For so many millions of us, favorite athletes become so much more. Role models for our kids, our communities, ourselves; they’re put on a pedestal of success we can only wish to achieve. Through them, we choose to live our wildest dreams, placed in a fantasy world in which a larger-than-life persona can show us the joys of perfection.
Every once in a while, we get lucky in love, and the dream never dies. Our idols leave the sport we love at the top of their game, and we’re allowed to remember the end just the way we want it – like a fairy tale. But more often, the bubble bursts and we find out the truth – that these drivers we worship are human, too, unable to fend off the inevitability of age and time.
And that makes it so much harder when you see their careers come crashing down.
Or maybe you don’t. For most of the race on Sunday, four of NASCAR’s more respected veterans were but a blip on the radar screen in the Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards Show 2008 – playing far too long at every local movie theater near you. But if you looked hard enough, maybe you saw Kyle Petty fighting valiantly in what may have been his last race ever on the Sprint Cup tour. Taken out in an accident on lap 275, Petty was competitive but concealed, hidden amongst the Chase hoopla that’s defined the last two months. Ditto for Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and Bill Elliott, all of whom could have also hummed their swan song depending on how qualifying goes at Homestead next weekend. But none of them finished in the top 20, earning them about as much chance at the spotlight as Edwards has in stealing Johnson’s title bid away.
And that’s a crying shame. Together, they have four Daytona 500s, a Sprint Cup championship, 66 wins and 94 poles to their credit. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the foursome came of age as NASCAR burst on the national scene, winning fans over as often as they were visiting Victory Lane. There was Elliott, the sport’s Most Popular Driver who moonlighted by winning the first ever Winston Million in 1985, becoming the first NASCAR wheelman to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There was Kyle, the son of the King, winding his way through a series of ups and downs before hitting it big with a man named Felix and a car painted Mello Yello. There was Marlin’s unmistakable Southern twang, his accent accentuated by his rise to prominence in Morgan-McClure’s Kodak Chevrolet. And then you had Schrader, the lovable “loser” who always had the speed in Hendrick equipment – just could never seem to turn the poles into wins often enough.
Of course, the fact these men are still competing in their late 40s and early 50s is a victory in itself, considering the age of 18-year-olds in Cup rides and sponsors finding drivers too old to take a risk on at, oh, about 29. But they’ve made it this far, extending their careers every which way possible, hoping against hope with their fanbase that Father Time won’t turn back the hands of fate.
Instead, hope has been replaced with the cruel hand of reality. None of these men have won a race since 2003, and most have toiled under the problems of poor equipment, limited chemistry, and next to no hope of success. Instead of Petty’s triumphant return to Victory Lane, honoring the life of son Adam Petty after his 2000 death in the sport his family carried on its back – he’s put out to pasture, his team sold to investors who know there’s no emotion in their company’s bottom line. Rather than see Schrader get that first Cup win in 17 years, we see him hop from D-List ride to D-List ride, out there simply to do little more than collect a check. And perhaps most ironic of all is Elliott’s fate, a legend’s final days intertwined with perhaps the final moments of NASCAR’s most legendary team – the Wood Brothers.
But as these stars cross into the sunset, millions of fans who follow them also reach a crossroads. With the pain of their man’s undistinguished exit fresh in their minds – and the ugly reality of the current sport in front of them — can they make the transition to find a path to a new favorite driver? Or, will some of racing’s biggest fans find these moments the right time to pack up and ship out? Remember, these people have put in just as much time into NASCAR as the athletes they covet – one decades, two decades, some even three of unparalleled support and their cold, hard cash. But as NASCAR shifts to an era of 20-something sponsor’s dreams, will those advertising billboards connect with a different generation?
And it’s there that you stop and wonder in this time of uneasy transition. As Petty and Schrader and Marlin fall away, what unique personalities have emerged to replace them? Who has the charm of Marlin’s twang that will remind fans Tennessee is still on NASCAR’s radar screen? Who among these pampered stars has Elliott’s unparalleled work ethic to earn the respect of the blue collar base that built this sport? And without a connection to the King, Richard Petty, on the racetrack, will the King’s connection to our hearts – and the lessons we learn by both he and Kyle’s presence — be lost for good?
These questions aren’t easy to come to terms with. But as the Johnson-Edwards antidrama played out on Sunday, I found myself wondering them out loud more than ever. Both of those drivers are nice, honorable men with their own quirks that make them a marketer’s dream. But have they brought the old base of NASCAR to its feet? In Johnson’s case, we’ve talked at length many times about how the connection just doesn’t seem to be there. And with no new stars to break through in the last two seasons – Juan Pablo Montoya notwithstanding – who are the men that will fill the voids they and “bad boy” Kyle Busch aren’t reaching?
Very soon, we’re going to need some answers; and as Jeff Gordon looked older than ever on Sunday, it may not be long before we need even more. But for now, in this time of uncertainty let’s take a moment to appreciate the sunset, appreciating the past before we worry about our future. It’s a time to remember the joy that Petty, Schrader, Marlin, Elliott, and even the recently retired Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte brought to our lives. In their own special way, they became the heart that beat faster as the sport grew beyond their wildest dreams.
But as they prepare to leave stock cars behind, keep in mind they’re taking a piece of its soul away with them – one that will sorely need to be replaced.