Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: Just Walk Away, Renee
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Just Walk Away, Renee

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.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    Matt, just a quick note to say how refreshing your writing is. I seldom read most motorsport writers columns because it’s either a lame-o fluff piece and / or a thinly veiled attempt at team or sanctioning body pr. Hope you still enjoy your work because I look forward to reading it.

  2. Avatar

    Tony, Jeff and I’m sure a few of the other old school guys retired because to them its more fun to go short track mud racing than to have to deal with the dog and pony show that is Nascar’s playoff farce, where its more about points points points than it is about winning races, and the champion isn’t necessarily a legitimate one. They certainly don’t need the money. I would even bet one of my pay checks that guys like Edwards and Stewart would still be racing if there were not ridiculous playoff system. Expect Johnson to retire within the next few years if he continues to stay as mediocre as he’s been.

    Nascar is certainly not the better for it. Young inexperienced guys are getting rides based on money instead of talent and are having a hard time competing with guys like Harvick, Busch and Truex. That’s why they are winning all the races and running away with it this year. Its like watching the Xfinity series on Sundays now.

    At least we have a competent individual running the show now. Hopefully he can make some positive changes to this sport that is so badly needed.

  3. Avatar

    Sadler is being retired, not retiring. Just like Danica was. When your big money sponsor says no more money, then it’s over for drivers like Sadler. Especially at his age and with his stats. Wonder if whining Kensett is having fun this year, I know I’m enjoying his season.

  4. Avatar

    Kahne hasn’t been a top tier driver for years, even with a top tier team. Ditto Joonyer. Ditto Kenseth. Ditto Biffle. Edwards could not get past the sting of choking on three chances at a championship. Stewart certainly did not leave in his prime. Gordon had a history of back problems. There are very few sports where athletes compete past age 40 and it is rarer still to see them compete successfully. Maybe some NASCAR drivers have been too complacent with riding around and collecting the big check. Next to go should be McMurray and Newman.

    There is no reason to cry over the loss of any of these drivers. After all, we still have the hated Big Three and the most hated of all will be around for a long time, giving FS writers and the kids on the short bus plenty to bitch about.

  5. Avatar

    The drivers that drove during the boom years (1990 to 2010) made lots of money and have the luxury of retiring once they’ve had enough of the dog and pony show. Drivers that are coming up now may not be able to do the same if the money keeps evaporating and the sport continues to decline. Fewer fans equals less sponsors equals less money equals lower salary. For young up and coming drivers the $250,000 or $500,000 salaries that Janice alluded to (below) will still be attractive but for drivers that came up during the boom years and made millions per year it will be a step backward, and since they’ve already made millions retirement will be more attractive.

  6. Avatar

    Excellent article, Matt. Well written with a lot of logic and understanding behind it. I have been a NAACAR nut for over 40 years and feel a little sad to see all the familiar names disappear from the headlines – only to see a new name become familiar through several cycles of this sport. Will there ever be another King Richard, or Ironhead, or Handsome Harry? Probably not, but there will be those to like, or detest like Bill Elliot, Dale Jr. – or shrub…

    This sport may never reach the popularity of NFL football, but at least we still stand for the flag, and it’s National Anthem…

  7. Avatar

    matt you forgot about the amazing dw retirement tour, that final year he raced when he made every race cause of the past champion’s provisional and finished in the bottom 20.

    read where kahne is happy with his decision. he’s going to do the stewart route and run sprint car races, something he has always enjoyed. be interesting to see when johnson hangs up the helmet.

    i’m sure more will come as the older guys are in negotiations for next contracts. i’m sure the compensation isn’t as bountiful as it was in years past. i wonder how someone who makes a minimum of a million a year adjusts to having to live on maybe 500,000 or 250,000.

    wasn’t it a few years ago that drivers were trying to get a pension fund established? i know they’re considered independent contractors, but i vaguely remember something about that being discussed.

    • Matt

      I think the whole trick to retiring as a name driver is to leave the fans guessing how many more races or even titles you might have won had you stayed on. In Waltrip’s case he’d given ample evidence he was a hopeless has been. It was embarrassing watching a three time champion needing to take a provisional just to get into the races after which he’d only get in the way. That whole Brickyard 400 pole thing was perhaps the most suspicious thing I’d ever seen in all the years I was following the sport. But to listen to old DW these days he seems amazed somehow the sun still rose and set on the NASCAR world without him out there to direct it. “Are you with the show?” “Lady, I am the show.”

      • Avatar

        I will always remember DW as the arrogant ass who had to have his motorhome on pit road at the Milwaukee Mile for an ASA race in which his Dillon Rugels regal lasted 3 laps running in the trunk.

    • Avatar

      Janice… Do you remember DW “buying” Carl Long’s ride that had qualified for the race at Charlotte in Waltrip’s farewell season? Good ‘ol DW did it “for the fans”. Of course, most of his fans had, at that point, traded their Waltrip caps for those paper bags the Saints’ fans used to wear when their team was the laughing stock of the NFL.

  8. Avatar

    Kasey has seen the writing on the wall, imo. By the way his child was the most well behaved child NASCAR is prancing out these days…YOU know..a family sport. We hear Keelan, Keelan, Keelan. the other children. blah, blah, blah. Good job Kasey and baby mama. As for Elliot, oh please…he I am sure has planned for this day, and now all we have to do is get Morgan Shep out of the mix and a few others over 30 and we can truly say this is a league of young up and comers. LOL.