A generation of good ol' boys faces retirement
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The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Since its inception, NASCAR and good ol’ boys have been inextricably linked. Over the course of the next two seasons, though, the good boys driving on the circuit will become significantly less ol’. Come 2006, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott — who between them have won over 150 races and four championships — will be retired. Two-time Daytona 500 champ Sterling Marlin, 1999 series champ Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Jimmy Spencer, Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader won’t be far behind, leaving the sport in the hands of a group of talented racers who will give it a decidedly new face. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might shill for Wrangler, but the days of being able to find more than a couple of drivers who actually wear them are numbered.
A changing of the guard is nothing new in NASCAR, where turnover often occurs in large chunks. Between 1964 and 1966 three former champs — Ned Jarrett, Lee Petty and Rex White — retired and two more, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, were killed. Junior Johnson, arguably NASCAR’s best driver who somehow never won a championship, retired two years later. Two decades later the same thing happened when a trio of ex-champs hung up their helmets in 1988: Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough. Donnie Allison also raced for the last time that year, and three-time champ David Pearson called it quits in ‘86.
But when those greats left the circuit, they were replaced, for the most part, by younger versions of themselves. That’s not been the case with the new generation. Wallace, the 1989 series champ, is pals with Brooks and Dunn; Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champ, is often given CDs of his favorite band, Metallica, by fans. Marlin is a civil war history buff (a fan once asked him to autograph a bullet) whose idea of fun is messing around with friends on tractors on his farm; young driver Brendan Gaughan, on the other hand, was pals with Allen Iverson when the two played basketball at Georgetown.
For all the attention the young guns get, the kids haven’t completely taken over the sport, though. The average age of the starting field at the Daytona 500 was 35.5 in 1984; in ‘94 it was 37. In 2004 it was a hair under 36. The difference lies in how the youngsters have performed. In ‘84, only four drivers under 35 — including Elliott, Rudd and Dale Earnhardt — finished in the top 10 at Daytona. In ‘94 there was only one, Jeff Gordon. Last year, however, eight of the top 10 finishers in the 500 were 32 or younger. And of the 10 drivers in the Chase for the Championship, only one was older than 33. It’s not as if the older guys can’t drive; Wallace — who said Earnhardt’s death in 2000 got him thinking about retiring — is still one of the most dangerous short-track drivers around. Labonte won the 2003 Southern 500, the last one held on Labor Day weekend. And the 48-year-old Jarrett, who has no plans to stop driving any time soon, had six top 5s last year.
“I don’t think there’s anything that a guy that’s 20 or 25 can do in a race car that I can’t,” Jarrett said.
Rather, the emergence of the young guns lies at least partly in the fact that sponsors like their ability to connect with fans — potentially new ones — giving owners of the top teams an incentive to seek out young talent and give the kids a shot.
Just don’t expect the current crop of young drivers to enjoy the longevity of the stars they are replacing. Asked recently what he’d be doing in 20 years, Kenseth, 32, said, “I won’t be doing this anymore, for sure. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great career already, and I hope I can be competitive and race for another 10 years or so.”
The money’s too good nowadays, for starters, giving them an incentive to get out and spend some of it. (The $9.6 million Kurt Busch received for winning the Nextel Cup last year was 30 times what Buck Baker won in his entire 631-race, 28-year career, which ended in 1976. Dave Marcis, an old-timer who drove in wingtip shoes, finished last in the ‘84 Daytona 500 and won $14,300; Martin received a check for $216,997 for finishing dead last in 2004.) And sponsors are investing so much money they’re going to be less likely to tolerate mediocre results from a driver on the downside of his career. So the current ongoing exodus of graying drivers will probably be the last time this many racers who have driven so well for so long will exit the sport at the same time.
Getting them out has not been an easy task. When they were looking to break into the sport, the notion of a 25-year-old hopping into a top seat was unheard of. There was one way to get a good ride: race anywhere, any time and prove they had what it took.
“That’s what I’ve lived my life 30 years to do,” said Martin, who will retire after the 2005 season. “It’s about the races to me. It has always been.”
And it’s not as if the amount of hair on one’s head is directly proportionate to the speed at which one makes it around the track. Martin, 46, came within 38 points of winning the Championship in 2002, and last year he was the only driver over 33 to qualify for the Chase for Championship. His decision to retire was based on his desire to leave at his peak.
“One of the reasons for my stepping out of the Cup series at this time is because I was never really convinced deep down inside that I was all that good,” the ever-modest Martin said. “I think I’ve fooled a lot of people for a long, long time, and I want to step out while I’m at the top of my game. I wanted to go out that way instead of on the decline.”
