Contracts come and go, careers begin and end, but the competitive spirit that comes with the athlete never dies. For as long as sports have been played, and competition has been waged, those competing have struggled with the concept of playing their last game.
Being primarily a NASCAR fan, along with the fact that NASCAR stars in the twilight of their careers seemingly wrote the book on returning after retirement, this article will reference primarily NASCAR athletes. However, the concepts discussed and items explored can almost always cross the boundaries of NASCAR and be applied to stick and ball sports as well.
The options for retirement I will discuss are: retiring at the top of your game, waiting until you are forced out due to lack of performance, death, or one last quest for that elusive championship.
a.k.a. “Gentleman Ned Jarrett”, a.k.a. Dale Jarrett’s father
Ned came along during the early years of NASCAR, therefore there were substantially more races being run, and substantially more races being won by those folks named Petty.
Regardless, Ned started his first Sportsman race in 1952, against the wishes of his parents. Despite his parents concerns, Ned continued his involvement with racing as an owner/pit crew member. Within a few years Ned found himself back behind the wheel, achieving success almost immediately.
Ned wound up with 50 race wins and two championships at NASCAR’s top level. In an unprecedented move which will most likely never be matched, Ned Jarrett pulled the plug on his racing career while celebrating his second championship.
Impacted heavily by Ford’s decision to pull out of NASCAR, and his family, Ned became the only driver ever to retire as the Cup champion. This assured Ned’s presence in the record books, always leaving analysts to wonder, what might have been.
a.k.a. Boogity Boogity Boogity guy, a.k.a. that annoying television announcer, a.k.a. Michael Waltrip’s brother
Darrell came along a few years before the brash young Dale Earnhardt, Sr. He can perhaps be best remembered for his on-track antics against Earnhardt, despite their eventual friendship and Darrell’s time in the No. 1 car while subbing for the injured Steve Park.
Between 1975 and 1992 Darrell Waltrip amassed 84 wins and three championships, the last championship coming in 1985. His 84 wins lands him atop the modern era race winners list.
After 1992 Waltrip held on until 2000, when sponsorship woes and lack of results finally forced him to call it quits. Fortunately—or unfortunately—Darrell landed in the booth with Fox for the introduction of the new TV arrangements in 2001.
More to the point of this article, Darrell can be viewed as a pioneer of the group that can’t figure out when to quit. Darrell had signs pointing to the end of his career as early as 1995, when he slipped out of the top 10 in standings, finishing 19th. The years that followed brought points finishes of 29th, 37th, and finally a 36th occurring in 2000.
Finally Darrell hung up his helmet, and handed over his steering wheel to the next generation. By staying a few years too long in the seat and jumping straight into the TV booth, Darrell has made it increasingly difficult to find anyone who actually knows he once drove a car, unless they heard him say it on TV.
More recent takers of Darrell’s path include other past champions like Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett. They are all guilty of the same mistake—staying too long, not knowing when to quit—yet they all seem successful in the TV booth.
Others in this category without the TV time include Terry Labonte (who is currently back in the 45 car), Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, and a few others. You know all these guys are still racing their shopping carts through the grocery store, only to get beat by the little old lady in the Hoveround!
While many drivers have announced semi-retirement or full retirement only to return to full-time competition, Mark Martin has decided to try to make a career out of it.
Oddly enough he appears to be the only one that can find success with the limited schedules and lack of seat time. Mark has managed 35 race wins since his career started in Cup in 1981. This total lands him 10th on the modern era race winners list, yet he has never managed to win a single championship.
Mark first announced his retirement in 2005 along with the aforementioned Rusty Wallace. They would each end their careers after 2006.
That announcement forced the entire racing community to prepare to say goodbye to Mark. Then in 2006, Mark's services were purchased by one time superstar car owner Bobby Ginn, and Mark announced he would run part time for Ginn Racing in 2007.
2007 led to a similar schedule for his final year in 2008. The racing again prepared for the absence of Mark Martin.
Fast forward to July 2008. Mark Martin announces he will return to full-time competition in 2009, and then back to part-time in 2010. As strange as it is, Mark has managed to continue to post consistent results race after race, year after year. Next year he will again pursue that elusive first championship.
His results might set the standard for all future NASCAR retirees, and dictate just how long their last ride becomes. Five to 10 year retirement tours might become the standard for all drivers.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
Perhaps the least attractive method for retirement is death, but it above all others suits that certain group of drivers that we as fans can’t imagine going out any other way. This list is a short one, including only one name: Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
Dale started his Cup racing career in 1975, and achieved 76 wins and seven championships before his death in the 2001 Daytona 500. He managed to live the rags to riches story everyone in rags dreams of.
With limited support and a lot of hard life lessons, Dale had built his empire, and seemed destined to step out of the famed No. 3 car for a Richard Petty-like retirement, to manage race teams and guide Jr. to success. This, however, never quite fit with the kind of driver Earnhardt had been since coming to NASCAR.
Looking back now it seems all too clear that Dale could never really have retired from racing.
His departure while in a racecar in the biggest race of them all, while running third behind two cars he owned, running directly behind a son who shared his name…was the only way he could go. As a result, Dale will live on in the hearts of his fans forever.
In the words of Forrest Gump, “…that’s all I care to say about that.”
Looking at sports as a whole, we can see the trend set by NASCAR drivers bleeding over into other areas. Most notable is Brett Favre who, at the conclusion of last season, chose to retire from the NFL.
While many NFL stars retire and choose to own racecars, Favre obviously noticed the route taken by Mark Martin, who drove the No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing for so many years, only to make an exit by means of a retirement announcement.
This, however, hasn’t worked quite as well for Favre as it did for Martin. In my opinion, the difference is most clear in Favre’s inability to share the spotlight (while Martin accepted part-time rides).
Each occurrence of fighting off retirement, be it in NASCAR or any other sport, can be traced back to each person’s competitive spirit. What insures these will not be the last athletes to avoid retirement is the lighter conditions in which they compete.
Pre-Modern era NASCAR drivers didn’t have in-car Gatorade systems, or cooling systems, or carbon monoxide filters. When they drove for 500 miles in the heat breathing exhaust fumes with only a sip of refreshment during sporadic pit stops, there was no way they could jump out of the car doing back flips or climbing fences at the race's conclusion.
After competing for 10-15 years their bodies were worn out and in need of a long break.
In other sports, such as football, look back at pictures of the players wearing thin leather helmets and no pads. At the end of each game they left battered and bruised. Just like their racing counterparts, after 10 years they were ready to rest.
In addition to body conditions, compensation was far less than it is for them today, forcing some to retire to make more money off the field or track.
And today’s athletes are much better protected and preserved than the pioneers of the sport. Race cars are constantly being tweaked and changed to improve protection for the drivers. Richard Petty wouldn’t even be able to get his signature wet towel into his mouth through the now mandated closed face helmets.
Similar improvements have been made in the NFL. New technology through pads and helmets and suits now allows players to play much longer than players of past generations.
As conditions for each sport continue to improve, we can expect to see many more players extending their careers and returning from retirements. Careers for players will eventually stretch to 20-25 years or more.
Will the trends of players playing longer lead to a better or poorer game? Will it reverse itself and make way for the younger players to take over more easily? Time will tell!
Today I am the Orange M&M, and I don’t really know why. I am looking forward to a big race week and weekend with the Brickyard 400 this Sunday, along with what are sure to be great races at O-Reilly Raceway Park.
As always I will close with, GO Kyle! Y'all kick back this weekend and enjoy a NOS and some M&M’s…if you get really bored, pull out the Interstate Batteries and try some shock therapy—it will surely extend your career a few years.