Inexorable

In a way, it hearkened back to a day when everyone parked in the garage like this… out in the open, rubbing elbows with your neighbor (sometimes literally, given how little space separated you), tools on the ground waiting to be used. It was all very old-school, if you like that sort of thing.

And by this time, Bill Elliott — Awesome Bill from Dawsonville — was the senior representative of the old school, so maybe it fit. I wonder if some fan prowling through the garage area saw ol’ Bill out in the sunshine next to his car and thought back to the old days, back when nobody yet knew his or his brother’s name or was aware of the brawny, paradigm-changing powerplants they would bring to NASCAR tracks in short course.

It seemed to me, though, that few fans really noticed Bill standing there. At Phoenix International Raceway in 2006, most of the fans gravitated towards the covered stalls at the center of a ring of shining, newly-waxed, multicolored transporters. There was where the star teams parked, and there was where the good autographs and photo opportunities waited. The crowds clogged those asphalt arteries like the remnants of the fatty concession-stand food they had wolfed down.

The unlucky cars parked in a row in the open air next to the main garages belonged to the bottom of the food chain — outlier teams who were as far out of the points as they were out of the public consciousness. Elliott’s team — R&J Racing — had started the season by failing to qualify at Daytona with Chad Blount at the wheel. Elliott was making his fourth start in the car. He had the distinction of scoring that team’s highest-ever finish — 16th at Kansas Speedway at the start of October — but the previous week he had failed to qualify at Texas. The team had already gone through an ownership upheaval in June and was hanging on by its fingertips.

The team signed Bill because he possessed an invaluable asset. At one point in Elliott’s career, that asset had been his talent — his preternatural reflexes, his smoothness, and his keen anticipation behind the wheel. It had won him a million dollars in 1985, a Winston Cup in 1987, a long stretch of Most Popular Driver Awards, and some of the most astonishing race victories in modern NASCAR competition that included two qualifying records at Daytona and Talladega that remain unbroken to this day.

But here in Phoenix on this mild November day, the asset Bill Elliott had been hired for was his past champion’s provisional — increased odds of getting into the field. R&J Racing’s owners had no illusions that Awesome Bill would do anything other than that for them. He wasn’t going to miraculously come from nowhere to win the race like he might if he were a character in a Hollywood movie. Frankly, the equipment wasn’t capable of it.

And harsh though it may seem to say it, neither was Bill.

By this time, Elliott was 51 years old. His last NASCAR victory had come three years earlier, driving for Dodge’s factory team and Ray Evernham. He scored his final top-10 finish at Indianapolis the next year, but by then he was already running an abbreviated schedule. He was considered now to be in “semi-retirement” — a status he would milk for the next six years for eight other teams.

I got to see more of Bill than most that weekend, because the team I was working for was parked alongside his. Elliott didn’t appear unhappy with his situation. At worst, he looked resigned. Occasionally, one of the older Cup drivers or crew members would stop by to chat with him. He still retained his notorious shyness with fans and the media, but he had far less of a need to hide than he had back in his heyday, when he had hired policemen as personal guards to keep the riff-raff away.

Intellectually, I knew Bill Elliott was still a NASCAR legend, would always be so. But here, driving a battered low-rent race car that didn’t even merit a garage stall, Elliott’s star had faded, and I knew — and he knew — that it wasn’t going to be getting any brighter. The days of Awesome Bill — at least the days when he was always considered competitive, always a threat to win, always among the elite — were over, and now he was Provisional Bill.

It was — and is — a harsh reality. Most race car drivers take too many years to face that reality, and some take even longer to accept it. The most sacrosanct myth that lies in the heart of a professional race car driver is that, on any given weekend, regardless of any other elements in play, he has the ability and potential to win. It is a myth nonetheless — and as time and age advance, the myth becomes more impossible to dispel.

The intersection of a driver’s physical skills — reflexes, endurance, vision, and so forth — with his experience and decision-making represents the prime of a driver’s career. Every point after that intersection represents a decline. The driver is inexorably becoming a diminishing asset from that point onward. Some drivers are able to reduce the rate at which their careers decline by relying on their wits and experience. The best drivers, for whom experience and physical skill intersected at a high level, have farther to fall and thus remain competitive longer.

But the math is inescapable. Beyond a certain point, a driver’s value begins to fall, and there is no reversing it — no matter how devotedly the driver or his fans try to rationalize otherwise.

The lucky ones get out before their star tarnishes too badly, or before their lack of introspection ends up getting them hurt. The less fortunate ones end up as afterthoughts, as jokes… and in a few tragic cases, with premature obituaries.

Jeff Gordon is one of the lucky ones. He was still winning races and competing for the championship in his final year of NASCAR Cup competition. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is not so lucky. His fortunes on track were already beginning to wane before he suffered a series of concussions that have threatened his long-term well-being.

Others who have bowed out in the past couple of years include Greg Biffle, who went from being one of NASCAR’s great feel-good stories — having been discovered racing in relative obscurity by Benny Parsons and then catapulted into a spot with one of NASCAR’s top teams — to disappearing nearly completely in the space of a couple of years. Carl Edwards quit outright after coming within a breath of the season title. And Tony Stewart, one of the great racing polymaths in history, struggled through a couple of seasons of rapidly-declining fortunes before quitting Cup racing — consoling himself by saying that he felt engineering had robbed him of the joy of winning races through talent.

Now Matt Kenseth is facing the off-season without a NASCAR Cup ride. The 2000 Rookie of the Year and 2003 Cup champion is still capable of winning races — he won two last season. But he is 45 years old, and the top-five finishes he used to get have turned into top-10 finishes, and his top-10 finishes are starting to slide lower on the results lists. He is still one of the top drivers in terms of experience and, it can be argued, still in the top echelon of the sport overall. But he is no longer the cream of the crop, and there is nowhere to go but down. With younger drivers with less experience but fresher reflexes and cheaper salary demands in the wings, Cup teams who are already feeling the pinch of lower revenues and declining corporate interest in NASCAR have little room for someone more likely to compete on old age and treachery than through sheer talent.

It is a cheerless calculus, to be sure. But the math cannot be challenged. As desperately as aging drivers cling to their careers, and as fervently as older fans grasp onto the trappings of their treasured traditions and favorites, time moves inexorably forward in a frothing rush. The older we get, the less able we are to fight the current. At some point, we all would be better served to stop swimming upstream and let the current carry us where it will — saving our strength to appreciate the sights on our journey before it inevitably ends.

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