Drivers Rarely Go Out On Their Own Terms

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This past Wednesday, one of the classiest players in baseball, Derek Jeter, announced that this upcoming season would be his last. This will be Jeter’s twentieth Major League season – all with the New York Yankees. The shortstop will turn forty this summer. He is coming off of a season that saw him spend most of 2013 on the disabled list. Jeter is widely respected by fans, teammates and opposing players.

I am glad he is putting the retirement talk to rest as spring training starts. This way, he can focus on one last season and we fans will know to appreciate every moment we get to see him play. Players like Jeter don’t come around that often. This looks to be a classy exit for a very classy player. Few athletes get to go out on their own terms. That applies to IndyCar drivers as well.

As I heard Jeter’s retirement news Wednesday, I started thinking about how few IndyCar drivers get to go out like Jeter will. It’s probably fewer than you would initially think.

The first driver that came to mind was Rick Mears. When we saw Mears struggle through an injury-plagued season in 1992, I had no idea it would be his last. After all, it was just a nagging wrist injury. Surely it would have healed over the offseason. He was still relatively young (41) and in pursuit of a record setting fifth Indianapolis 500 victory. What we didn’t know was that as Mears was upside-down, sliding along on his helmet in a practice crash at Indianapolis – he was saying to himself “I don’t need this”. One season removed from his fourth Indianapolis 500 win, Mears announced he was hanging it up at the Team Penske Christmas Party following the 1992 season.

Mears was true to his word and never raced again. I heard some criticism of Jeter on the radio yesterday. They said to seek the limelight all season long in a sort of farewell tour, was very much out of character for Jeter. To go out the way Mears went out, was completely in character. I don’t know if anyone had a simpler, cleaner and classier retirement than Rick Mears. Does that surprise anyone?

Mario Andretti also went out on his own terms. After a career that spanned four decades, Mario Andretti announced prior to the start of the 1994 season, that it would be his last. Although the fifty-four year-old had won in the previous season at Phoenix, winning was not coming as often. He was still very fast, but Father Time always wins. His ongoing feud with teammate Nigel Mansell didn’t help things either. He decided that it was time to cap off his career with his “Arrivederci Tour”. His fourteenth place finish in points in his final year was unspectacular, but Mario received the well-deserved accolades on every stop of the PPG CART World Series.

Some of the more iconic names of the sport, weren’t so lucky in their exit from the sport. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser was almost invisible in his final Month of May in 1994. After finishing third at Indianapolis just two years earlier, Unser had fallen on hard times. He finished twelfth for Kenny Bernstein in 1993. His final ride for the 500 was reduced to Arizona Motorpsorts. After an incomplete qualifying attempt, Unser decided to call it a career. He never drove again. Three-time winner Johnny Rutherford also lost his dignity before finally calling it quits. He last drove at Indianapolis in 1988, although he drove a couple of other races in 1989. His last attempt was in 1992 in a third car for Derrick Walker. The sponsor’s check never showed up and he failed to qualify. He couldn’t find a ride in 1993 and officially retired in 1994, at the age of fifty-six.

Some don’t even get the chance to go away gracefully. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti was told by doctors that his career was over, before he could even contemplate when and how to walk away. 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner Kenny Bräck had one of the more horrifying crashes I’ve seen at Texas in the 2003 IndyCar season finale. He recovered and raced once more, as a sub for Buddy Rice at Indianapolis in 2005. He was the fastest qualifier, but went out early. After such a crash, Bräck proved to himself and the world that he could climb back into a race car, but he never drove an IndyCar again after that day.

Most drivers just fade away, without losing too much of their dignity. Vitor Meira, Bruno Junqueira, Tomas Scheckter – they are all drivers that we may never see in an IndyCar again. They didn’t go kicking and screaming – they just went away. Some don’t go so quietly, but they go just the same. Paul Tracy comes to mind. Since he was unfairly left out of the reunification in 2008, Tracy has made a lot of noise, but has done little to back it up. He finally gave up on racing IndyCars after the 2011 season.

Of course, it pains me to say which driver had the most ungraceful exit from IndyCar. It happens to be my all-time favorite driver – AJ Foyt.

Foyt’s career had been on the decline for the better part of a decade by the 1990 season. He had not won a race since 1981. He suffered the indignation of being voted Most Improved Driver by his fellow competitors in 1989 – quite the backhanded compliment for such a legend. Foyt was racing at Road America. As he was approaching the hard right-hander at Turn One, his brake pedal broke. He went airborne and dove nose-first into an embankment. Foyt’s feet were mangled so bad, it was thought he may have one or both amputated.

