Sunday, August 14, 2022

Aric Almirola represents the changing face of retirement in NASCAR

Compared to other athletes, who often stop once their bodies no longer perform the way they once could, a race car driver has many options available in the face of Father Time. And for many years, the option taken by many drivers in NASCAR was to hang on until the bitter end.

For a racer, retirement age was long regarded as being a driver’s late 40s or early to mid 50s: Richard Petty raced well past his prime, going through a prolonged decline before finally deciding to retire at the age of 55. Harry Gant raced until he was 54, retiring despite eight of his 18 career Cup Series wins coming beyond his 50th birthday. Others would follow that pattern through as recently as the early 2010s: Darrell Waltrip’s final season came at 53. Rusty Wallace stepped out of a car for the final time at 49. Mark Martin at 54.

But over the past decade, the retirement habits of NASCAR drivers have started to change, and Cup Series stars have begun to step away from the demands of racing full-time at a younger age. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, one year before Tony Stewart stepped away at 45. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired at age 43, and Clint Bowyer retired at 41 to take a job in television. Carl Edwards shockingly retired during the 2017 offseason at the age of 36, though his case represents more of an outlier given the abruptness of his decision.

All of that brings us to the case of Aric Almirola. Earlier this year, a few months prior to his 38th birthday, Almirola announced that the 2022 season would be his final as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver — vacating his seat in his late-30s, and still at an age where he has won races and been a playoff contender.

Speaking with CBS Sports at Nashville Superspeedway, Almirola discussed exactly why drivers have begun to step away earlier, citing the generational differences between when the drivers of yesteryear got their opportunities compared to the drivers of today.

“I think you look at the old days, those guys didn’t really get opportunities until they were much older either,” Almirola said. “You look at car owners like Junior Johnson and Richard Childress and all those guys, when they were putting people in rides … they didn’t think people were ready until they had a lot of experience even just on the road or driving cars. Now kids are driving late models and stock cars at 12, 13 years old. So everything’s just shifted younger and younger.

“And everybody makes decisions for different reasons, right? Those guys felt like they were aging out. Your reflexes, your physical stamina and all those things change as you get older. You can’t defy gravity and you can’t defy the fact that you get older every single year.”

Compared to other drivers, though, Almirola’s motivations for retiring are different. He still feels that he has many years of being competitive left in him, but he has chosen to step away largely out of a desire for a greater work-life balance and to actively support his children’s hopes and dreams, as opposed to continuing to make his family support his on the road of a long, demanding season of travel and time away from home.

“I feel like I’m still chasing my dreams, and I’m watching my kids grow up and they’re starting to get into their interests and wanting to chase their dreams. I just feel like they are either making sacrifices for me so they can be at the racetrack with me or I’m missing it,” Almirola said. “So I think just all those things kind of weigh into where do I see myself in five years. And in five years, I’ve got kids in high school that have car keys and are moving on with their life, and that I’ve essentially missed their childhood.”

In a certain capacity, recent retirements show that Almirola still has the opportunity to chase his dreams of being a winning driver in NASCAR. More and more, drivers who have retired have kept racing as a hobby rather than simply taking up a rocking chair. David Ragan has run five Cup races with a focus on superspeedways since retiring at the end of the 2019 season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made one-off starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series every year since the end of his Cup career in 2017. Many other retired drivers — a number of whom are currently racing in SRX — have found ways to hang around and run here and there.

It’s created a climate where no retired racer is ever really gone. And in the same vein, it’s also created a climate where no racer is ever really retired — Almirola has been the subject of rumors suggesting he may reverse course and return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023, an idea he does not endorse but did not necessarily dismiss either.

“I don’t think so, but again I’ve learned to never say never,” Almirola said when asked about unretiring. “There would be a lot of conversations that would have to be had.”

Whatever motivations Almirola would have to walk back on retirement — perhaps a sense of duty to Stewart-Haas Racing or to sponsor Smithfield — would have to be weighed against his motivations not to be a full-time Cup racer anymore. His desire not to see his children grow up from afar, to give his son a high-five after a flag football game or his daughter a hug after a theater recital, and to experience their growth as a present figure and not over FaceTime.

That desire to be a present family man, though, has not extinguished his desire to be a race car driver. Even as he seeks a new work-life balance, Almirola still loves to drive race cars and wants to continue to do so however he can on his own terms.

“I feel super blessed to have the opportunity to drive race cars for a living. I love to compete, and I love that adrenaline rush of driving a race car to make it go fast,” Almirola said. “I would love the opportunity to still run a handful of races here and there…Cup Series, Xfinity Series, Truck Series.

“I don’t want to walk away from racing – I love racing. But as far as what I do going forward, still to be determined. I honestly have no idea currently.”

This weekend marks an important stop on Almirola’s “retirement tour”, as he returns to New Hampshire Motor Speedway one year after it served as the site of his third career win. A repeat of Almirola’s Magic Mile triumph would be timely, as he remains in the hunt to make the NASCAR playoffs: Entering this weekend, Almirola stands 42 points below the cutoff line to make the playoffs on points.

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