So what will NASCAR lose with the departure of its old-gun generation?
A link to its past
Kyle Petty hasn’t announced any plans regarding his long-term future, but he’s 44 and hasn’t won a race since 1995. Considering his copious workload at Petty Enterprises, it’s likely he’ll give up driving before too long. And when he does, NASCAR will, for the first time in its nearly 60-year history, not have a Petty driving. His grandfather Lee was at the very first race in 1949 (as was his father, Richard, who was a 12-year-old crew member). Richard and Lee overlapped for six years, and Kyle and Richard raced against each other for 14 years.
Perhaps NASCAR’s biggest moment of the past 20 years was Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the 1998 Daytona 500, which broke his 0-for-18 streak in the race and prompted crew members from every team to line his route to Victory Lane, slapping fives with the Intimidator as he drove by. When the green flag falls on the 2007 Daytona 500, it’s likely that fewer than 10 drivers who were on the track that day in ‘98 will be in the race.
“Nowadays the sport is a lot different,” Wallace said last fall after telling a story about being chased by a group of angry Earnhardt fans after he wrecked the Intimidator back in the day. “Some people care about those stories and some of the young ones don’t care about ‘em.”
Its unpredictability and color
The event that put NASCAR on the map was the 1979 Daytona 500, the first race aired live from flag-to-flag on network television. On the final lap, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison banged fenders so hard racing for the lead that they crashed into the Turn 3 outside wall before sliding down to the infield. Richard Petty blew past them to win the race, but the real show came seconds after he crossed the finish line, when Yarborough got into a brawl with Allison and his brother, Bobby.
For many longtime fans much of the allure of NASCAR was the sense that any week anything might happen. The drivers were unpredictable, less worried about offending their sponsors and the sensibilities of whoever might be watching. Sure, there are still occasional heated moments (and there will be as long as Kevin Harvick is around), but the sport will lose the last of its true characters when Jimmy Spencer stops racing. Aptly nicknamed Mr. Excitement, Spencer has an uncertain future in light of his dismissal from his ride last fall following his arrest for interfering with police officers who were trying to arrest his son. Spencer, 47, was never afraid of anyone on the track or off it; his feud with Kurt Busch culminated with Spencer punching Busch following a race in 2003, which got him suspended for a race. Nor was Spencer ever afraid to speak his mind, a refreshing trait in NASCAR’s milquetoast era. When it was announced that Toyota was going to enter NASCAR, Spencer spoke out against the company, reminding people that Japan “bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget.”
Impolitic? Yes. Amusing? Even moreso.
Its old-school, blue-collar work ethic
So much of being a NASCAR driver nowadays is handling off-track responsibilities. Tony Stewart is known for showing up at any track that will have him, but he’s got nothing on Schrader, who at 50 is NASCAR’s oldest regular driver. By his own estimate, Schrader has driven at nearly 300 tracks in his career. There’s hardly a rinky-dink dirt track in the Midwest where he hasn’t run — and he even owns a 1/3-mile track in his home state of Missouri.
Sure, the desire to race and be near the action infects in every driver, but the strain that affects Schrader and his cohorts is especially virulent. So don’t expect the big names to exit the sport for good. Wallace owns a Busch team that started racing last year and may well add another next season. He intends to be a hands-on owner, and he plans to increase his ownership role with his current Cup outfit, Penske Racing.
“I’ve got a great big, cool office in the new building that (Penske is) going to have in Charlotte, and I plan to spend a lot of time there and do what I can do to help our whole operation,” he said.
He also has a 17-year-old son who is working his way up the ranks in the Hooters Pro Series. Sterling Marlin and Dale Jarrett also have sons driving in NASCAR’s minor league ranks, so they’ll be getting some track time in the proud-parent role. So will Labonte, whose son Justin will drive a full Busch schedule in 2005 for a team co-owned by his dad. “I said when I announced that I was cutting back on my racing that much of the free time it would create for me would be devoted to helping Justin with his driving career,” said Labonte, who will ease into retirement by driving a part-time Cup schedule in 2005.
Martin’s son Matt is also serious about his racing, but he’s not as close to the Nextel Cup series — he’s just 13. But he already has his own website and a deal with Ford Racing, which underscores just how much stock car racing has evolved since his father broke into the sport. Not only are adolescents being touted as the next big thing, but there’s no more Southern 500 on Labor Day, no more Rockingham, no more North Wilkesboro. And in a couple years there won’t be a coterie of veteran drivers who thrived on the track and helped shepherd NASCAR as it grew into the phenomenon it has become. But for now they’re still behind the wheels of their cars, running their final laps, out there to be appreciated one last time.