Flash back to the 1982 Southern 500, a race that ended in a dramatic, side-by-side battle between Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.
With the laps winding down and Petty leading, 45-year-old Yarborough and 45-year-old Petty locked into a side-by-side duel going through Darlington Raceway's infamous first turn with smoke flying from their tires rubbing. Yarborough would eventually win that battle and win the race.
What made that event so interesting is the top drivers in the sport-with the exception of Darrell Waltrip-were all in their mid-40s at the time. Other drivers in the field who were still considered racing superstars were Bobby Allison, who would go on to win the 1983 Winston Cup title, and David Pearson. Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker were still threats to win.
Petty, Allison, Yarborough, Parsons and Baker were all drivers who were still behind the wheel racing into their late 40s. Some, such as Petty and Harry Gant, raced well into their mid-50s before retiring and turning the wheel over to younger drivers.
If a driver could stay healthy in this era, they could not only continue to earn a paycheck as a race car driver, but remain reasonably competitive.
Fast forward to 2002 and the elder statesmen of the sport are Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, and Ken Schrader. All are in their early- to mid-40s, and many of them don't expect to be racing as they approach 50.
When Darrell Waltrip retired last season, he was 53. Waltrip admits if he had it to do all over again he would have retired four to five years earlier than he did. And as the NASCAR Winston Cup schedule continues to expand to a tour that consists of 36 races spread over 38 racing weekends, how long do these drivers want to put up with such a demanding lifestyle?
"The number of drivers in their upper-40s and early-50s will diminish a great deal," predicts Jeff Burton, a 34-year-old driver who is one of the reasons the older drivers won't be racing so long. "I don't think you will see the number of 48- or 50-year-old drivers be very high."
Burton bases his prediction on two factors. First, new drivers, such as Casey Atwood and Ryan Newman in their early 20s, keep reaching the ranks of Winston Cup. Second, combine that with solid young drivers such as four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart-both just 30 years old-and the retirement age for a Winston Cup driver gets lower.
"Understand my reason for saying that is not that the veteran drivers fear the competition or they can't do it anymore. It's just getting harder," Burton says. "Your time is way more than a full-time job. It's a total commitment of your life. I think people are financially compensated today much better than drivers have ever been. That alone will allow drivers to stop sooner than they would otherwise.
"Then you add to it the frustration of never being home. Most of the guys who are doing it have been doing it since they were 10. I may have been in Winston Cup for eight or nine years, but I started racing when I was seven. I started traveling around the state of Virginia when I was five. When I'm 40, I will have been doing this for 33 years. Most of the guys in this garage are the same way."
Some veteran drivers say retirement isn't even a thought. That's because they are still driving at or near the level it takes to win races and championships.
"As long as you are at the top of your game, you will tolerate a lot of things because you are doing what you want to do," Burton says. "Darrell Waltrip is an example of what is happening in almost every sport. A great athlete doesn't know what he is going to do and isn't comfortable when he quits performing. So, you stretch it.
"Some stretch it too long and some don't. In Darrell's case, he probably stretched it too long. It was from his passion of the sport that he did that. He loved what he did.