I had dinner with a friend last week, and to put it simply he knows nothing about NASCAR. When referencing auto racing, he did the ignorant air quotes symbol in referring to it as a "sport."
Having been someone that's made the conversion to an auto racing fan, I'm well aware why people are skeptical it is a sport and I'm positive that their skepticism is bread from ignorance. Watch the Olympics this summer and justify how some of those activities are more sport than auto racing. (Seriously, didn't archery go out of style with the Renaissance?)
Despite my firm stance that NASCAR is indeed a sport, every once in awhile, I come across something that truly makes me respect the athletic ability that goes into it. I had one of those moments yesterday when I ate lunch with Chad Walter, who serves as a Penske Racing crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr. in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Walter graduated from Cornell University and played defensive line for the Big Red's football team. He put his Ivy League education to use as a part of the front wave of car engineers for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Hendrick Motorsports. He also maintained his athletic prowess by serving several roles in a pit crew, including the big, burly jackman, before ascending to the top of the pit box.
We discussed the difficulty of pit stops and, while I felt ignorant asking the question, I brought up whether or not the team practiced pit stops, like the Cornell football team might practice a set play.
"Five to six times a week," he responded without hesitation. He went on to explain how the team not only practiced the stops, but they wore helmet cameras and reviewed race tape to figure out how they could be more effective.
I'm willing to bet that your average football jock that doesn't respect NASCAR didn't know that the teams hold film studies with their "coaches," just like in football. As I suggested, most of the lack of respect for auto racing comes from ignorance, and many people disregard it due to its lack of a team activity.
Seriously? If we're going to categorize turning a 6-4-3 double play in baseball as being a team, I would think that changing four tires and filling a tank of gas in less than 15 seconds should qualify! The former football player turned crew chief verified my thoughts. "You have to change four tires in 11.5 seconds," he said. "Because if you take 13, you've lost the race."
Unfortunately, despite the advocacy of all us race fans, we can't convince everyone to love auto racing. My girlfriend came out to race last year. Sitting at the same table as my engine-ignorant friend, she was willing to say it was definitely a sport, but that she simply didn't enjoy it.
Whatever. I don't like basketball. I definitely believe it's a sport, I just don't believe it's a good one.
There's a difference between deciding you don't like something and refusing to try it in the first place. Racing might be a juicy, filet mignon, but not everyone likes steak. That said, could you imagine how many good foods people missed out on if they simply refused to try them?
The be-all and end-all is that the work Chad Walter and his entire crew puts in every week deserves respect. Their effort before, during and after a competition mimics that of any athlete and should be regarded as such. NASCAR is absolutely a sport and those that don't see it us such haven't yet bothered to open their eyes.