman who could drive a Cup car 500 miles -- especially without wrecking. The stamina is not enough for in-car temperatures he'd never encounter even in any summer camp. Nor are the reflexes -- the eye-hand-foot coordination -- lightning enough to avoid disaster on a moment-by-moment basis.

To those who claim that the car does most of the work: I would agree but add that the only successful drivers are the ones who can make the car a part of them, an appendage that moves at the commands of their central nervous systems, Michael Schumacher being the greatest example, Kyle Busch being the latest.

The few (and seldom pleasant) times I dealt with Nigel Mansell, the 1992 Formula One world champion, we found few points of agreement. But I treasured his essential self-description.

"I'm a sportsman," he would say, and leave it at that.

Having had to cover the deaths of Mansell's archrival in F1, Ayrton Senna, and his best friend in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt, I am certain of this:

Motor racing is no game.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.