Kasey Kahne’s decision to retire Thursday (Aug. 16) from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing took me by complete surprise. It is perhaps overstating the moment to say it sent shockwaves through the sport. But at very least, it sent large ripples across a pool of eligible drivers trying to make or remain within NASCAR’s elusive top tier.
Over the last several years, we’ve seen a number of high-profile drivers retire. Cup champions like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have bowed out as well as perennial contenders or multiple race winners like Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. (Kenseth decided to return to the circus that is NASCAR racing today after announcing his retirement last year. It’s a decision I have no doubt he’s second guessed many times since returning to Roush Fenway Racing in May. To date, Kenseth hasn’t led a single lap during the second chapter of his career. His best result was a lowly 13th-place finish at Pocono driving the No. 6 Ford.)
Stewart, faced with legal and personal issues away from the track, announced his impending retirement, then promptly went out and won at Sonoma. Gordon had also made his announcement he was leaving the circus when he went out and won Martinsville in one of the most emotional victories in recent NASCAR history.
Yes, there is some satisfaction that due to improved safety measures in NASCAR racing over the last decade, at least drivers are able to leave the sport on their own terms and their own feet. Such an option was never a choice for seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. Aircraft accidents took Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki from us while both drivers were in their prime. Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty, the heir apparent to the King’s throne, were taken from us in wrecks at New Hampshire.
I’ve been following this sport long enough I recall the shockwaves Cale Yarborough caused after the 1980 season. Though he finished second in the points and won six races that year, Yarborough announced he wished to spend more time with his family and less on the road so he wouldn’t return to Cup racing full time in 1981.
Perhaps the most celebrated retirement tour in NASCAR history was Richard Petty’s 1992 effort. While likely financially lucrative the tour was less than a success competition-wise. Petty wound up 26th in that year’s standings with an average finish of 23rd; he failed to earn a single top-10 result. Truth be told, the writing had been on the wall with Petty for awhile when he finally decided he’d been too long at the fair. The last two of his 200 career Cup wins occurred in 1984. In each of his last five Cup Series seasons, Petty finished outside the top 20 in points.
But hearing they had one last chance to see the King in his No. 43 mount get after it on Sunday afternoon put a ton of butts in the seats. When you call a guy The King, he gets to decide his terms for walking away.
Petty’s longtime competitor and friend, Bobby Allison, had his career ended unexpectedly in a savage wreck at Pocono. The 1988 incident resulted in a severe head injury that almost took his life and, in fact, radically altered it forever. The recovery, as Allison often admitted while he healed, was a living hell.
From the outside looking in, most people would think that being a Cup level NASCAR driver is a pretty sweet gig. We’re talking incomes expressed in “millions” not “dollars per hour.” Most drivers who reach the top of this sport own expansive, luxurious homes. They have their choice of expensive sports cars, SUVs and the near obligatory Prevost motorcoach to hide out in on race weekends. They are suddenly surrounded by a new group of people wishing to be their friends and the only issue there is sorting out which people are real friends and which are just hangers-on.
It’s the same deal with a certain class of highly attractive women. They wouldn’t have given a driver a second glance before their rise to fame. But now, they’re suddenly attracted to a young man who just signed a lucrative NASCAR contract like a moth to a flame. (Only in this instance, it’s tough to say which is the moth and which is the flame.) Still, the financial security that comes with landing a full-time ride means there’s no more deciding which bills get paid at the end of the month and which can hopefully be deferred another 30 days.
I hate to keep referring back to the days of yore, but it took Richard Petty a decade and several championships to become the first stock car driver to win a million dollars in career earnings. Nowadays, even drivers who run midpack and seldom compete for wins can earn seven figures in a single season. From 1995 to 2015 (the last year NASCAR’s race earnings are available) every Daytona 500 winner collected a check for over a million dollars. (To be fair, that money had to be split with his team owner and crew, but it’s still nice work if you can find it.)
Anytime a seat opens up in one of NASCAR’s top three touring divisions, there’s still a plethora of drivers gunning for them. On any Friday or Saturday night, there’s still young drivers battling it out at the local short tracks for relative peanuts in purse money with dreams of making it to the Big Top. I don’t see that dynamic changing within my lifetime, though local short tracks are closing at an alarming rate with declining interest in auto racing in general. Suburban encroachment is also leading to noise complaints from neighbors who knew damn well there was a racetrack out on the edge of town that had been there a few decades before they moved into the area.
The cost of fielding a lower-tier race car like what we used to call “hobby stocks” has gotten so out of hand that fewer drivers and teams can compete, which thins the ranks of those potentially able to move up to the next rung on the ladder. Nowadays, it seems most drivers who do make it to NASCAR’s top three touring series got there because they had parents who were willing to make huge sacrifices and had the financial means to back their children’s dreams. Call it the Jeff Gordon Scenario.
