McNabb stands by comments after pace car ride
March 23, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
After saying NASCAR drivers were not athletes, the NFL quarterback gets a glimpse of what it's like to be part of the sport of stock car racing
FONTANA, Calif. -- An hour before the start of Sunday’s Auto Club 400, former NFL quarterback turned FOXSports Live analyst Donovan McNabb snaked his way through the Auto Club Speedway garage area and headed to a pre-arranged meeting with six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
His opinion that Johnson, and NASCAR drivers in general, weren't athletes ignited a firestorm of passionate debate.
"He's not an athlete," McNabb said of Johnson. "He sits in a car and he drives, so that doesn't make you athletic. I give credit to what he's been able to do."
Further, McNabb said days later, "Athletes are people who train, who do physical things, who are on strength, endurance and stamina. But most importantly, get out and do athletic things. Now, sitting in a car is not doing athletic things.
"They can work out, they can go run on a treadmill, they can run triathlons, but that doesn't make you an athlete sitting in car."
So would a trip to Johnson’s playing field -- the super fast two-mile Auto Club Speedway -- a face-to-face meeting with the triathlete Johnson and a pace car ride from Toyota driver Clint Bowyer change that impression?
"I respect what they do," McNabb said Sunday. "I think it's a skill. They obviously put time and effort into their ability, but I stick by what I said."
To his credit, Johnson took the high road in the immediate aftermath of McNabb's original comments and he was just as gracious Sunday morning. Agreeing to disagree.
"My reaction at the time helped keep it positive,’" Johnson said Sunday. "I could have turned it in a different direction. It is an argument and something I've been defending since I started racing and something that's been going on even before that.
"We'll just keep fighting the battle one at a time and see what happens."
Johnson, who had been visiting with good friend Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, came out of his motor coach to shake McNabb's hand and immediately asked him with a smile, "You wanna go for a run?"
McNabb laughed and said no.
Then the two caught up with each other, mostly small talk about their children, Johnson's motor coach, and the rigors of the NASCAR schedule. There was no mention of athletic capabilities.
"We've known each other a long time," Johnson said. :We talked after he was on air saying what he did. But like I said way back then, it's an opportunity to use this experience to help change the perception.
"It wasn't easy to hear and our industry got pretty fired up over it, but hopefully we can change him and with the spotlight on him he can talk about that and change others.
"If not, that's OK. Everybody's entitled to an opinion. But again, I'd love to get him in a car and put him through the paces. The pace car isn't gonna do it."
Apparently so. McNabb was still adamant in his stance even after taking a ride with Bowyer early Sunday morning, reaching speeds of 120 mph in a Toyota Camry pace car.
"It was a fun experience," McNabb said. "Not everyone has that opportunity to ride with a professional NASCAR driver. He didn't scare me, though. Remember, I've been hit by 300-pound linemen.
"But you want to learn more about the sport. For me, it's an experience. On FoxSports Live we talk all sports so you want the hands-on training of why, when, where. I didn't know races were different lengths or mentally how you approach different areas on the track. That's interesting."
After the meeting, McNabb walked back through the garage to watch the opening laps of the race on top of Johnson's pit box. As he made his way through the fans, some shouted out their support of Johnson.
McNabb just smiled.