Is car racing a sport? Are drivers athletes? "No!" say football and baseball fans, if you ask them (and if they have an opinion on the issue—which, to be fair, they might not). An athlete has to display strength and physical prowess. Turning a wheel and pressing a lever doesn't make you an athlete. Otherwise, we might as well call professional video gamers athletes, and then where would we be?

NASCAR fans, on the other hand, might point out that the driver is just one member of a racing team. The other five or six members are the crew, the people who refuel the car and change its tires during pit stops. The crew do the sort of physical feats that only athletes can pull off. And that's why, when it comes time to find new members for their pit crews, NASCAR recruits college athletes.

That wasn't always the case. When NASCAR began, they staffed pit crews with the best mechanics in the business, figuring those guys had the relevant knowhow and experience. Then in the 1990s, one Chevrolet team realized something. The man who changes a race car's tires doesn't need to be an expert on all things motor-related. He just needs to change tires. So unlike other racing teams, this one assigned each pit crew member to a single job. They soon had the quickest stops in all of NASCAR.

Other teams followed suit. And then they realized, hold on. If this guy on the crew just changes tires (and another just jacks the car up, and another just refuels the car), he doesn't need any prior auto knowledge at all. It's a simple task, one easy to learn. The challenge is doing it fast, which requires speed, agility, and strength, stuff that's hard or even impossible to learn. 

So, we shouldn't be rounding up mechanics and telling them to get in shape. We should be rounding up athletes and teaching them how to change tires. Kind of like how it's probably easier to teach astronauts how to drill than to train miners to survive in space.

Not too many college football or basketball players go pro in their sport of choice. So when a NASCAR recruiter approaches them, offering six figures, it's a good opportunity. Working in the pit might not be as glorious as playing in the NFL. But they do get to be a professional athlete, and they get to be part of a team. 

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For more ways racing's not like you think, check out:

NASCAR Was Started by Bootleggers

Redefining Auto Racing Through Cheating

The 6 Most Terrifying Historical Car Races

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Top image: Johnny Bivera

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