It’s always a strange feeling when you meet people you’ve seen on television or heard on the radio. You develop a picture of them in your mind and then you meet them and they’re not at all like you expected. Sometimes you expect them to be jerks and they surprise you and are absolutely lovely people. When I met Jeff Gordon the first time, the surprise was that he’s not much taller than I am.
Height Matters – Science Says So
Appearance plays a huge role in shaping our lives. Obviously, some professions require certain physical characteristics. A 5’6″, 150-lb man is not going to become a NFL linebacker. Neither is a 6′ 2″, 200-lb woman. (Not today, at least.) But even when physical requirements are those necessary to do a job (lift a hundred pounds, for example), things you have no control over make a different.
The website Vulture is height obsessed. They publish really nice infographics comparing actors’ heights all the time. One of my favorites from the Fast and Furious franchise, where they show that the actresses and actors vary from 5’3″ to 6’5″.
My clip (at right) is just a tiny snippet of the whole picture. To do it justice, you really have to go check it out yourself. They note that you see a lot of scenes where the lead actors look each other in the eye, even though there may be half a foot of height difference.
They used to do the same thing in old movies – A shorter male lead would stand on a box so that he was taller than the woman he was about to kiss. In fact, some actresses have said they’ve been turned down for parts because their height made the male lead look short.
A lot of my favorite actors are character actors. I wonder if Gary Oldman was 6′ 2″ instead of 5′ 8-1/2″ he would’ve had more opportunities to play romantic leads.
But it’s not just actors where height makes a difference.
Even in professions where physical traits should make absolutely no difference (like marketing), tall people have the advantage. Taller people are perceived as being more persuasive, more attractive as mates, and better leaders. Take a look at the heights of our presidents. The gold stars are average heights.
Most of our Presidents are at least average height, if not much taller than average. In fact, in the last 13 U.S. President elections, the taller candidate won 10 times. (The most recent exception was Bush v. Gore. Gore was taller and I’m not going there, thank you.) And Obama is only a half-inch shorter than Romney.
But you don’t have to be the leader of the free world to find that being taller is better. We’ve known for decades that there is a financial “height premium”: The taller you are, the more you make. A 2004 study by Judge and Cable found every inch of height gets you a salary increase of about $789 per year. (And yes, they controlled for sex, age and weight in their study.)
According to a 2001 study by Persico, Postlewaite and Silverman, it’s not even your final height that’s important: it’s the height a person has as a teenager. They believe that teenage height impacts the choices you make and the opportunities you have. Taller people tend to have greater self-confidence and are more outgoing.
What About NASCAR?
There’s a perception among people that race car drivers (like jockeys) are short and light – and that being small gives you an advantage. Being small is certainly an advantage for horse racing, but what about auto racing?
Let’s go to the data…
I looked at 2015 full-time drivers, with heights and weights from NASCAR.com, Yahoo!Sports or ESPN websites. (I’m a little dubious about a couple of the weights that are cited for various drivers, but it turns out not to matter in the end.)
Let’s start with heights. You, of course, remember that a histogram tells you the distribution of data in a set. In this case, we’re looking at how many drivers are at that height. The histogram shows there’s one person who is 62″ tall (Danica Patrick) and 3 drivers who are 73″ tall.
*The Danica Exception I’m not including Danica Patrick in any of these averages. Why? Because she’s female and she’s the only female. You can’t do statistics with N=1. Since U.S. women are on average about 5″ shorter than U.S. men, including her would wrongly skew our numbers.
That said, the average height of a male 2015 NASCAR driver is 69.8“, which is two-tenths of an inch (0.2″) shorter than 5′ 10”. The most recent average height for U.S. White, non-Hispanic men (via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is 69.8“.
So bad news, guys: you’re average. Perfectly average.
Let’s turn to weight. Most drivers are between 150 lbs and 180 lbs. I put Danica on there, but again, have excluded her from the calculations. She shifts the average by about 2 pounds because she’s so much smaller than the other drivers. The average weight of a 2015 male NASCAR driver is about 161 pounds. Compare this to the average weight of a US male – which is 194.7 lbs. These guys are in shape.
The average BMI (Body Mass Index, which is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in centimeters squared) for men in this country is 29. That’s one tick below obese, mind you. I plotted weight vs. height for NASCAR drivers and included the US Average BMI as the red line. Everyone is below the line. (My husband asks “Even Tony Stewart?” Tony’s official weight is given at 180 lbs (he is 5’9″), so given those numbers, yes – even Tony Stewart.)
Yeah, But is Smaller Better?
The question, of course, is whether being smaller makes you a better driver, so I plotted 2015 Season Rank vs. Height.
It’s questionable whether there’s a trend here. You might squint and say that the data go up and to the right, which would imply that taller is better. It is true that the top three drivers are in order of decreasing height. But look at all the drivers who are 69″ – they ranged from 15th place to 32nd place. Seventy-inch-high drivers ranged from 2nd to 14th place. We can debate about whether there’s a trend that says taller is better, but there is definitely NOT a trend that says shorter is better!
We can make the same plot with weight vs. season ranking.
I challenge you to convince anyone there’s a trend there…
I tried a number of other parameters to see if there was any correlation between height, weight and winning. There is no data I could find (and, as usual, thanks to racing-reference.info for their outstanding trove of data) that supports the idea that smaller is better.
But that’s Just this Year…
True. But you can make the same plots for any year in which you can get the data. None of them support the idea that smaller is better when it comes to racing. For example, let’s compare 2000 with 2015. Here’s the average driver height histogram.
There were more taller drivers in 2000. Michael Waltrip is 6’4 and Dale Jarrett, Stever Park, Robert Pressley, Elliott Sadler and Kyle Petty are all 6’2″. There’s currently no full-time driver over 6’1″ in the Sprint Cup. So the average is a little higher: 70.7″.
I also looked at champions throughout the ‘modern era’ and the average there is 71.0″. No one shorter than 5’7″ (Cale Yarborough) or taller than 6’2″ (Richard Petty, Dale Jarrett) has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (Asterisk – I could not for the life of me find a height for Alan Kulwicki. If someone has a reliable source for that, I’d love to complete the data set.)
So Where Did the Idea Come From that Drivers are Small?
I thought maybe NASCAR was anomalous. After all, the cockpits tend to be larger than the open-wheel cars. I happened to find this lovely infographic summarizing the F1 drivers height. If I had about 10 days free, I could do this with the NASCAR drivers. I’m not sure if this is an official F1 graphic, as even the image-tracking sites I use didn’t find this graphic besides the reddit board I found it on. But it is lovely and informative, so kudos to the originator. You can find a larger version here.
I used that data to plot 2015 NASCAR vs. 2015 F1 heights. The average male NASCAR driver is 69.8″ compared to the average F1 driver, who is 69.3″. So NASCAR drivers are taller (this year, at least) by a whopping five tenths of an inch, which is a little more than one centimeter. And that’s probably not quite accurate because the F1 drivers all include 1/2-inch measurements and most of the NASCAR data are to the nearest inch. I call it a draw.
So we really can’t blame the ‘race-car drivers are small’ perception on F1, either.
There’s absolutely no evidence that racecar drivers are any smaller than the average person. Of course, you could compare drivers to other types of ‘athletes’. Stand up even Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman against a 6’5″ linebacker and there’s no competition.
But really, how fast can a linebacker go?
If you want to compare something, calculate the mph per inch or mph per pound. I guarantee you the racecar drivers will always win.