Editor’s Note: With allergy season in full swing, our managing editor is a bit under the weather…so while he curses out any and every tree spreading pollen, we thought we’d pull out this never-before-published column of a few months ago which investigates one of NASCAR’s age-old questions.
The age-old question for the average sports fan of whether or not NASCAR drivers are "athletes" has been around for generations. At any local watering hole north of the Mason-Dixon line, you’ll see the question argued constantly, as the hardcore NASCAR fan tries to translate G-Forces and driver skill into English for the "stick "˜n’ ball" sports fan who never seems to understand. I’ve heard all the arguments against the NASCAR “athlete,” and then some: it’s just cars driving in circles, it’s a machine doing most of the work, and, most importantly, it’s all fat middle aged men who run the races, so how could it be athletic?
Those first two arguments, NASCAR can’t change"¦but it seems that in this new era of marketing genius, this rapidly changing sport is making sure the last argument never gets mentioned by anyone as soon as possible.
It seemed as though physical appearance would always be the knock on NASCAR drivers as I was growing up, that they didn’t have the innate athletic ability to get the job done just because they didn’t "look" like athletes. Current NBC and SPEED NASCAR on-air personalities Benny Parsons and Jimmy Spencer were among the drivers during that era of the "˜80s and "˜90s, with over 1,000 starts and 20 wins between them in their NASCAR careers. While they were talented in their own right, they certainly don’t have the appearance of a Super Bowl winning quarterback. Overweight in size and stature, these men have great personalities and talented careers on the racetrack, but not the athletic physical appearance to go with it.
Enter the era of the "young guns." Without question, in the past few years NASCAR has transitioned from an era of experienced, older veterans to a group of "young gun" drivers eager and willing to prove themselves. Drivers the likes of Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, and Rusty Wallace have been replaced full-time in their rides by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, and older brother Kurt. The list of drivers under 30 running full-time in NASCAR Nextel Cup Series has gone from a handful to two dozen in the past decade, with several in contention to win races and championships.
The changing of the guard is not what’s so strange about this new group of young drivers, though; it’s more how these new drivers have entered the sport looking vastly different from their predecessors. Prepped for marketing from the get-go, leaner, well-groomed drivers portray an image of a physically fit NASCAR driver that’s going to fit with the more stereotypical image of an athlete. That much and more was made apparent at the end of February, when Carl Edwards sent millions of female NASCAR fans running to the newsstands after appearing shirtless on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. With one photograph placed on a magazine which has millions of subscribers with a limited knowledge of NASCAR at best, Edwards proved sitting in a race car requires being physcially fit more than ever.
Of course, the changing image of the NASCAR “athlete” isn’t limited to appearance, either. “Stick "˜n’ ball” sports fans associate the athletic shelf life of an athlete to be about 15 to 20 years max, from the age of 22 or so to the age of 40. In NASCAR, it’s been much different. Drivers as little as a decade ago found themselves starting at 30, peaking at 40, and retiring at 50"¦maybe even later. Now, the second the NASCAR driver passes that dreaded 4-0, he finds himself fighting for his career, as despite no noticeable drop in talent, sponsors are pressuring car owners to get those drivers replaced.
Just take a look at Sterling Marlin. Driver of the 40 car at Chip Ganassi for several years, Marlin was pushed out this season in favor of unheralded rookie David Stremme. Stremme’s credentials pale in comparison to Marlin’s"¦but he’s 28, and Coors Light was looking for a good-looking young driver to market their product. The knock on Marlin? He’s in his late 40s"¦despite still being very capable of getting the job done, with two Daytona 500s under his belt and a near-championship season just 4 years ago. Unfortunately, the bottom line is Stremme has a sponsor and a solid ride"¦while Marlin still hasn’t found primary sponsorship for his team to cover the full season.
What’s to make of all this? Well, these marketing-savvy moves have changed the image of the average NASCAR driver, probably for good. But the change in image has come with a future cost. Somewhere out there, there’s a driver in his late 20s and early 30s that may be talented, winning feature races at his late model track left and right. The only thing is"¦he might find himself a little overweight. Or maybe he’s 35 going on 36. In this new marketing-savvy era, that means his chances of getting a big break are now about nil. Underdog but overage Kirk Shelmerdine showed driving talent when he qualified for the Daytona 500 back in February"¦yet his team still hasn’t even gotten one bite from a potential sponsor.
So, if your son or daughter wants to become a NASCAR driver, you’d better make sure they’re a physical “athlete” in every sense of the word, and start their career as soon as they can. Because the new breed of a driver comes from a different mold"¦and talent alone simply does not get the job done anymore. Whether the new breed of NASCAR “athlete” is the right way to go is open to debate"¦but the way things are going, the average fan won’t have a choice to find out.
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