Throughout doctor’s proclamations that Foyt would never walk again, much less drive – Foyt went through painful rehab, all the while mentally circling May of 1991 for his return to racing. His plan was to drive once more in the Indianapolis 500, his thirty-fourth in a row, and then retire. Return he did – he placed his Copenhagen Lola-Chevy in the middle of the front row. The famous No.14 was in the middle of perhaps the most iconic front row in history. Rick Mears was on the pole, Foyt was in the middle with Mario Andretti on the outside.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. At the start of the race, Foyt faded. He was dealing with an ill-handling car, which he was hoping to correct on his first pit stop. He never made it. On Lap Twenty-Five, Kevin Cogan and Roberto Guerrero collided, sending debris all over the track. In the aftermath, Foyt hit a chunk of wheel assembly, breaking his suspension. His day and career were done.

However, he admitted in the interview after he climbed out of the car that Ray Harroun had once told him that it’ll hit him when it’s time to retire. When asked if it had hit him yet, he paused and said “Not really. But when I make a commitment, I try and stick with it.” Foyt did not stick with his commitment. He ran several more races in 1991, splitting time with Mike Groff in the car for most road/street courses.

Foyt returned to race again at Indianapolis in 1992 at the age of fifty-seven. It would be his thirty-fifth consecutive Indianapolis 500 start. It would also be his last. In the box score, Foyt finished ninth. That sounds respectable until you realize that there were only twelve cars running at the end and Foyt was five laps down. He was never a factor and stayed near the rear of the field all day. He got in the way of several drivers, including Arie Luyendyk who ended up crashing in Turn Four trying to avoid him. It turned out to be Foyt’s last IndyCar race.

He had planned to drive again in 1993. He was running competitive speeds the morning of Pole Day, when his primary driver, Robbie Gordon, crashed. Suddenly, without warning – Foyt decided he needed to focus on being a car owner and not a driver. He informed track officials that he wanted to take one final lap around the track to say goodbye to the fans. I was there that day. It was painful to watch. It was even more painful hen Foyt climbed out of the car to be interviewed by Tom Carnegie. He began by sobbing uncontrollably, before getting it together.

That was that. It took him almost three years from the time he mutilated his feet and ankles in 1990, to announcing his tentative retirement before making official in May of 1993. He retired and unretired almost as much as Mark Martin. Foyt would go on to drive in the inaugural Brickyard 400 the following year. For the next several years throughout the nineties, you always had the feeling that Foyt was likely to squeeze himself into a car to try just one more time. Mercifully, he never did.

Athletes are always the last to know when to stop. Joe Namath waited too late. So did Johnny Unitas. They paid the price by making their last appearances in strange uniforms – Namath for the Rams, Johnny U. for the Chargers. AJ Foyt and Richard Petty seemed to think they were still competitive long after anyone else did. It’s painful for fans of legends to watch them try to recreate some more magic that just isn’t there. I hope Peyton Manning doesn’t fall into that trap. I somehow don’t think he will. I’m glad to see that Derek Jeter won’t.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Drivers Rarely Go Out On Their Own Terms”

  1. Thought provoking article! Does Foyt have the record for most Indy 500 starts?

    • Yes. Thirty-Five is the most total starts and most consecutive starts. I believe Mario is second in total starts with twenty-nine, but his were not consecutive.

      • It is one of the most impressive records in sports, considering how dangerous IndyCar racing was when he started it in 1958. They say all records are made to be broken, but this may be the only one that never will be. I have always been surprised it is not brought up much when the TV folks start talking about sports records. An astounding achievement whether you think he was competitive at the end of his career or not.

        • The other amazing stat about Mr. Foyt is that he is the only Indy 500 winner to do so in both a Roadster and a ear engine car. And that’s it fir my trivia contribution today.

          I’m kind of sorry that we won’t see drives like him, Mario, and Mr. Rutherford who raced and won in anything on wheels: Indy 500, Daytona 500, 24 Hours, etc.

  2. Pride of the Yankees was on TV this morning as I got ready for work. Kind of ironic. I remember this being done for Johnny Bench and Cal Ripken among others. Great way to salute the stars. Often the athelete who gets these retires while they are still in prime or near prime condition. Wait too long and the decision is taken out of your hands. Auto racers are probably handicapped by the need for sponsors. But it could happen.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I never thought of Foyt’s exit from Indycar as all that ungraceful, certainly not when compared to Johnny Rutherford’s multiple consecutive DNQs in wing-and-a-prayer entries. Foyt got to quit when he wanted to quit, not when injuries or lack of money or complete loss of skill relegated him to the pit lane. He earned the right to leave his way, and I appreciate that even if he was not particularly competitive in his last few years. It certainly takes nothing away from his accomplishments.

    Foyt’s exit from racing in general, on the other hand, was certainly less than graceful. The fact that Foyt’s last national-level auto race attempts were a 1996 NASCAR truck race at Las Vegas where he finished 28th and the 1997 Brickyard 400 where he DNQed with the second-slowest qualifying speed is pretty disappointing and anti-climatic.

