Athl e te: “One who takes part in . . . exercises, sports or games requiring mental agility, endurance or strength.”
--Webster’s Third New International Dictionary
Are race drivers athletes?
Derek Daly of Ireland and Geoff Brabham, long removed from Australia, have their own ways of answering that old question.
They are teammates with Team Nissan. Brabham has already clinched the International Motor Sports Assn.'s GTP title by winning 9 of 11 races, and both will compete in Sunday’s main event of the weekend’s Camel Grand Prix of Southern California here at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, driving two of sports car racing’s most powerful and sophisticated machines.
It’s a beautiful setting for a race--birds, blue skies, the beach a few hundred yards away--but for Brabham, Daly and the others, it’s no drive in the country. Win or lose, their bodies will tell them how tough a race it was.
“The neck,” Brabham said. “My neck is sometimes sore for days, just from trying to keep my head straight.”
Brabham recalled running one Michigan 500. “There was a caution flag after 7 or 8 laps but not another until around 200 laps and, boy, was I glad to see it.”
For a couple of minutes, Brabham and the other drivers could slow down and reduce the pulling forces that persistently and painfully insist that their bodies go one way when the car must go another.
Ever hear of a guy wearing a helmet to watch TV? Brabham has been known to “train” at home wearing a weighted headgear, flexing his neck into various positions to strengthen the muscles.
“These cars also are really hard to steer,” Brabham said. “First, you have those big, fat tires, and then the ground effects.”
Power steering? Right. Man power.
Engineers have estimated that the ground effects of a GTP--it stands for Grand Touring, Prototype--car, with its flat, wide-body design, are so efficient that a car weighs up to 7 times its normal 2,100 pounds at speed. The effects are less at lower speeds, but then the wide tires are harder to turn. Drivers feel as if they’ve been lifting weights for a couple of hours.
Now combine those lateral and vertical forces with the acceleration of 650-plus horsepower and the power-assist braking from, oh, 200 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. in less than 100 yards.
“You’re strapped in pretty tight so that your body can’t move, but that doesn’t keep your insides from moving around,” Brabham said.
The braking and acceleration factors aren’t as strong on oval courses, but there’s a trade-off. The centrifugal force is greater around the high-speed turns.
“And there’s also the heat,” Brabham said.
This weekend, Brabham and Daly will wear “cool suits,” which circulate a chilled liquid through a vest and caps inside their helmets, keeping their heads and vital organs from overheating when temperatures inside the cars--GTPs are sealed, and the windows don’t roll down--reach up to 130 degrees.
Then all they have to do is keep the cars between the walls while shifting several hundred times, steering through lapped traffic and watching their mirrors so they don’t pinch off a trailing car in a turn.
And doing it as fast as they can.
The job does require exceptional skill. Daly made that clear when he took this reporter for a 2-lap ride around the 10-turn, 1.62-mile track this week.
After signing a waiver, things got difficult. The helmet fit fine, as long as I didn’t care to see where we were going. I couldn’t get it on over my glasses, and had a heck of a time slipping them on through the eye-opening with my ears compressed.
Getting into the car was worse. The driver sits on the right, and the passenger sits wherever he can.
GTPs aren’t equipped for passengers, but the crew had slipped in a fiberglass shell roughly resembling a child’s car seat in shape and size, with some safety belts bolted to various points. Mary Lou Retton would have done fine, but a 5-foot 8-inch man had a problem.
Daly waited patiently while I twisted into the best position I could find. I sensed that behind the helmet he was wearing an Irish smirk.
The crew fastened my safety harness and pulled down the gull-wing door.
It’s odd, but I’ve been more apprehensive riding with cabbies from Montreal to Mexico than I ever have riding with professional race drivers, although I once had second thoughts when Danny Ongais hit the wall at Indianapolis a few weeks after spinning me around Riverside International Raceway in his Porsche.
As I tried to squeeze my hips into the seats, Daly told me where I could hang on to keep from getting jerked around. He flicked a switch, the engine fired up with a roar and we were-- ooofff! How can one describe the acceleration? No doubt it’s less than a top-fuel dragster’s or a Saturn rocket’s, but close enough. I tried to take a deep breath but felt only a vacuum, until Daly settled down to a steady pace.
I thought I was strapped in tightly, but every time he braked I seemed to float forward from the seat, and my glasses would try to fly off through the eye-opening, my eyeballs close behind.
Every time he accelerated, my head, lacking the headrest of a conventional seat, flopped backward uncontrollably, and on every right turn my helmet banged against the sloping part of the roof. Otherwise, it just rattled off the top a lot.
The ride was over soon, and I managed to climb out by myself, after getting some help in releasing the safety belts. I was met immediately by a television crew, which wanted to know, “How was it out there?”
Lord, I thought, how often have I asked that question?
Well, I said, it was a thrill, a rush and, no, I wasn’t scared a bit. Later, I realized I had forgotten to keep switching sponsors’ caps while I talked but, hey, it was a rookie’s mistake.
Then there were 2 laps with Jim Downing, the 46-year-old 3-time defending Camel Lights champion from Atlanta. Downing’s Mazda looks like a GTP and competes in the same races but is lighter with a smaller engine. In comparison, it performs as one might expect: quicker and more nimble in its maneuvers but not as fast overall.
At one point we came upon Daly. I signaled Downing to pass. Downing punched the gas, Daly obligingly moved over to the inside of a hairpin and Downing swept smoothly around the outside. I don’t think it will be that easy Sunday.
And I understood what Brabham meant. For the next hour my neck felt as if I’d been standing on my head, an attitude sometimes assumed in race driving.
So, are race drivers’ athletes?
Take my word for it.
IMSA CAR DIRECTORY The five classes of International Motor Sports Assn. cars competing at Del Mar this weekend:
GTP: Grand Touring, Prototype. Body custom fabricated for maximum aerodynamics and ground effects. Turbocharged engine generates up to 650 horsepower, speed up to 220 m.p.h. Among the most powerful and technically sophisticated race cars in the world.
Camel Light: Runs in GTP races as a lightweight class. Similar body but less weight. Engine, limited to 3 liters in piston displacement, generates 330-350 horsepower.
GTO: Grand Touring, Over, meaning over 3 liters’ displacement, V-6 engine that generates 500-550 horsepower. Basic stock sports coupe body.
GTU: Grand Touring, Under, meaning engine displacement is under 3 liters. It generates 330-350 horsepower in a basic stock small sports car body.
Barber Saab: Identically prepared chassis, with Saab 2-liter, turbocharged engines. Open-wheeled formula-type cars.