SPARTA, KY. (WDRB) -- If you think NASCAR drivers aren't athletes, I've got a little exercise for you.
Drive to tomorrow's NASCAR Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway with no air conditioning. With triple-digit temperatures forecast, that's a good start in experiencing a bit of what drivers feel.
Forget about the stamina and concentration. Forget about the hand-eye requirements, the physical demands of managing a high-speed car against high-speed competition.
Just managing the elements alone is enough to increase your appreciation of these drivers, whose cars are so aerodynamically efficient that they had to craft special vents just to get outside air into the cockpit without increasing wind resistance.
Now some of you might say, "Just sitting in heat is not a sport, nor an athletic activity," and you'd be right, otherwise we'd all deserve Sprint Cup series points for the traffic performance it took just to get into last year's race.
But taken as a whole, the physical and mental demands of racing at this level do add up to significant athletic activity, and you don't have to take my word for it. In May, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research took up the topic from an academic standpoint and the results revealed what any driver will tell you.
You need to be a pretty good athlete to succeed on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit these days.
Everybody at Kentucky Speedway is talking about the heat. The temperature for Thursday's truck race was 130 degrees on the track when qualifying began. When Carl Edwards was asked about it Friday, first he joked, "Is it supposed to get hot or something?"
Then he got serious.
"You try to do the best you can to stay in shape," he said. "My trainer Dean is standing there in the back and he works for Carmichael Training Systems and he is here at this race. I am sure everyone has their trainers here and making sure they are staying hydrated and doing the right things. All these guys are tough. Nobody is complaining but at the end of the day, three-quarters of the way through that race you want to be in top form and the best you can be and I think that is not something you can adjust to right here this weekend.
"You have to eat your Frosted Flakes and sub sandwiches for lunch for a long time leading up to the race. You have to stay in shape. These are fun races for the guys that do stay fit and work toward this kind of stuff because you get to see some of that work hopefully. I enjoy these hot races."
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research noted that studies show race drivers experience aerobic and metabolic effects similar to those athletes participating in basketball, boxing, soccer, running, bicycling and handball. It also determined that driving a race car requires considerable strength. A quote:
Race car drivers demonstrate trunk flexion and extension force production, leg extension strength, and neck extension strength that is similar to a variety of other athletes. Racing also requires the ability to control multiplaner acceleration of the torso, neck, and head and react to acute visual stimuli such as another driver and accidents on the track. Race car drivers demonstrate better reaction time than controls and superior hand, ankle, trunk, neck, grip and leg extensor strength compared with controls.
Okay, enough fancy research talk. The journal found in interviews that racing requires upper body strength, arm strength and endurance, hand grip strength, stamina, heat tolerance, neck, leg and core strength to cope with G-forces and collision and calf strength for breaking. It found that drivers had to cope with back pain and leg soreness, muscle cramps, fatigue in arms, hands and calf muscles, and, finally, "hurt butt."
All right, so that last one isn't confined to athletic endeavor.
Regardless, walk into the heat at Kentucky Speedway this weekend and you'll understand what the people putting on the show are dealing with.
NASCAR teams go to some lengths to keep drivers from overheating. Each driver is equipped with a "cool box," a five-pound contraption in each car that captures air from outside the car, runs it through a carbon-monoxide filter and air conditioner, and into the helmet of the driver.
This keeps a driver's head 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the rest of the body. Years back, many teams and drivers experimented with cool vests and other suit contraptions that circulated water through the body, and there are various attempts by different teams still, but the cool box is generally the most widely accepted.
Also in nearly universal use is a hydration system by Gatorade, attached to the car and run through the driver's helmet, that allows an on-demand supply of liquid just by biting down on a tube.
Even so, a driver can expect to lose 11-12 pounds in a race, perhaps more on a weekend as hot as this one.
Darrell Waltrip and other drivers have told of getting third-degree burns on their heels from dealing with the heat in cars. Some drivers liken the cool box to sitting in a hot tub in winter, with only your head in the cool air.
The more time you spend around these guys, the more you can tell how seriously they take physical training. The days of the ol' boy who just climbs behind the wheel and drives is over. You have to have plenty on the ball to do this -- and that includes physically.
In fact, I'm less worried about the drivers this weekend than about the rest of us. We may not have cool-boxes, but take advantage of the measures Kentucky Speedway has put into place to help spectators. I saw plenty on Thursday afternoon sitting in air-conditioned cars for periods. Cooling stations are available. Shade can be found. In the upper reaches of the Kentucky Speedway grandstand, there's usually a persistent breeze that helps, even in the sunlight. Down around the track, people are going to have to be smart.
In this race, the drivers have to be athletes, and the rest of us have to be smart.
Tuesday, May 21 2013 12:03 PM EDT2013-05-21 16:03:47 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This has a familiar sound. Bobby Petrino takes over a program making a conference change and looks to lift it in stature.The new Western Kentucky University coach was at the ConferenceMore >>
In Eric Crawford's "Morning Line," Bobby Petrino says he's not patient and wants to get WKU "cranked up pretty good" in a hurry, plus John Calipari's storm donation and more.More >>
Monday, May 20 2013 10:38 PM EDT2013-05-21 02:38:47 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Teddy Bridgewater doesn't ask for much. So when he told University of Louisville football coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson that he wanted to ask somethingMore >>
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is certainly going to be a Heisman Trophy candidate to start next season, but he has told coaches he doesn't want a Heisman publicity campaign.More >>
Monday, May 20 2013 12:41 AM EDT2013-05-20 04:41:21 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The scene is always the same. After every University of Kentucky basketball home game, the coach walks across the Rupp Arena court, puts on his headset and starts talking withMore >>
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari will do things a bit differently with his young but talented Wildcats team this season.More >>
Saturday, May 18 2013 7:54 AM EDT2013-05-18 11:54:38 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Longtime golf commentator and 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi died today, and there's nearly no need to add to the tributes that surely will come, because there's a greatMore >>
Ken Venturi left a lasting memory in Louisville when he opened Hunting Creek Country Club's championship course with a record that still stands, and with a simple gesture to a sportswriter 25 years later.More >>
Tuesday, May 14 2013 5:25 PM EDT2013-05-14 21:25:36 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I like Andrew Wiggins. Here's a kid who didn't want to make a spectacle of his recruitment, despite being the top-ranked basketball recruit in the nation and being hailed as theMore >>
Eric Crawford surveys the carnage of the Andrew Wiggins circus, and ponders what it means for the future of civilization.More >>
Sunday, May 12 2013 11:30 PM EDT2013-05-13 03:30:46 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Alabama football coach Nick Saban simply said out loud what people have been talking about for some time last week during a stop on his offseason "Crimson Caravan."RespondingMore >>
Alabama coach Nick Saban's idea for power conference football team to play only teams from other elite conferences sounds good -- but most programs would never accept it.More >>
Saturday, May 11 2013 10:26 AM EDT2013-05-11 14:26:43 GMT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The NCAA basketball rules committee has wrapped up its most recent round of talks with more tweaks.It didn't reduce the shot clock, but it did try to streamline the video reviewMore >>
Ten suggestions to get the game of college basketball moving again. More >>