There was a time when NASCAR drivers didn’t retire. They just faded away, “drove off into the sunset”, pun intended. Truth was many couldn’t afford to just “retire” like the rest of the working-class people in America. No union guaranteed pension. There was not, nor is there now, a pension plan for NASCAR drivers. No gold watch, going away party, no monthly check for the rest of your life.
Most drivers “back in the day” lived fast and spent their earnings as fast as they could, well, earn it. At some point though they stopped winning races, fell out of favor and simply faded from memory. It wasn’t long before the bank accounts were empty.
Many, if not all, also carried physical and mental scars that followed them the rest of their days; that was if they actually lived long enough. Some, like Dick Trickle, never received much in the way of help for the physical and mental scars brought on by years of racing. Trickle committed suicide in 2013.
Sometimes, if they were lucky, these former drivers only had to deal only with hearing loss, arthritic joints made worse by the healing of broken bones or the strain of g-forces, and congested lungs from smoking cigarettes (a must when Winston paid most of their bills), and exhaust fumes.
Since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, safety has become paramount. However, there are still risks, and as Kyle Busch can attest to, broken bones. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has also highlighted another risk, that of concussions. Years of hard crashes can take not only a toll on the body, but the brain as well. Fred Lorenzen, known as “Fast Freddie” during his glory years, suffers from dementia, a condition that will eventually take his life and was most likely a direct result from his many crashes and concussions.
Earnhardt Jr. missed most of the 2016 season recovering from “concussion-like” symptoms. He had missed races before, and crashed twice in the first part of the season aggravating his symptoms and necessitating time out of the racecar. “Back in the day”, the need to race, and make a living, meant that there was no time away from a racecar, no time to recover. Race every week or risk going broke.
When the racing did end, for many, the money was gone. Broke, destitute, and forgotten was the theme of the “retirement” plan for many former NASCAR drivers.
Today’s drivers have become not only financially smarter but more conscious of their health. There are still risks, but in NASCAR’s modern era, drivers have never been safer, and better at managing the money they make.
But it’s still a grind.
The NASCAR season takes up nearly an entire year. Starting in January with preseason preparations followed by racing nearly every weekend until the end of November, a drivers’ life is spent on a racetrack, the shop, a sponsor or media obligation, or a motorhome. Sure, they are paid a great deal of money, but it comes at quite a cost. The relentless grind, the physical toll, and the psychological sharpness required to compete at the top level of NASCAR will age a person prematurely. And that doesn’t even take into account any injuries they may have suffered, including concussions.
Usually by the time a driver retires, they have not won many races in the seasons leading up to that final one. Their glory days are far behind them.
Moreover, when a driver does retire, the prime of their life is over.
Children are grown, spouses (if they stuck around), have lost years of just being husband and wife with the one they loved as the driver dedicated their life to the sport. Those drivers themselves, their youth gone, have little opportunity for work outside of racing. They end up working for a team or a broadcast partner. Not bad gigs if you can get them, but even those are few and far between. The point is dedicating your life to NASCAR at an early age means that NASCAR will be your life forever.
Carl Edwards has tried to defy all those conventions however. He’s always tried to maintain a life away from NASCAR. While most drivers maintain large homes in Charlotte North Carolina, Carl chose to remain in his home town of Columbia Missouri, for many years living in the same modest home he grew up in. His hard-earned NASCAR money allowed him to buy a farm, a private plane (he’s been a pilot since high school and owns his fifth plane), which he loves to fly. Those are important, because after every race during the season Carl flies home to be with his family; his high school sweetheart turned wife Kate and his two young children (both are under 10). It may be only a day, but it’s always been precious time to him, and time he has kept very private. It isn’t long though before he’s in the air heading back to the track, the team shop, or wherever else his NASCAR obligations sent him.
But Carl has had enough. Just before Christmas he decided that there are more important things in life than NASCAR. So, he made the announcement this week that he is hanging up his helmet. It was a shock to everyone in NASCAR including his team owner. After all, here is a driver in the prime of his career, who nearly won the series title, twice, races for arguably the best team in NASCAR at the moment and by all accounts had many more years left to race, and win.
Yet, he’s walking away from it all. Not only the chance to win races, and titles, but multimillion dollar a year paychecks, fame, and the kind of motorsports competition that only NASCAR can provide. He worked for nearly all his young life just to get a chance to race in the world of big time stock car auto racing. And now he’s walking away while near the summit of that mountain.
Why? Because Carl Edwards may just be the smartest driver NASCAR has ever known.
And because he still has it all. Edwards is at the peak of his physical fitness; he has suffered no major injuries, and by stepping away now, won’t ever have to worry about sustaining a serious injury in racing, including a concussion. Like most drivers today, his bank accounts are full, and secure. Many drivers today have long term financial plans that mean they won’t have to worry about going broke. Carl is among those. He will never have to worry about money again.
And by stepping away now he won’t have to worry about missing those things in life that many of us take for granted. Instead of driver of the No. 19 joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, he can now just be “dad” and Kate’s husband. He’ll enjoy spending time with, and watching his kids grow up. Attend PTA meetings, school plays, take them trick or treating.
Carl won’t be one of the drivers who simply fade away. He will be remembered as a driver who left in the prime of his career, winning races and always a contender for a title. Sure many of us will miss him on the track; his fierce driving, his backflips after winning then heading into the stands to celebrate with fans. There’s also the things he has done for those fans; giving trophies to disabled kids, paying for a funeral when a fan lost a brother. Those of us who are fans of Carl may be upset that we won’t see him racing, but in the end that’s somewhat selfish. After all, we are only on this earth for a very short time and we all deserve to live our lives how we see fit.
Now Carl Edwards will become a father, a husband, and whatever else he decides to be. Carl still has his health, his family, and the rest of his life ahead of him. The grind is over, his family will now become his focus. And for his wife Kate, a medical doctor, NASCAR, and those of us who are his fans, are giving her husband back (and the children, their dad). However, unlike drivers in years gone by, in many ways her husband is a much better man than he was when he started.