Racing 600 miles abuses the body

It's been said so many times, usually accompanied by a snicker, that most auto racing fans pretty much come to expect it before the line is even finished.

"NASCAR drivers are athletes? Yeah, right! That's a good one!"

How many times have you heard that very same thing … or for that matter, were the one saying it? How many folks think hopping in a car and driving pedal-to-the-metal for a few hours is no more exerting than hitting the McDonald's drive-thru?

Well, it's time to set this straight. If anyone has any hesitation in saying that NASCAR drivers are athletes, it's time they seriously consider the feat that is Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

It's the longest, most grueling and exhausting race of all the major motorsports' series (well, the 24 Hours of Le Mans deserves its own category, so it's exempt from this discussion). Indianapolis stops at 500, thinking that's enough. Formula One, well, forget it; the folks on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean wouldn't even think of racing on a track for 600 miles. They usually decide 70 warp-speed laps is plenty.

About the only thing that comes close to comparing is the off-road Baja 1000 -- but then, that's split up over a couple of days.

No, there is no other major race in the world that features just one driver that can match the Coca-Cola 600 for the challenge it presents and the physical, mental and emotional drain it puts on drivers.

They have to go 600 miles, which means 400 laps around the 1.5-mile LMS track, at average speeds hovering in the neighborhood of 150-mph or more. That means usually four hours-plus of straight-through, non-stop racing, with no breaks, no TV timeouts and having to endure the feeling of being like a piece of meat inside a microwave, with temperatures inside their race cars that oftentimes soar past 130 degrees.

Oh yeah, lest we forget, perhaps the biggest challenge facing drivers over the course of the race: not even one bathroom break. That's why when cars pull into the pits for the six or seven stops they'll have to have during the course of the event, drivers are very cautious about limiting their fluid intake to just enough water or energy drinks to give them a sample of refreshment, but not to the point where they have to stop the car, hop out and find the nearest Port-A-Potty.

"You get so dehydrated and can easily lose 10 pounds (off your body) in just that one race," said Tony Stewart, who nearly collapsed a couple of years ago when he exited his car after the 600. Of course, that was also the year Stewart performed the so-called "double-double," racing in the morning and early afternoon in the Indy 500, taking a quick jet to Charlotte, and then hopping into his stock car for the 600. That's 1,100 miles total … but another story in and of itself.

Let's translate what the 43 drivers will go through in Sunday's 600 in more layman terms. Take, for example, the upcoming family summer vacation, and hypothetically comparing racing in the Coca-Cola 600 to driving from New York to Los Angeles, more than 3,000 miles, straight through, in less than two days at, say, 80 miles per hour.

With only 15-second gas fill-up stops … and with no bathroom breaks.

That's pretty much the same concept of driving in the 600.

When the Coca-Cola 600's predecessor, the World 600, made its debut in 1960, the race was even longer -- oftentimes stretching to close to eight hours in length, because that was the nature of the mechanical beasts at the time, namely much slower race cars. It's a wonder how drivers managed to survive back then.

During this year's pre-season Nextel Cup media tour in the Charlotte area back in January, one of the main things many drivers talked about -- after discussing the merits of the upcoming 10-race, season within a season "Chase for the Championship -- was how keeping in shape has become more important in recent years.

A perfect example is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not only will the driver of the red No. 8 Chevrolet turn 30 later this year, but he also knew it was time to get serious about his health and physical condition, to prepare as best he could for the grueling 40-race season (36 regular season races and four exhibitions), if he was going to mount a serious challenge for this season's championship.

Not only did Junior reportedly quit smoking, he also started watching his weight and what he was eating and cut way back on partying. The reason is simple: He wanted to have the energy to sustain the whole season. Many drivers actually turn their in-season physical conditioning programs up a couple notches a few weeks before the 600.

There's numerous other drivers who approach their physical conditioning just like their driving: serious and straight-forward, including veterans like the seemingly ageless Mark Martin, who may be 45 in years, but has the stamina and physical shape of a 25-year-old. There's others like Jeff Burton, who could easily take on someone twice his size.

Or what about Robby Gordon, who will be attempting his fourth "double-double" Sunday, starting his day in the Circle City (Indy) and finishing in the Queen City (Charlotte).

In one of his pre-race diaries for The Associated Press this week, Gordon talked about the significance of not only diet, but the mind's focus.

"I've discovered that doing the "double" is more mental than physical, at least for me," he said. "There's no doubt, though, the effects of 3.5 G-loads in the turns at Indy and a humid night in Charlotte will strain my 35-year-old body.

"For years my pre-race ritual has been to eat a turkey sandwich, but on Sunday morning, I plan instead to drink plenty of liquids. There's so much wind rushing around in an open-cockpit Indy car that you don't have the same sense of heat buildup and dehydration as in a fully enclosed stock car. Two years ago, I got severe stomach cramps during the Coca-Cola 600 because I'd lost more body fluids than I realized. I won't let that happen again."

So it's pretty apparent that staying in shape has become serious business for Nextel Cup drivers, both for Sunday's 600-mile joust, as well as the several thousands of miles they log during the course of the season on racetracks from Daytona, Fla., to Fontana, Calif.

Race car drivers aren't athletes? That's the easy mantra for those who have never tried it.

For while they might not be able to go one-on-one against Shaquille O'Neal on a basketball court, it's a sure bet they could outlast him behind the wheel.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.