From dealing with several members of a generation younger than mine, it seems for many young people, they no longer see their life as a linear progression. It used to be you’d graduate school, find a decent job and try working your way up the ladder as high as you could climb until that company threw you a retirement party and gave you a gold watch.
But nowadays, a lot of the young people I deal with see their lives as a series of stages. Graduate school, get that job, see if it’s a good fit, then perhaps go back to school and try something new to see if it’s more satisfying. I have only one good friend who has worked for the same company since he got his high school diploma. While he’s doing well, more than once I’ve heard him talk wistfully about how different his life would be if somewhere along the line he’d decided to venture down the path less taken. Reinventing himself was just never an option with three children to raise and a large mortgage payment due every month.
Quality of life seems more important to some then net worth. For Kahne, it would seem life lived in the fishbowl of public scrutiny is no longer worth the rewards. While Kahne is only 38 years old, he’s been competing full time beginning with what’s now the sport’s XFINITY Series division since he was 23 and in the Cup Series since he was 24. By comparison, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was 28 when he got his first full-time Cup ride. Harry Gant was 39 when he first began running in NASCAR’s top division.
While the pay scale for Cup drivers has risen dramatically since Handsome Harry became the Skoal Bandit, so too have the obligations that come with running in the Cup Series. It’s not a matter of showing up on Friday to qualify and running your heart out on Sunday gunning for that elusive brass ring. There’s sponsor appearances, testing, simulator work, fan club obligations, team meetings and doubtless some long sitdowns with financial advisors entrusted with assuring that driver can maintain the style of life he’s become accustomed to. And, of course, there’s that ever present pesty media demanding just a few minutes of that driver’s time.
Earlier in his career, Kahne got nailed for making a decidedly politically incorrect comment about a mother he saw breastfeeding her child in a grocery store. While his job title was “race car driver,” somehow Kahne had been tasked with the title of “arbiter of taste.” Even that ill-considered comment could easily have derailed Kahne’s career and in today’s hypersensitive social media environment likely would have. People’s tastes are fickle. Try to maintain your privacy and you could be labeled a recluse and primadonna. Venture out into public and you could be seen as a has-been and showoff.
More than once, Tony Stewart hinted if his only job was to race Cup cars, not all the other expectations that come with it he’d likely keep racing in NASCAR as long as he was able to climb behind the wheel. But that scenario is no longer possible. To his credit, Stewart made good on his promise and walked away in the prime of his career. Apparently, this team owner role is working out all right for him, especially this year.
The decision to walk away from a lucrative career driving race cars while one still has at least a few potentially good years is a personal one. I won’t second guess anyone’s decision to do so.
I will note the old “last run” bromide among skiers. Back when I skied regularly, I always heard once you’ve decided you’ve had enough for the day, don’t fall into the trap of deciding to take “just one last run” because invariably that “last run” will be the one you take a nasty tumble on and break a leg. (Or in my case, jam a ski pole tip basket deep into your left buttock.) There’s some truth to the superstition mainly because once you do go ahead and break a leg or wrist, it’s highly unlikely you’ll decide to take “just one more,” so the last one is always the bad run.
Cup racing was a very different sport back in 1964, a year when four Cup stars lost their lives. With the muscle car wars raging, Ford and Chrysler had both developed some incredibly powerful engines. The bodies of race cars in that era were being acid dipped to make them lighter but it also made them flimsy. Fuel cells were still being developed. The speed of the race cars had outstripped the capabilities of the racing tires of that era, although Firestone and Goodyear were working on inner liners to try to restore a degree of sanity to the sport.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, highly successful as one of the Ford factory race team drivers, was probably neck and neck with Richard Petty as the most popular driver of his era. But he began feeling uneasy in the days leading up to races so great was the carnage, human and mechanical. The veteran confided in his close friend Ned Jarrett that he was about to pull the plug and retire that year. But Roberts decided to take a “last run” in the 1964 World 600. During the race, he tangled with Junior Johnson. There was a savage wreck and Roberts’ Ford went up in a ball of flames. While Jarrett, who also got caught up in the crash, managed to crawl into Robert’s overturned Galaxie and drag him out of the wreckage, Roberts would succumb to his injuries about a month later.
Fortunately enough, the current state of stock car racing hasn’t hit critical mass just yet. Kahne, Elliott Sadler and whomever else chooses to leave next season should be able to transition out of the sport with ease.
At least for now, any team owner who can field even a semi-competitive entry in any of NASCAR’s top three touring divisions is not going to have any problem filling an empty seat. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for NASCAR track owners and their grandstand ghost towns.