You never bite the hand that feeds you. But on the Orlando Sentinel Web site Monday we posed a question that forces me to take a nibble.
“Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. the most overrated athlete in sports?”
There was only one problem.
Who was writing our headlines Monday, Bill France Sr.?
Probably not, because NASCAR’s founder has been dead for 17 years. The argument whether drivers are athletes has been around a lot longer than that. Anybody with more than a carburetor for brains knows the truth.
Yes, drivers are athletes. But only if you think it’s athletic to make a Grilled Texas Bacon Double Patty Melt Plate.
That’s one of the delicious specials you’ll find at Waffle House. Preparing it requires stamina, strength, concentration and guts.
Sounds a lot like driving, no?
It’s undeniably difficult to wrestle a steering wheel in 100-degree heat for three hours while traveling 200 mph and knowing one hiccup could mean disaster.
The risk of death isn’t quite as large at Waffle House. But have you ever watched a short-order cook in action?
They stand for hours over open flames. Waitresses scream orders at them. All-Star Special! Ham and cheese omelet! Pecan waffle burned!
One hiccup and the customer is liable to explode like Earnhardt did on Brian Vickers on Sunday. At least when their shift ends, a Waffle House chef doesn’t have to thank 13 sponsors before retiring to his private jet.
I admire any professional driver. But if that skill set makes him or her an athlete, so are these people:
Poker players. Transplant surgeons. New York City taxi drivers. Hairdressers.
Have you ever stood all day with your arms extended knowing a slip of your scissors could whack off an ear?
Why is this even a debate? According to Ed Hinton, ex-Sentinel staffer and current ESPN.com racing guru, old-time drivers didn’t care when people said they weren’t athletes.
It became an issue during the Arab oil embargo. Congress started rationing resources, but it wasn’t messing with established sports.
NASCAR wasn’t there yet, so Mr. France went to Washington. He made a point to use the word “athletes” instead of “drivers.” Fans now consider it an insult if Little E isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Lance Armstrong.
Today’s drivers are certainly more fit than the Allison brothers. But if you think they have to be in great shape to excel, I have two words for you.
His training regimen consists of burgers, Twinkies and climbing a chain-link fence after wins. If that doesn’t convince you, I have three words.
If somebody has enough money and determination, they can be competitive. It’s easy to see Chris Paul or Evan Longoria becoming a driver. It’s a little harder to picture Kyle Busch starting for the Hornets.
Besides, why would drivers want to be lumped in with today’s “athletes?” Most racers have never taken steroids or been photographed taking a bong hit.
Drivers are many things — sportsmen, entertainers, daredevils. But if NASCAR ever goes out of business, its performers will not get second careers as athletes.