Athleticism essential for success

Posted: Thursday, October 12, 2000

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Darrell Waltrip never has thrown a baseball 90 mph, but he's driven a car 190 mph.

Mike Skinner wouldn't last three minutes in the ring with Evander Holyfield, but he can survive a three-hour assault at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ricky Craven couldn't score on a power play from the blue line in hockey, but he knows how to power his way past a speeding car at the finish line.

Just because they sit behind the steering wheel of a race car, does it make stock car drivers any less of an athlete than professional football, basketball, baseball or hockey players?

Good question.

''You don't have to carry a ball; you don't have to swing a stick; you don't have to carry a glove to be an athlete,'' said Waltrip, a 53-year-old driver who insists his competitive skills are every bit as sharp for Sunday's Winston 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway as they were 30 years ago.

''Television doesn't do this sport justice, especially when we hit the wall. You hear them say on television, 'Oh, he brushed the wall.' Let me tell you, there's no such thing. When you take a 3,400-pound car and hit a concrete wall at 180 mph, it's more than a brush. It shakes every bone, every organ in your body. If you're not in shape, if you're not an athlete, you'd never survive.''

Most drivers, however, are more comfortable being considered athletic, not athletes. Only a handful of drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series don't work out regularly. Most have physical trainers and dieticians on staff.

Mark Martin is an avid weightlifter. Dale Jarrett is a former all-star quarterback and golfer. Derrike Cope was a professional baseball prospect. Michael Waltrip competed in the Boston Marathon last spring.

''I did the Boston Marathon because I could,'' Darrell Waltrip's younger brother said. ''It's kind of like getting the chance to play Augusta National or something like that. If you get that kind of opportunity, you just about have to do it.

''There's nothing that compares a marathon to what I do in a race car. Racing is my job, and I'm very serious and very intense about it. I want to beat everyone on the track. I did the Boston Marathon for the experience of it, to see what it's like to run through where all those college kids are screaming and to come in at the end of all the crowds. That is the sole reason I did it.''

Michael Waltrip learned from his brother that being in shape is important inside a screaming race car. Darrell was one of the first drivers to equate physical fitness with success.

''I've been working out my whole life,'' Darrell said. ''You've got to be coordinated to be a driver. You have to have good hand-eye coordination. Those are things you have to have to be a good athlete. For me, being in shape not only helps you physically, it helps you mentally."

Craven said the measure of an athlete often goes beyond strength and speed.

''It has more to do with heart, desire and a work ethic,'' Craven said. ''You could pose an interesting question on whether (rotund Toronto pitcher) David Wells is an athlete. He certainly has skills, and he certainly has desire and heart. That makes him an athlete, but is he athletic?''

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