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THE PRESS conferences all followed a similar script: The graying race driver, surrounded by family and friends, stood in front of reporters and cameras. He fidgeted. He stammered. Then as he thanked his loved ones, his car owner and his sponsors for all they'd done for him over the years, his eyes moistened and, after a few deep breaths, the wizened driver said the end, for him, was near.
In the last few months three NASCAR icons-- Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin--have all held the dreaded retirement press conference. Wallace, 48, will run a full Nextel Cup schedule next year and then hang up his driving suit. Labonte, also 48, will run in half the races in 2005 and '06 and then call it quits. And Martin, 45, will make '05 his last full season of Cup racing.
What do these retirements mean for NASCAR? More than anything, they signal the end of an era in which drivers approaching 50 are still competing. In the increasingly frenetic world of NASCAR, 40 may be the new 50.
Wallace, Labonte and Martin all spoke of the increased demands put on drivers--namely, sponsorship appearances and the longer race schedule--and the resulting time spent away from their families as the chief reasons they were choosing to drive off into the sunset. Dale Earnhardt Jr. told SI earlier this year that even he has thought about walking away from the sport because he feels he doesn't have a life away from racing. "I think us younger drivers will be lucky to still be competing by the time we're in our late 30s," said Earnhardt, who turned 30 on Oct. 10. "The demands that are put on you are just too much. It can cause burnout."
"I was thinking [that when I reach] around 40 years old I would like to maybe start throttling back and spend more time at home," says 29year-old Elliott Sadler. "Because of sponsors and stuff now, we spend a lot more time away from home than what [drivers] did 10 years ago. So it kind of uses you up a little bit more each and every year. So maybe the driver's span might not be as long as it used to be."
The retirements of Wallace, Labonte and Martin will also mean that a horde of older racing fans will now have to find new drivers to follow. Years from now these three will be remembered as the top drivers of their generation. Collectively they've won three Cup titles and finished second in points six times. Combined, the other full-time Cup drivers older than 40-- John Andretti, Ward Burton, Jeff Green, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek, Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader and Michael Waltrip--have won only two titles and have just three second-place finishes in the point standings.
"I definitely think the next [retirement] number will be like 40, instead of 45 to 50," says Martin. "And then I think the next wave will be more like 35. It's not going to change all at once, but the way that racing is today, with how technical it is, youth and everything that goes along with that is very important."