Photos: Courtsey NHRA, Video: NASCARplus
The great American Nobel prize winning author, Ernest Hemingway was quoted as saying, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

Don’t tell Donovan McNabb, though.  Following the conclusion of FOX Sports 1’s coverage of the Ford EcoBoost 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck series race, “FOX Sports Live” wrapped up the day’s events with a panel of well-known sports figures, and asked them to rank the great athletes of the recent past. Always known for his restraint, former NFL quarterback McNabb ranked NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson third on his list behind Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, but followed that up with a doozy of a statement. “He’s not an athlete,” noted McNabb. “He drives a car. What does he do athletically?” which set Twitter and Facebook ablaze from irate race fans claiming McNabb was completely out of line with his comment.

Johnson eventually responded with a defense of his athleticism and extensive training regimen, and the two stars are left to hash out the question between them, but how do other racers feel about the question. Are racers, particularly NHRA racers, athletes? We took the question straight to them.

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an “athlete” as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”

NHRA competitors   have to endure the summertime heat in a seven-layer fire suit, 5-Gs pulling on them at the starting line and 5 negative Gs at the moment of full deployment of the parachute.  The full concentration of staring at the Christmas Tree anticipating the electricity of the green light and the instant push of the throttle resulting in an intense three or four seconds. It’s truly death defying.

But does that make NHRA drag racing drivers athletes?

“I understand where those football guys are coming from when they say that, because what we do is very different, but I don’t think about it much or get hung up on it, really,” said Funny Car driver, Tim Wilkerson.  “I guess I have to ask where you draw the line.  Is a guy who is an Olympic rower an athlete?  Is the guy who throws the javelin an athlete?  Sure they are, and driving a Funny Car is a physically demanding deal in terms of mental quickness and the ability to react to what’s going on around you in a crazy environment, so in my mind that takes athleticism. I think as long as you’re physically controlling the action in the sport you play, whether it’s football, baseball, or ping pong, you’re an athlete.  It’s just different types of sports and like I said, I don’t get too hung up on it, to be honest.  The benefit for us is that the sport itself doesn’t usually wear down your body so that you have to retire at 35 when you can’t run or throw anymore.”
“Professional race car drivers are definitely athletes,” said 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel champion, Shawn Langdon, driver of the Al-Anabi racing Top Fuel dragster.   “I think it’s all in how you look at it.  You have to be in shape to handle the amount of G-Forces your body has to withstand and the mental preparations necessary to drive the Al-Anabi Top Fuel dragster.  It isn’t possible to sit on your couch for five years and then jump in a race car and be successful.  You have to be in shape mentally and physically to handle the physical requirements the G-forces create, and your reflexes have to be sharp at the height of the g-forces.  If you’re not in shape, you can’t do that.  A lot happens in those four seconds and I think, without a doubt, you have to be an athlete to be a successful race car driver.”

Unlike sports that McNabb has participated in, drag racing has competent women at the helm of some of the quickest rides in the pit area and the ladies of John Force Racing are confident about their abilities as athletes

“I definitely believe race car drivers are athletes,” said three-time Funny Car winner, Courtney Force. ”In order to perform at our best, drivers need to have not only physical but mental strength to drive a 10,000 horsepower race car. I hit the gym and train to have the endurance and strength to keep up with the men I compete against.

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Brittany Force, the 2013 NHRA Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award recipient echoed her sister’s sentiments

“Race car drivers are in every way athletes,” said the rookie-of-the year Top Fuel ace. “Getting behind the wheel of a 10,000 horsepower car that reaches speeds of 330 mph in less than 3 seconds test not only your mental abilities but your physical ones as well.

“When driving you have to stay on your game and keep focused. Reaction is everything when competing and can come down to winning or losing races. You also have to be in shape physically when hopping in one of these cars. You use a lot of arm strength to steer these cars and get them stopped and to hold them on the line. At the end of a run after hitting the chutes you are working against the resistance of negative Gs to get your car stopped. I always keep up on the gym at home and on the road doing cardio and circuit training but mostly enjoy my jogs and hot yoga.”

Another fit drag racer is two-time Top Fuel winner, Khalid alBalooshi, driving for Al-Anabi racing, who made a name for himself muscling a Pro Mod car to the 2011 championship of that division puts it best.

“A lot of the big names in this sport are good racers and good athletes,” said alBalooshi.  “It’s not easy to do something like that.  They’ve been working hard all their lives.  They try hard to be in shape to do the best they can do; if you are not in shape, you cannot do a good job in the race car.  How a driver eats and trains all his life is important if he wants to be good at what he does.  You can’t just wake up one morning and decide to drive; it doesn’t work that way.  You have to train your body to handle it or you will not be successful.”

Current NHRA Mello Yello five-time Pro Stock champion, Jeg Coughlin, and 2012 champ, Allen Johnson, driving for Mopar also feel race car drivers are capable of great athletic skills, especially the mental ones.  That really counts in Pro Stock racing.

“Of course race car drivers are athletes,” said Coughlin.  “Albeit some forms of motorsports don’t require quite as much physical endurance; we are all still athletes.  Do we need to go into the mental side of sports?  Might consider putting the naysayers on a go kart conditioning workout for a couple hours a day; the outcome would likely be very interesting; not to mention the carnage!”

“Professional NHRA drivers are athletes both physically and mentally,” said Allen Johnson, “The mental aspect of driver reactions times and the focus it takes during a run that might be less than optimum (out of groove) is probably equal to his being in the pocket with three 300 lb linemen coming at him and he is only on his second option of receivers and they both are covered and he still has to get to the third option.  I, and a lot of other drivers, train to be in shape physically and mentally to combat the elements and the scenario above.  Heat is a big factor in our job, and being in shape helps.”

The one dissenting opinion from any of the NHRA Pro drivers was from Chad Head, who drives for Head Racing.

“Being an athlete means to people someone who is good at sports like football and basketball.  Of course, I’ve never raced NASCAR, so I can’t speak on that subject.  Now the drivers who I feel are athletes in the NHRA are people like Antron Brown.  He was an athlete before he got involved in drag racing.  Just because they are drag racing now doesn’t make them athletes.”

In all, a majority of the NHRA drivers are physically fit and quite capable of marvelous driving feats behind the wheel that most fans get to witness on Sunday.  Their abilities to concentrate in gaining a starting line advantage and deny their opponent the win truly says with that kind of determination…NHRA Drivers are athletes.