Drivers Rarely Go Out On Their Own Terms
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.