NASCAR Hot debate: Drivers say they're athletes, too
Sadler walked, prepared for heat of long races during the off-season.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
FONTANA, Calif. -- Elliott Sadler becomes somewhat of a fitness fanatic in the off-season, which seems odd for a NASCAR driver who touts M & amp;M's candy as his primary sponsor.
But challenge Sadler on whether sitting behind the wheel of a stock car and driving in circles counts as strenuous physical activity, and you'll get a spirited argument.
"Those people have never done it before," Sadler said during a NASCAR test session at California Speedway last week.
"Eight to 12 pounds a race is what I lose in fluids. It gets very hot -- 140, 150 degrees in there. There's no timeouts, no halftimes."
The NASCAR Nextel Cup Series has undergone drastic change in recent years, and not just because it has burst into the American sports mainstream.
More and more, NASCAR drivers are emphasizing rigorous physical conditioning to help give them an edge during the 36-race season, which starts Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500 and extends into November.
Full of hot air
Sadler walks 10 to 15 miles a day during the short off-season and gets creative in preparing for the harsh conditions inside the cockpit.
"I just do things to get my body used to breathing hot air," he said.
"I'll sit in a steam room a lot, 45 minutes or an hour at a time, to get my lungs used to breathing hot air."
Things can be even more sweltering during a road course race such as the Dodge/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, Calif. in June.
Not only can the air temperature soar into the 90s, the constant strain on a car's transmission while navigating the twisting course makes the cockpit even hotter than normal.
For these reasons, Chevy driver Jeff Burton said mental toughness can be just as important as having your body ready.
"I think emotionally you've got to come into the year ready, and physically you've got to come into the year ready," Burton said.
"You can continue to build strength up until about April.
"In May, when the temperatures start to go up, that's when it starts to disintegrate you a little bit. So you really have to enter the month of June in top, top condition. You start losing a lot of weight, and it's really difficult to keep it."
It's not unanimous
Not everyone is convinced NASCAR drivers have to be in top-notch shape.
Dave Blaney of Hartford, who landed a ride with Richard Childress Racing this season, said different drivers follow different philosophies.
"At Richard Childress Racing, they've got their own gym. I work out with them pretty much every day I'm out there," Blaney said. "I don't know. Is it critical in this type of racing? No."
Added Burton: "I have a lot of friends who are football players and basketball players, and they all have different ideas. I think it's the same here. There are people who don't work out hardly any and some who are just gym nuts. I've seen both be successful."
So should race car drivers be considered athletes?
The question was posed to Dodge driver Kasey Kahne as he took a break during Wednesday's test.
"I'd say they are. If you were to grab some guy out there," Kahne said, pointing to the swarms of fans attending the test, "and he got in one of our cars, for one, he wouldn't be able to drive it. But two, if he went the whole race, he'd be so worn out ... I think he would have just passed out."