When Our Heroes Hang it Up
Like most of you reading this, I really wasn't surprised last week when Tony Stewart announced that he would retire after next season. However, as a fan of his, I am now in the difficult position of selecting a new driver to root for on Sunday afternoons. This is not a decision I take lightly, and I would say that one of the most difficult times in racing is when our heroes choose to hang it up.
The agony of retirement is more pronounced in racing than in any other professional sport. After all, when Brett Favre retired, Packers fans were sad, but the team kept right on playing. In racing, it's not as simple as just switching to the next driver who replaces our driver or sports his number. This is because we identify with our heroes in ways the fans of other sports do not; our selection of a favorite driver is equal parts job interview and psychology experiment, and when we don their gear on race day we are taking on their personality as our own.
The main reason I have been such a passionate Tony Stewart fan is because I can so easily identify with him. We are both opinionated and have a tendency to spout those opinions in ways that may get us in trouble. Even though there are other brash and fiery drivers in the garage, I'm not sure I will identify with them in the same way I identify with Smoke.
Even though I went through the same thing both when Richard Petty retired and when Bobby Hamilton left the Cup Series, it doesn't make things any easier. When our favorite drivers retire, it sometimes feels as if they take a piece of our hearts with them. That's why when our drivers finally do hang it up, we sometimes go through many choices before ultimately selecting a new favorite. My dad was a huge Rusty Wallace fan and went through the same thing after Rusty retired. He went from David Gilliland to Bobby Labonte before ultimately settling on Denny Hamlin. We consider the decision of who to root for on Sunday to be a long term investment, and we want to make it count.
Our driver's final season and ultimate retirement and then our selection of a new driver is something akin to making a big move from one state to another. We know that it's coming, but we keep putting off packing our things and preparing for the move until the last minute. Then when the big day finally arrives, we run around flustered because we haven't prepared. In the same way, we enjoy our driver's final season and then when he ultimately retires, we are caught off guard because we are sad to see our driver leave but we haven't decided who to replace him with yet. We end up totally unprepared even though we've known this moment is coming for some time. We in a way prolonged the inevitable hoping that if we prolonged it enough it wouldn't happen. That's why it hurts even more and we feel like we've lost a part of ourselves when our drivers finally choose to hang it up for good.