Are racecar drivers athletes?
The question has been asked since the advent of the turbocharged Offenhauser at Indianapolis, during A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford’s heyday, when the first thing the lead foots would do upon climbing from the car after driving like bats out of hell was light up a Marlboro.
But the drivers competing in today’s IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway don’t smoke cigarettes. They weigh around 140 pounds with like 7 percent body fat, and they ride mountain bicycles wherever they go.
Perhaps they couldn’t play wide receiver for the Patriots. But they could run circles around the New England offensive linemen, even without their cars. And whereas when the Milwaukee Brewers make four errors, the worst thing that can happen is unearned runs that lead to a loss, but when IndyCar drivers make mistakes, the results sometimes aren’t so benign.
Plus, it’s usually hot in those cars, and there are g-forces that can make one’s neck really sore and black out like the cast of “The Hangover.”
So, yeah, I think IndyCar drivers are athletes. Especially the guy who will start first in today’s race, and the guy who will start 25th.
During the off week leading to Las Vegas, Tony Kanaan and fellow Brazilian Vitor Meira swam 2.4 miles, rode their bicycles for 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles. They did these things consecutively. At the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, the Big Kahuna of the fitness types, or at least the big Kailua-Kona, because that’s where the Ironman is held.
“On the personal side, it was one of my bigger achievements,” said Kanaan, 36, who had put on a shirt with sleeves before we talked, so as not to embarrass me. “Being in racing you are always depending on other people to do something (to help make you succeed). But last weekend, when I crossed that finish line, that was just me. Whether it went right or wrong, I could only blame myself.”
If the Indianapolis 500 is the “Ultimate Test of Man and Machine,” then Meira said the Ironman is the ultimate test of man without the machine.
“Now people understand that racing also is a fitness sport,” said Meira, 34. “In general, racing is 70 to 80 percent mental. But when you lose the physical, you lose the mental. When you get tired, you can’t focus.”
In the Ironman, when you lose the physical, you lose your cookies.
Neither Kanaan nor Meira lost his cookies in completing their first full triathlons.
Meira, who drives for A.J. Foyt but won’t be with the team next year, said he sort of told his boss what he was planning last weekend but that his boss sort of didn’t understand. And that’s where he left it.
Because if A.J. didn’t understand a triathlon, that meant he couldn’t put his foot down. And though he is 76 and doesn’t eat broccoli and never had much use for a mountain bicycle, except maybe to kick one after he tossed the last laptop computer down pit lane, one still doesn’t want A.J. Foyt to get all ornery and put his foot down.
Especially when one’s backside is in close proximity.
■ Perception: NASCAR-style racing is the most competitive on the planet. Reality: The difference between the fastest and slowest qualifiers for Saturday’s NASCAR truck race was 22.938 mph and just 3.946 mph for today’s IndyCar race. Ron Hornaday’s pole speed in the trucks was 176.056 mph; Tony Kanaan’s 222.078 mph in IndyCar. So you can add auto racing perception to advanced algebra, Lady Gaga’s wardrobe and anything Ozzie Guillen says to the long list of Things I Don’t Get.
■ Best pit note of the week goes to LVMS publicity guy “Doctor” John Bisci, who wrote that during a photo op at the Sands before the first IndyCar race in Las Vegas in 1954, Frank Sinatra was seated in the DA Lubricants Special and somehow engaged the gears, sending the racecar rolling straight for the swimming pool. Driver Leroy Warriner jumped on board, yanked the hand brake and saved Sinatra “from a watery embarrassment.” Sinatra offered Warriner free tickets to his concert — and had the guy who suggested the photo op kneecapped.
■ My favorite IndyCar Las Vegas moment: Caesars Palace, 1984. Tom Sneva and Big Al Unser dueling side by side. Unser crashing. Unser throwing Sneva The Finger. And Sneva saying to the media afterward that he thought Big Al was just reminding him what position he was in.
■ Of the four women entered in today’s IndyCar race, Danica Patrick qualified ninth and Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro 28th, 29th and 30th. Advice to married male readers: Only mention Danica’s speed to the wife.
■ Marco Andretti: “It’s harrowing for us, but it’s a scream for fans.” Oriol Servia: “I expect it to be really hairy and dangerous and exciting for the fans.” Danica Patrick: “The race is going to be crazy and the crashes will be spectacular.” Assumption to be made: It’s going to harrowing, really dangerous, the crashes will be spectacular … and advance ticket sales were really lousy.
■ On Sept. 18, I wrote that Al Unser Jr. said he had stopped drinking but that his demons always were lurking. On Sept. 29, the demons showed themselves. The two-time Indy 500 winner was pulled over, smelling of alcohol, after drag racing in the Albuquerque, N.M., streets. “You caught the slower guy,” Little Al reportedly told officers after testing twice the legal limit of 0.08. No word on whether the fast guy will be offered a test drive with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.