  4. I believe that the last thing any professional ( or even amateur) athlete gives a crap about is how the teary-eyed scribes, with violins playing in the background, will remember them.

    Racers are strange human beings with lots of adrenalin coursing through their veins. They crave the competition, love the speed and will never give up their life’s passion until it’s taken away. You may consider a lesser series as being an embarrassment but a racer just sees it as another racing opportunity as they age. …….. You know ‘It’s all about ME , it’s my life, and I’m living it on my terms until I can’t possibly do it any more and I don’t care what you think’

    Bowing out gracefully while on the top of their games is for people with no passion in their souls.

    Been there. Trying to live it.

  5. I’m not a baseball fan but living in Southwest Michigan I definitely root for Jeter a bit, since he’s from here. It’s sad to see him go but he is leaving on good terms while still competitive. As for drivers it’s a tough decision. You don’t want them to go out painfully but you don’t want them to leave when there’s still more they can do. Rusty Wallace is an example of a driver who left a few years too early, I think I’ve heard he even regrets it. Mark Martin probably could have kept a competitive full time ride longer as well. On the other hand it is painful to see Terry Labonte strap into a field filling car for the Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon is another one who might retire Jeter style if he wins another title, although I would be disappointed if he did so. In Indycar recently there haven’t been many good drivers who’ve had a chance to stay in too long. I kind of wish Vasser and Micheal had kept racing to be honest.

  6. Call me crazy, but I love watching old timers in sports still playing despite being beyond their prime. Too many fans are selfish and say “I want to remember him as he was”. I want to see a guy who’s found a way to be an underdog again so I can cheer for him.

    We may look at a guy and say “Man, he’s a shadow of his former self”. **I** say “Man, the sonuvabitch may not be on top anymore, but his competitive spirit is so strong he’s still willing to mix it up EVEN THOUGH he knows he’s getting his ass kicked”.

    I respect that. And I admit to being flabbergasted to people thinking otherwise. To me, that’s not desperate. That’s sucking it up and trying anyway. Better to try again and fail than say “Nope, not ever trying again”.

    Dignity? There’s tons of dignity by just showing you can even be on the field. There are so many people who never even make the track, the court, the field, the “arena” as Teddy Roosevelt called it. It’s a statement when someone who’s far on the decline still shows up. People think it’s undignified to lose when you supposedly “can’t win”, but I disagree. I think there’s every dignity in saying “You have to beat me down before I concede defeat”. I think there’s every dignity in showing that you’re still a professional, that you’re still above the crowd who’s never even been there, and that you may be getting whipped silly but that you’re still holding your head high and doing what you love.

    The dignity is in showing up. It’s not just “hanging on”. It’s knowing you’re a mere fraction of yourself but giving it your all anyway. It’s only hanging on if you demand to be “The Man”, if you think you’re such a star that you deserve the ball, the leadership spot, or the first car above those who can produce better. That’s when it’s pathetic. But when it’s not, it’s different. It’s dignified if you admit you’re at best only a small contributor, but dammit you’re going to be the best at it you can be anyway.

    Competition is its own dignity. We all love saying we don’t like quitters, but then we try our best to turn our heroes into that. I’d rather appreciate them even when they’re past their peak. If they can still show a steely glint at an opponent and think “I was doing this before you were born”, that’s entertainment enough for me. And that’s dignity enough for the competitor, if he chooses to accept it as that.

  7. The votes are showing a sizable lead for Helio right now. I wondered if he might be getting close to the top 5 for most starts in the 500, but he isn’t even sniffing it.

    Foyt leads with 35 starts, then 2-5 is Mario (29), Unser (27), Rutherford and Johncock (24). The only other 2 drivers with more than 20 are George Snider (22) and Gary Bettenhausen (21).

    Helio will make his 14th start this year, the most of any active driver in the series (1 more than Kanaan, 2 more than Dixon).

  8. And speaking of exits………..I will certainly miss the Swiss Missile and I wish her well with her new career.

    • Shoot, Ron, you beat me to it. I am thrilled that Simona has a place with Sauber, but will sincerely miss her in IndyCar. She has been a trooper. I think Simona would have stayed if she had secured a ride with a major team. Sauber is good in shaping their drivers, so I look forward to her full time in F1 in 2015.

      Still in awe of Mr. Foyt and his 35 Indy 500 starts. I had no idea it was that many. We are very lucky to still have so many of these legends with us. And many keep coming to races and are kind to the fans. Meeting Mario at Fontana in 2012 was a thrill.

  9. Honestly I could not see any of these guys hanging on too long. I went through the list 4-5 times thinking to myself “this is really a tough question George”. I voted “other,” I feel like that is a cop out but it’s just how I felt about it.

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