Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Do Hard Hits Make NASCAR Drivers Consider Retirement?

Shortly after Rusty Wallace announced his impending departure from the NASCAR traveling circus at the beginning of the 2005 season, he had to correct a motorsports media that suggested he was scared to get into a racecar. Wallace clarified that it was not that he was scared to get behind the wheel… racecar drivers can’t be… but that he did recognize the always lurking peril involved in auto racing.

Wallace’s decision to hang it up was partly a result of Dale Earnhardt‘s untimely death. Dale had established himself as one of the all-time greats, accumulated considerable wealth, started his own race team and was witnessing his son beginning the journey to taking over his mantle when he passed away all too soon. In an interview with Darrell Waltrip that year, Rusty regretted that Dale never had a chance to reflect on it all in his rocking chair.

One might have wondered whether similar thoughts of hanging up the gloves were on the minds of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart after their calamitous Vegas experiences. Both took vicious hits, and both were shaken in some way afterward. After so many years and so many wrecks, these two veterans know exactly how to shake it off, they were at Phoenix for testing the very next day, but the idea could well have been considered.

This isn’t meant to ignore that Kurt Busch took a hard hit himself. But Kurt is younger, and just maybe feels a little bit more durable.

Gordon and Stewart are both 36. Both are multiple-time champions and multimillionaires. Both have firmly established themselves in the sport, if you called either one of them the best ever driver to race in NASCAR, other fans may argue with you but they aren’t going to laugh derisively. Both have outside interests when they’re not fighting for positions on asphalt, Tony has his racetrack in Eldora, Gordon his baby girl and line of fine wines.

36 isn’t particularly old, even by today’s standards in corporate NASCAR. Certainly, either driver could be competitive for at least five more years, especially given the quality of the equipment in which they sit. Nonetheless, with Stewart in the pain he was in, he may be wondering if it is worth it. And a wreck as scary as Gordon’s surely made Ingrid more than a little uneasy. It’s reasonable to wonder if Rusty’s thought process is going through their minds. No matter how modern the safety features of the car, there is always going to be risk.

Not to mention the toll that the racing season takes, 38 weeks a year (including the Bud Shootout and All-Star Race, which Gordon and Stewart participate in every season) of high speed in heavy traffic for 400-500 miles in one day. Living out of a tiny trailer for half of their life. Constant traveling. Numerous commercial shoots on the rare days that they aren’t racing, practicing, qualifying or testing.

And a press that scrutinizes every minute detail of their existence. As much as many of us may crave the spotlight, those who bask in it usually realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. No doubt Gordon and Stewart, the superstar NASCAR icons, sometimes yearn for their younger dirt-track days, when drivers just raced and weren’t distracted by their very public divorce or an overblown reaction to a statement on a radio show.

They both handle it well and seem to enjoy it, and everyone knows chicks definitely dig racecar drivers, but that doesn’t mean the grind is always fun. After 10 years, the lesser aspects of being a racecar driver take their toll a little bit. Or maybe a lot in the split second when the car slams into the wall at high speed.

This isn’t meant to be an encouragement one way or the other. No matter when Jeff and Tony retire, and hopefully it won’t be for many more years, their fans will miss them cleaning other drivers’ clocks, and they’ll miss the battles these two had with each other, like the classic moments at Phoenix and Watkins Glen last year. We may be looking forward to Tony’s memoirs, but we’ll wait. (The wait for Tony’s memoirs will be worth it beyond a shadow of a doubt.) It’s hard to imagine a day when a Home Depot No. 20 or a Dupont No. 24 isn’t kicking gluteus maximus on the track every week.

But it’s also hard to imagine that neither of them have thought that maybe it’s time to start considering a graceful exit after the licks they took in Vegas. Heaven knows, after a brutal hit like Gordon’s, which splattered pieces of his racecar in every direction on the compass, most of the civilized world would want at least a confounded, measly day off.

So the Official Columnist of NASCAR is sending out a big salute this week to Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon for getting right back in the saddle of a dangerous racecar, not 24 hours after close to the hardest hits of their career.

Even though neither one of them needs the money. Or to prove anything.

Kurt’s Shorts – Friday, March 7, 2008

  • I read that the camera guy that got in the way in the No. 99 pit in Vegas, causing the tire to roll out onto the track, was from NASCAR Images. I was wondering why FOX kept insisting it wasn’t them, and who it could have been if they had exclusive broadcasting rights. I knew the guy wasn’t from MRN. It’s a shame, because NASCAR Images does excellent work and this could give them a bad rep.
  • I have searched my considerable memory banks, and I can’t remember a race where the No. 48 car was just beastly throughout the race like it was in Vegas. It had to be the first time Jimmie Johnson ever thought, “Who is driving this No. 55 car that keeps passing me?”
  • Matt Kenseth, in an interview, was critical of Gordon at Vegas for laying back on a restart, then approximately 14 words later admitted that he laid back a little bit on a restart. No one here dislikes Kenseth, but he needs to learn to be critical of other drivers, not hypocritical.
  • The Vegas ratings were up 12.7% from last season. NASCAR can be happy about this, especially following the California mess. And I’m not going to rain on the parade by saying the ratings are still less than what they should be. Instead, I will rain on the parade by saying we’re only three races in. We’ll see if the trend continues, maybe it was just Hendrick dominance last season that turned off so many. Heck, it bored me. And I’ve got nothing against Hendrick drivers.
  • I’d like to see NASCAR give a demonstration of the new car to Allstate or whoever insures racecar drivers, showing films of brutal crashes like the ones in Vegas and drivers walking away from them. Everyone would be impressed and missing the elephant in the room, when someone meekly raises his hand and asks “Is this car wrecking because it’s difficult to drive?”

And that’s it for Happy Hour this week. Enjoy the race in Atlanta.

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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