Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Happy Trails Carl Edwards

As I approach my 50th birthday, I have to say that few things shock me anymore. As I've gotten older I've realized the term "shocking" when applied to news is usually hyperbole, like Clemson "shocking" Alabama.

Really? I watched the game and there was nothing shocking about it, Clemson is a great team and they had the better players. Actually I kind of saw it coming, and everyone else should have too. So "shocking" news doesn't really shock me any longer.

(Editor's note: I turn 48 on May 25, I merely throw the approaching 50 thing out every so often as I'm trying to ease myself into the thought of my sixth decade of life.)

That said, I was pretty shocked to hear that NASCAR driver Carl Edwards had decided to step out of his car and pursue "other interests" with a year to go in his contract. Edwards is just 37 and back in November was a clean restart away from having the chance to win a championship. So, to step away now seems a bit strange.

Needless to say, the speculation in the NASCAR community is running rampant, and no one seems to be coming closer to the reason why. Don't expect the reclusive Edwards to give up his reasons in his Wednesday press conference, either. He doesn't work that way.

And, frankly, he owes no one an explanation. He has his reasons and whatever those are, they are valid.

I think the answer is simple: the guy just wanted to go home.

No question, the life of a racer, while glamorous at times, is tough, especially in NASCAR's way-too-long 38-week season. Their season is so long (and unnecessarily so, because the product has become a dog), women conceive a child and give birth to it in less time than it takes to run a Cup season.

That's a lot of time on the road. After joining John Cummiskey Racing at Road America in June, I spent about 20 days away from home the rest of the year. A very modest number, but that's for four race weekends and two test sessions. Multiply that out to a long race season and include commercials, photo shoots and sponsor commitments, and you are looking at well over 200 days away from home every year.

Lots of drivers have dealt with it by bringing their family with them, and I think that is great. It's probably not the easiest thing, to raise a family as part of a traveling show, but it seems like the families that do make the best of it and seem very close because of it.

That wasn't the case for Edwards' family, which includes his wife -- who is a neurologist -- and their two kids. A very private man, Carl is also very protective of his family, to the point where very few people know anything about them. While I take my hat off to him for that, it also means that when he hits the road, he goes by himself, meaning probably 50 or so times a year he kisses his family goodbye and leaves them for days at a time. That has to wear on someone after a while.

One thing I always thought about Edwards is that racing doesn't consume him. He loves to race, he loves to drive and loves to compete, but at the same time when the day is over he doesn't think about it all that much. It's his job, he's very, very good at it, but there is more to his life than that.

I don't think of this as his "retirement", I think of it more as a "sabbatical". I think he just wants to go home and stay there for a while, to support his wife in her career and to wake up and see his kids every day. As a dad to a college junior and high school sophomore, I get it. Once you have kids of your own you are cognizant of the passage of time because it's right in front of you. The little tiny things you brought home from the hospital grow and learn every day, and before you know it they are embarking on their own lives.

Edwards is in a wonderful position, he's had a solid and satisfying career that while it may be missing a couple of pieces (like a championship or Daytona 500 win), his 28 victories ties him for 26th place all-time, and he's made by some estimates upwards of $80-$90 million in his career. If this is it for him, he's left a legacy of a really nice career.

In my mind, two options exist for a guy like him: be happy and walk away satisfied with what he's accomplished, or continue chasing things that may never come. Given what we are beginning to learn about concussions and head injuries, and the fact that he has had some nasty crashes in his career, why not just go with option A?

Option A is walking away and choosing health and family, and I have to say I can respect that. There are a couple of other drivers out there, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who I wish would make the same choice. I really do worry what will happen to Junior if he has another concussion.

One thing that really sticks with me from my time as a sportswriter is that pro athletes are just people who happen to have really cool jobs, but just because they have those jobs doesn't mean they aren't immune from or struggle with the same things the rest of us do.

I remember once following Tiger Woods around a golf course for a story I was working on, and after following him for a couple of days I realized I wouldn't switch my life with his for a second. I would love to play golf for a living, but being under a microscope and being under constant pressures from all directions would exhaust me. And from what I've read is going on in Tiger's life now, it's done the same to him.

At a certain point, the money becomes irrelevant because there is so much of it. They are still human beings with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. If his heart is telling him to stay home with his family, support his wife's career or chase another passion in his life, who am I do judge? The only person he has to answer to is himself.

If that's behind his decision, I have a lot of respect for him. Whatever his reasons, happy trails, Carl, you had a heck of a career.

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