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Third Place

Thomas Pope, Racing Milestones

Calling It Quits

Out with the old, in with the new.

That’s the unalterable script facing NASCAR Nextel Cup racing in the coming seasons, as nearly one-fifth of the sport’s stars race into the sunset of their careers.

Nine drivers are between the ages of 45 and 48. They have amassed nearly 225 victories, five championships (two for Terry Labonte and one each for Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace) and almost $300 million in on-track earnings. Six them have enjoyed careers stellar enough to earn inclusion on NASCAR’s list of “50 Greatest Drivers“ in 1998.

Those staggering statistics don’t even include the 76 wins and seven titles earned by Dale Earnhardt, who died at 49 on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

It’s tough for a racer to call it quits. The thrill of speed, financial rewards, ego and adoring fans are the foundation of what is known as “exclusive athletic identity,” says Todd Kays, a psychologist and founder of the Athletic Mind Institute in Westerville, Ohio.

“A lot of their identity as a person is wrapped up in what they do, whether it’s racing, football, baseball or whatever,” Kays says. “What you’re asking them to do is give up something that’s been a huge part of their identity – who they are to themselves and others – all of their life. In some cases, especially when an athlete has been forced to retire unexpectedly because of an injury or accident, it’s very difficult for them to let go.”

Richard Petty, the winningest driver in NASCAR history with 200 Cup victories, started competing in 1958 and didn’t hang up his firesuit until age 55. Every driver makes his own choice and there’s a tendency to stick around past the point of being competitive, Petty says. Petty raced the final eight and a half years of his career without a win.

“I did my thing my way, OK?“ Petty says. “I knew the last five or six years that I wasn’t capable of winning races, but I just loved to drive so much I didn’t want to give it up.”

The face of NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series has changed since the day Petty made his final start in November 1992 – the same day that then-21-year-old Jeff Gordon made his Cup debut.

This year, two of Gordon’s teammates are getting an even earlier start. Brian Vickers, age 20 and last year’s champion in the Busch Series, is now the driver of the #25 GMAC Chevrolet. Nineteen-year-old Kyle Busch will compete in selected Cup races this year in addition to pursuing the entire Busch Series slate.

The relentless trend toward promoting young talent into NASCAR’s premier division conveniently dovetails with a looming exodus of veterans – Generation X taking over for Generation Next – to Go.

Bill Elliott, 48, began drawing the curtains on his career this season. Elliott races only when sponsorship is available and meanwhile tackles the testing of research-and-development projects for Evernham Motorsports.

Elliott passed the reins of the #9 Dodge to Kasey Kahne, who at 24 appears too young to sign up for driver’s education, much less capable of handling a 200-mph bullet. Elliott says he’s had his fill of the sports ups and downs and its pressure, adding that he long ago reached the point of dreading the onset of each new season. Elliott plans to race a little more, both in Cup and across the South with his dirt Late Model, and “bring more family time into my life” in the coming years.

“With this situation, I have the opportunity to be a part of it, still run some, but yet not have that grind of that full season on you. And if things don’t go good, I can just say, ’Hey, man, that’s it,’ and walk away.”

The key to a successful lifestyle change is psychological preparation, Kays says. Race drivers are sons and daughters, parents, businessmen, and civic volunteers, but are seldom viewed in those roles because motorsports has dominated their lives.

Many drivers, he adds, repress retirement thoughts out of fear that broaching the topic will diminish their competitive nature.

“With any professional athlete, their ego is a big factor in what’s made them successful. It’s what made them persistent, made them a champion, made them really go after what they want, and driven them to accomplish their goals,” Kays says.

“They don’t want to think about retirement because in their minds, if they do, they’re afraid it will mean, ’I don’t want this as much as someone else does,’ or ’I’m not driven enough because I’m thinking of another option.’ Ego works for them: ’I am so driven, I know I can do this.’ They drive, drive, drive and do it, and that’s what makes them successful. But there comes a point when it can be harmful to them in the sense that they should listen to their minds and bodies.”

In the old days drivers raced to feed their families and their egos. A good season might leave a driver with enough money for a down payment on a modest brick home. Petty drove in 1,185 races in four decades. Champions such as Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison all raced between 20 and 30 years before injury or age put them behind the wall.

Today’s drivers are wealthy from the get-go, and within a few highly successful years their collection of high-dollar expenditures includes jets, yachts and $10 million-plus mansions. There’s good compensation for doing a life-threatening job, says 47-year-old Ricky Rudd, but money has nothing to do with his retirement plans, which he began planning nearly a decade ago.

Rudd started his own team with the intention of running the operation when his driving days came to an end. But in 1999, two years after winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rudd sold his operation to a competitor.

