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Why Are NASCAR Drivers Short?

There is a perception that NASCAR drivers tend to be short. This perception has stuck around for at least the last 30 years, even though there have been many drivers who were above average in height. While there might not be a rule, you might be wondering why many NASCAR drivers are short.

NASCAR drivers are not short compared to the average male and female in America. There have been some that were extraordinarily successful that were shorter, but there have also been some very tall drivers. There is little evidence that shorter drivers do better in NASCAR.

While there may not be a rule that says shorter drivers should race in NASCAR, there have been several that are shorter that have done very well. Their success might be why some perceive NASCAR as being a predominantly short driver’s game. Below is the rundown on NASCAR and short drivers.

Are NASCAR Drivers Short?

NASCAR drivers are not always short. NASCAR legends like Dale Earnhardt, Kyle Busch, and Darrell Waltrip were/are all over 6 ft/183 cm. On the other end, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson all range in height from 5 ft 8 in/ 176 cm to 6 ft/184 cm.

Of drivers with more than 2 NASCAR Cup championships, six were over 6 ft and three were under 6 ft. Jimmie Johnson, under 6 ft, has won 7 Cup championships and was the most dominant driver from the mid-2000s through his retirement in 2017. Therefore, based on NASCAR Cup championships, there is no discernable pattern between slightly short, average, and slightly tall drivers.

The Shorter Reality

That said, there are more shorter drivers in NASCAR than shorter athletes in other professional sports. Much of this is simple physics. A 5 ft 5 in/167 cm football player would struggle in the NFL. The same guy would get run over in the NBA. When smaller athletes have succeeded in pro sports, they have been the exception. However, in NASCAR, size is not much of an advantage. 

Why Are So Many NASCAR Drivers Short?

So many NASCAR drivers are short because the sport may be more comfortable for shorter drivers. A smaller person can fit in the tight quarters of a NASCAR cockpit easier than a large person. Even something as simple as entering the vehicle is easier if you are shorter. 

Another reason there might be a lot of shorter drivers is a dearth of younger, taller drivers. When NASCAR drivers are just starting, most tall kids are getting recruited for sports that generally have taller athletes. A kid that is the smallest in his class, may have a chance to race go-Karts but have little chance of making the basketball team.

This can also work to sequester the driver. As individuals progress through racing series, it becomes harder to break into the sport. By the time the driver makes it to high school, driving as a sport is pretty much a solitary and exclusive opportunity.

A Weight Advantage?

There might be an advantage because of the average driver’s weight. Shorter people weigh less. In a sport where teams try to go as fast as possible while reducing anything extra that might skew momentum or cause drag, it makes sense that shorter people would appear to have an advantage. 

Does Height Matter In NASCAR?

Height does not typically matter in NASCAR. Recently, there hasn’t been a Cup winner in NASCAR shorter than 5 ft 7 in/174 cm or taller than 6 ft 2 in/189 cm. Most winners have been around 5 ft 9 in/180 cm. Champions close to this height include Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick.

With that said, many taller drivers have performed well in NASCAR. For example, Michael Waltrip stood at 6 ft 5 in/198 cm and had plenty of success on superspeedway tracks. Other notable tall drivers include Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt. 

Are Taller NASCAR Drivers At A Disadvantage?

Taller NASCAR drivers are at a slight disadvantage in a couple of ways. One disadvantage is that driving in a cockpit made for average-sized people is more difficult and uncomfortable for a taller person. They also add more weight to the car than shorter drivers. 

Does Weight Matter In NASCAR?

Weight does matter in NASCAR because weight directly influences the performance of the car. While the cars used in NASCAR are already quite heavy (3,500+ lbs), adding or removing even small amounts of weight can affect the car’s performance negatively or positively. 

There have been a few NASCAR drivers who were less than svelte. The most famous is probably Tony Stewart. Stewart is 5 ft 9 in/180 cm and assembled one of the most impressive records in all of racing history. In NASCAR, he won 3 championships, had 49 wins, 308 top ten finishes, and 15 poles.

Stewart has also won racing titles in Midget, Sprint, USAC Silver Crown, and IndyCar racing. Once during an interview Stewart was asked if he considered NASCAR drivers “athletes,” and his answer was classic: “Dude,” Stewart said, “Look at me. Clearly not.” 

Shortest NASCAR Driver

The shortest NASCAR driver was Danica Patrick at 5 ft 2 in/158 cm. Patrick is considered the most successful female racecar driver in American open wheel racing, with a victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300. She began driving in NASCAR in 2010 and retired in 2018. Patrick was the first woman to win a NASCAR pole position and set the record for the most top ten finishes for a woman in 2015.

The shortest male NASCAR driver ever was Rex White at 5 ft 4 in/165 cm. White is the shortest champion in NASCAR history, winning the 1960 NASCAR Grand National Series Championship. White was given the honor of being named a member of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1988 and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. Other short drivers include Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, and Kasey Kahne.

Tallest NASCAR Driver

The tallest NASCAR driver was Buddy Baker at 6 ft 6 in/201 cm. He was voted as one of the 50 Greatest NASCAR drivers and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020. Baker ran in 700 Cup Series, winning 19 and scoring 311 top-10 finishes. He also won the Daytona 500 in 1980. His record consists of multiple victories on several major tracks, including four at Talladega, four at Charlotte, two at Daytona, and two at Darlington. 

Other notable, taller-than-average drivers include Michael Waltrip at 6 ft 4 in/195 cm and Dale Jarrett, Steven Park, Robert Pressley, Elliot Sadler, and Kyle Petty who are all 6 ft 2 in/189 cm. Drivers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Bush, and Carl Edwards were/are 6 ft 1 in/186 cm. Lastly, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Jimmy Johnson were around 6 ft/183 cm tall.

Final Thoughts

NASCAR drivers are not always short and there have been plenty of successful tall drivers. While being short has some advantages, the performance difference is likely negligible. There is no proof that height has any measurable impact on driver success in NASCAR.