Commentary

Racers in agreement that Olympics and motorsports should mix

Racers spend their lives going for the checkered flag. The International Olympic Committee should come to its senses and let them go for the gold, too, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: August 20, 2008, 7:22 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Last Saturday night in the Michigan International Speedway infield, the raucous partying of the NASCAR fandom was more tempered than usual.

Even in the competitors' RV lot, there was a lot less mingling. Nary a driver, car owner, or crew chief was to be found going through their usual routines of walking the dog, telling lies, or sipping cold beverages.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Simon James/WireImageIf Jimmie Johnson & Co. can race at Wembley Stadium, the Bird's Nest would have to work.

Instead, the windows of the motorcoaches and campers were firmly shut, flickering with the blue light of televisions. And every television was tuned to the same program.

"Was I watching Michael Phelps?" Jeff Burton can't believe the question is even being asked. "Of course I was; weren't you?"

Yes, racers love the Summer Olympics.

While Burton watched in Michigan, the NHRA drag racers were watching in Reading, Pa.; the Andretti family was tuned in in Nazareth, Pa.; the World Rally Car racers were glued to their tubes in Germany; and the Formula One racers were watching from wherever Formula One racers go to hang out and look cool when they aren't racing.

As they watched Phelps, Bolt, and LeBron, they cheered their respective home nations. But they also looked on with jealousy. Not over endorsement money, exposure, or merchandise sales. They all have plenty of that. What they don't have is -- well, something they aren't given a shot at.

"I want one of those gold medals, man."

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. says it, you think he's probably joking. But he's not.

"I want to know how I stack up against all these other guys from all these other types of racing from all over the world," he said. "Who doesn't? And what better place is there to do that than at the Olympics? Dude, it would be so huge."

Yes, dude, it would.

So why not drop the green flag on racing at London in 2012? Even better, how about Chicago in 2016?

Here's a look at the likely arguments for and against, along with the responses from those who want to go -- really fast -- for the gold.

Black flag: People don't care about racing like they do about swimming and gymnastics.

Wrong.

Auto racing is easily among the top five most popular sports in the world. In South America and Europe, motorsports heroes are second in the public eye only to soccer stars. Formula One ranks behind only the Olympics and soccer as having the world's broadest television footprint. Even NASCAR programming is now carried in more than 150 countries in more than 25 languages.

In this weekend's IndyCar Series event at Infineon Raceway, drivers from eight countries and six continents will be represented.

"Racing is sure as hell more popular than some of the stuff they give out medals for," says 2007 Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick. "Somebody said they're having trampoline jumping this year. Is that for real? It is? Then those people definitely need some racing."

Green flag: We already have an Olympic-style world racing event.

[+] EnlargeMoto X
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe X Games showed the way when it comes to international competition and internal combustion engines.

The Race of Champions has been held in Europe every winter since 1988, the only global all-star event that pits racers from nearly every motorsports discipline against one another. Last year Jimmie Johnson jetted to London immediately following his Sprint Cup championship acceptance speech, teaming with X Games icon Travis Pastrana to take on the likes of seven-time F1 champ Michael Schumacher (representing Germany) and two-time World Rally champ Marcus Gronholm (Finland) in a tournament-style series of head-to-head, best-of-three match races.

"It is easily one of the coolest experiences of my life," Johnson recalls. "Jeff [Gordon] and I went over to [the] Canary Islands in 2002 and won the event with Colin Edwards from Superbikes. As long as they want me back, I'm in."

Each year a different combination of cars is chosen, ranging from dune buggies to rally cars to high-powered sports cars. The vehicles are identically prepared by the ROC team of mechanics, randomly assigned to each driver, and run on a super-tight stadium road course.

"If they introduced this to the Olympics, people would lose their mind," Pastrana adds. "And if they can set it up inside Wembley Stadium, they can sure do it inside the Bird's Nest."

Black flag: The cars do all the work. Olympic events are about human achievement.

"I get that all the time," Richard Petty said recently. "People say we aren't athletes because we depend on our cars. Well, everybody depends on something. Ever see a golfer without his clubs?"

In other words, when they take the horses away from the equestrian events and boats away from the sailors, then this will be a valid argument.

Black flag: We already tried IROC and that fell on its face.

From 1974 through 2006, IROC -- the International Race of Champions -- also put drivers of various disciplines in identically matched cars. But as the years went on, IROC wandered away from its original international premise, ditching a balanced diet of road courses and ovals with a more NASCAR-friendly all-superspeedway schedule that basically handed every championship to NASCAR drivers and scared off the European set.

"When I ran IROC it was just a big NASCAR race," admits French-born Champ Car champion-turned F1 driver Sebastien Bourdais. "We would fly into a place like Daytona and race in front of a NASCAR crowd against NASCAR drivers in cars that were prepared by NASCAR mechanics and tested by NASCAR drivers. It was fun, but the playing field wasn't exactly level, you know?"

In the Olympics, it would be.

Green flag: The X Games have shown us the way.

When ESPN started the X Games back in 1995, the schedule was packed with gravity-powered events such as sky surfing, street luge, and bungee jumping, without a quart of Quaker State to be found.

But the modern X Games calendar is half-filled with motorized competitions, from Rallying to five different motorcycle events. Even Winter X is powered by internal combustion, with three different snowmobile events.

"The people have spoken," says Pastrana, who forever changed the X Games with his Moto X double backflip in 2006. "Motorized sports are what they want. And why not? Everybody likes to drive, right? Just maybe not like I do."

In 1998, due in no small part to the pressure applied by the success of X, the Winter Olympics introduced snowboarding, infusing a much-needed boost of coolness to the stuffed-shirt snobitorium image the IOC has fought for a century.

"What sports have the biggest crowds in the world?" Carl Edwards asks rhetorically. "Soccer, football, and racing. It only makes sense that we figure out a way to have them represented in the world's biggest sporting event."

Green, Green, Green … Gold, Gold, Gold

Edwards knows of what he speaks. He beams when recalling the tales of Olympic glory he's heard from longtime friend (and one-time girlfriend), seven-time swimming medalist Amanda Beard.

"All of those Olympic athletes, they talk about the experience first before they ever talk about winning medals," he says. "Just once I'd like to walk through that tunnel in the stadium during the opening ceremonies. That would be so cool. But I guess every American would probably say the same thing, huh?"

Yes, Carl, they would. But they wouldn't be able to cut a backflip off the roof of their race car after beating Lewis Hamilton and Helio Castroneves to the finish line for the gold medal.

Edwards could do that.

And it would be a shame to deny the sports world a chance to see it.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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