“I probably could have retired in the early ’90s. I haven’t done anything foolish with my money. I’ve invested it wisely,” he says. “Even when I closed the team down, I had set some deadlines of what my exit strategy would be in case I couldn’t get a sponsor; a plan that would let me keep what I had worked for.”

Elliott also once owned his own team, but he concentrated on driving in his final seasons, and finished in fine style, winning at North Carolina Speedway in November 2003 and coming within a lap of capturing the season finale at Homestead. He made sure he went out with a good taste in his mouth.

“You get kind of sucked into deals. ’Oh, I can go another year, I can go another three years,’ Elliott says. “But if you get started into it and
things ain’t going right, it is miserable and I can’t stress that enough. I don’t know if you’ve been in bad relationships before or whatever, but that’s what it’s like. You’re trying to relate to the team what the car’s doing and you see that tension within the team, you can’t make anything happen.”

For drivers such as Sterling Marlin, the best part of a career has been its latter years. Marlin competed in 278 races in sub-par to mediocre equipment before finally winning for the first time – the 1994 Daytona 500.

Marlin, 47, is signed with Chip Ganassi Racing through 2005 and doesn’t plan on retiring to his farm in Tennessee anytime soon. In 2002, Marlin led the Cup standings for 25 consecutive races before being sidelined by a neck injury, and he believes there’s still plenty of fire in his furnace.

“In some ways I’m a better driver now than I was when I was 20,” Marlin says. “A lot of driving is about experience, and the way you get experience is to be out there for a lot of years.”

Dale Jarrett, also 47, acknowledges that he is getting closer to the end with every lap. All he asks for is the equipment necessary to be a contender, and when the 1999 champion feels he’s to blame for his car’s lack of performance, he’s finished.

“I have to be competitive, and obviously you would say, well, I’d have quit after last year as bad as it was,” he says of a one-win 2003. “But I’m not going to give up quite that easily.

“It’s a difficult business, even at its best. Traveling around the country is difficult with the commitments we have and everything, so it has to be fun on the race track for me. I still love to drive a car. I still love to compete. When that goes away, I’ll say, ’I don’t want to do this anymore,’ or whenever I feel like I’m the reason we’re not winning. I don’t feel that way right now, so those will be the deciding factors for me.”

The influx of hungry young drivers in top-flight equipment makes it more difficult for the older crowd to dominate the way it used to less than a decade ago. An older, more experienced driver may be just as aggressive, but may not show his cards until the last minute. That’s a risky ploy with the career clock ticking toward zero.

“I said it back in 1998, ’99, every time I won, it could be the last one,” says Mark Martin, age 45 and a four-time Cup runner-up. “But you know what? Every time Jeff Gordon wins, it could be the last one. It’s just more likely that there are more to come for him.

“As you get over 40, the odds get even greater that there are not 15 to 20 wins left out there waiting for you, and I’m sure there aren’t 30 out there waiting for me.”

While Martin has yet to capture a Cup championship as a driver, Terry Labonte, 47, has a pair. A man of few words at best, he refuses to be pinned down on when he’s planning to retire.

“Oh, I don’t know. I could very easily be one of those guys that waits to announce it at the company Christmas party – I could very easily do that,” he says with a sly smile. “And I could very easily do it the other way. It just depends on what kind of mood you’re in.”

Rusty Wallace’s plan is to run until at least age 49, when his contract with Miller Brewing runs out at the end of the 2005 season. At that point, “if I’m still rocking and rolling, we’ll keep on going,” he says.

He’s laid the groundwork for the future, launching a Busch Series team with driver Billy Parker. Parker is there to keep the seat warm until Wallace’s son Stephen reaches the NASCAR minimum of 18 in a couple of years. Wallace hopes his son will eventually succeed him as a Cup driver for Penske Racing South.

“I’m definitely not walking away cold turkey, I’ll tell you that. I appreciate what Bill Elliott’s doing – that was his prerogative, it was fine for what he wanted to do,” Wallace says. “But the day I retire – and I don’t know when that’s going to be – I plan to do more of a deal like Richard Petty did where I have kind of a tour and thank the fans at every race for supporting me. But that’s down the road.”

Elliott’s exit route is ideal but for those that make a clean break, reversing gears would be almost impossible.

“You’d have to really have your mind made up. You wouldn’t want to retire and then say, ‘Golly, that’s really stupid. What do I do now? Why did I do that?’” Terry Labonte says. “It would be kind of hard to announce it to everybody and then take it back.”

Making the break is easier said than done, Elliott says, but leaving behind a career is a natural chapter of life itself.

“We don’t live forever. We don’t drive a race car forever. It just doesn’t happen,” he says. “It’s part of where everybody eventually is going to be.”