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Olympics would determine world's top driver

8/21/2004

A few days ago, I was watching TV with my 15-year-old daughter, Estelle,
when a battle over the remote ensued. She wanted to watch the Olympics --
namely gymnastics. I wanted to watch racing.

If racing was an Olympic sport, I asked nicely, would you want to watch it?

The answer was a giggle.

As the Games continue in Greece, the rhetorical question of motorsports in
the Olympics comes to life again. Some people, like my daughter, laugh at
the notion. Others, myself included, relish the debate.

The floor was mine. The remote was not. I opened the debate with another
question.

What better venue than the Olympics to determine the best driver in the
world? Ever since the first Olympics, man has been competing in athletic
endeavors. Be it running, jumping, swimming -- we want to know who is best
in the world. Driving a racecar is an athletic endeavor, and I want to know
who is best.

Of course, the contention of racing's naysayers is that there's no "sports"
in motorsports. I strongly disagree. Webster's defines sport as a
competition involving an athletic skill. You might not believe it, but trust
me on this count: Racing is an athletic skill.

The rejection of racing as a sport comes from ignorance and
misunderstanding. I've found that people reject racing as sport for two
reasons: First, it's accomplished with a machine, and second, it's
accomplished while sitting. Lance Armstrong just won his sixth Tour de
France while sitting on a machine.

I got a sideways glance for that line. Lance Armstrong had to move, she
said with a grin, thinking that might quiet me. Well, she was wrong. Ol' Dad
just kept going.

The anti-racing crowd seems to equate motorsports with what they do every
day in their automobile. Driving a passenger car down the freeway is simple.
Comparing that to what racers do is like saying you could play in the NBA
because you play a mean game of H-O-R-S-E on the hoop hanging from your
garage. Not even close.

It's unfair to compare sports, just as it's unfair to compare athletes from
different sports. Michael Phelps, a gifted swimmer, probably isn't a great
gymnast. Rulon Gardner, a marvelous wrestler, probably can't run a marathon.
I've seen world-class athletes -- fine-tuned physical specimens -- get in a
race car and find themselves winded, incoherent and scared out of their
minds after two laps.

I tried this argument out on Estelle. Racing is about reflexes and hand-eye
coordination and movement. It's physically and mentally draining. If
you're not in condition, you're not going to be good at it. While it
certainly doesn't require the strength of a weightlifter or the speed of a
sprinter, racing does demand elements of strength and speed.
In short, it's not what some people think it is.

The Olympics Games are about human limits, about what you can do better than
the next person. If you make a mistake in most Olympic events, the
consequences aren't very severe. You might fall down or pull a muscle or
lose the competition. In racing, if you make a mistake, there is an
immediate physical payment. The downside is not just failing. It's possibly
fatal. Because of that consequence alone, it requires an incredible amount
of concentration.

As you head into a corner at 220 mph, your reactions must be at their peak.
Turn too early, and you might spin. Turn too late, and you might hit the
wall. The window for that movement is incredibly small, and yet you have to
do it right 300 or 400 times a race. That precision requires athletic --
yes, athletic -- skill.

She began to look at me with that dad-is-such-a-dork look. I interpreted
this as permission to keep talking.

I went to the golf comparison. Nobody questions the fact that golf is a
sport. It meets the definition of sport because it's a) a competition and b)
requires a defined athletic skill. Golf is one of my passions. I understand
the demands of the game, both mentally and physically. Racing is far more
demanding physically than golf, yet some people reject racing as a sport
while embracing golf wholeheartedly.

The logistics of racing at the Olympics would be nightmarish, naturally,
namely because of different disciplines and machinery involved. First, you'd
have to choose how the competition would be decided. It couldn't just be one
type of racing. It would have to be a combination of many: road racing, oval
racing, off-road, rally, dirt track. Imagine building all of those venues in
a host city that, like Athens, doesn't have racing facilities.

Then you'd have to decide what type of car would be used in each
competition. They'd have to be identical cars, but who would build each one?
What type of vehicle would be used for the road-racing portion? What kind of
dirt-track car? Do we race stock cars on the oval or open-wheel cars? Do we
use turbochargers on the road-course cars, or naturally aspirated engines?

She rolled her eyes, then went back to the gymnastics. I kept talking,
mostly because that's what I do best.

Improbabilities aside, wouldn't it be incredible to see racing in the
Olympics? I would love nothing more than to see the American team (say, Jeff
Gordon, Sam Hornish Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Alex Barron and others) taking on the
German team (Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld), the
Brazilian team (Rubens Barrichello, Tony Kanaan, Bruno Junqueira and Helio
Castroneves), the British team (Jenson Button, Dario Franchitti, David
Coulthard and Colin McRae) the French team (Sebastien Bourdais and Olivier
Panis) and the Canadian team (Paul Tracy, Alex Tagliani and
PatrickCarpentier). Teams from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Colombia,
Mexico, Italy, Spain, Finland and South Africa also would be strong.

But the real focus would be on stars like Schumacher and Gordon and
Barrichello and Kanaan and Tracy. Who's the best in their discipline? Who's
the best at adapting to other forms of racing? Who comes out of nowhere and
shocks the world?

She stopped listening altogether. I had won the debate but lost the remote.
Powerless, I kept the debate alive. My part of it, anyway.

Imagine the possibilities. Could Schumacher drive a stock car? How good
would Gordon be in an open-wheel car? Could Kanaan drive a sprint car on
dirt? Could Steve Kinser drive an off-road car? The list of interesting
matchups and possible conclusions is endless.

One minor issue -- money. Olympic athletes don't get paid. It might be
difficult to convince them to race for free, not to mention the question of
who would foot the bill for millions of dollars worth of equipment. But
that's why we have this debate every four years. We feel as if our sport,
our athletic event, is worthy of Olympic glory.

She yawned. I took the hint, went silent and accepted my medicine.
Gymnastics.

I had no other choice.

IRL IndyCar Series owner Eddie Cheever Jr. owns the Nos. 51 and 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara Chevrolets driven by Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter, respectively. He provides a diary to ESPN.com. Cheever's team Web site can be found at www.redbullcheeverracing.com.