What does it take to be a race car driver? In the upper tiers of automobile racing, it takes a person who is very different from the ordinary. The level of racing in NASCAR, IRL, OWCCS (Champ Car, formerly CART), and Formula One requires perception, stamina, concentration, and instinct that goes far beyond what most of us are capable of. At speeds approaching, and exceeding, 200 mph, half a second may seem like several minutes to a race car driver.
Most of the NASCAR drivers started racing at a very early age. Jeff Gordon was practically born with a steering wheel in his hands, beginning his stellar career racing go-carts at the age of five. Tony Stewart wasn’t far behind, winning his first go-cart race at the age of seven. NASCAR driver Scott Riggs didn’t start in cars, but competed in Motocross motorcycle racing starting at the age of six. If you look at the careers of all of the drivers currently in NASCAR, the average age these professionals embarked upon their path is around 14 years. Many of the drivers grew up in racing families, most notably, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Racing is literally in their blood.
Driving in a field of forty-three cars, inches apart, at 198 plus mph, also requires patient aggression. The whole point of racing is to finish ahead of all the others. No driver wants to finish second, everyone is there to win. So, when there is an opportunity to pass another car, the driver must take it. In a 200 mph parking lot, such as the races at Daytona, that opportunity is not taken easily. The driver must be patient for the opening, and be able to anticipate where the other cars are going to be at the time he makes his move. Experience is very much the key in this case, plus an almost unnatural instinct. If there is the slightest error in judgement, a crash is certain to happen. Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr have shown the most skill recently in applying patient aggression at the restrictor plate races, such as the ones at Daytona.
It is not that these drivers don't know fear. They definately do feel fear when they get into a car, preparing for a race. There are too many variables in racing to be totally unafraid. But, the best drivers have the natural ability to transform fear into adreneline and concentration, which are very necessary to finish a race unharmed. Sometimes there are accidents which, to the observer, may seem careless or avoidable, but there is absolutely no room in racing for carelessness. Most drivers trust and expect that every one of the other drivers will be driving at the same level of concentration he or she has.
There are no NASCAR drivers who are Atheists. Before every race, as part of the opening ceremonies, a prayer is given for all the drivers, crew, and fans. This has been part of the opening ceremonies at every level of NASCAR, since the very beginning of NASCAR sanctioned racing. Jeff Gordon's testimony of Christ is well known, and Tony Stewart has also testified that the power of prayer has helped his team. Even after the opening ceremonies, as the drivers get into their cars, the observer can see every crew member of every team in prayer. "You learn to pray a lot, when you work for Joe Gibbs," Stewart remarked toward the end of the 2005 season. Both football and racing fans know about Gibbs' conviction for the power of prayer.
All of us want to go fast. It is in our dreams. There are very many in the world who race cars, but a very small percentage of those drivers have what it takes to race at the Formula One or NASCAR level. That is why most of us fans are happy to watch the ones that can do, do what they do the best.