This past weekend while a large portion of the stock car crowd paid attention to the long, late summer weekend in Bristol, TN there was a was an almost must-see event half a globe away.
Ferrari Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa suffered a serious head injury during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last month. A suspension coil spring fell from Rubens Barichello’s car and bounced into contact with the Brazilian’s helmet. Massa was following at approximately 170 mph when the contact was made.
Felipe’s car then crashed through a sand trap and into a retaining wall. Massa suffered a skull fracture and a concussion.
Fortunately his recovery is proceeding well. He is back home in Sao Paulo after spending nine days in a Hungarian hospital. He is even discussing his return to the cockpit.
During the early stages of the Massa recovery, Ferrari announced just about every all-time Formula 1 record holder Michael Schumacher would come out of retirement to fill the empty seat.
The plan was to have the German great step in starting with the European Grand Prix held in Valencia Spain this past weekend. It reminded me of Michael Jordan coming out of retirement for the first time. Not everyone is a basketball fan, but just about everyone does want to see this. I used the red pen to mark my calendar and debated whether I should set my alarm clock for the early morning East Coast time start.
But as most things that sound too good to be true, it usually is. Within days of the announcement of Schumacher’s return came another announcement: he would not. A motorcycle accident earlier this year left him with some neck pain that simply would not stand up to the rigors of a Formula 1 race.
For a few days I was a very excited motorsports enthusiast. I always am, but I was jazzed with this subject and eagerly counting down to the Valencia date. C’est la vie.
Now my mind often draws parallels from the rest of the auto-racing world towards our heavily populated NASCAR community in which we are a part of. Is there a Sprint Cup driver that could pull off as much excitement by coming out of retirement that Schumacher did? And stay within the real world. No Dale Earnhardt or Neil Bonnett comebacks by bending the laws of the Universe (as much as I wish I could at times).
When I was a child I was a big Richard Petty fan. After he retired I never took up the mantle for that one driver to pull for. But at the end of his career it was a struggle. As a fan I choose to remember him when he was in his prime, when he would rub fenders and contend for wins. Being out of a racecar for seventeen years would not make him more competitive today. So no I don’t think that is our guy. He would laterally compare to Schumacher in statistics and championships.
Come to think of it that whole group of stars from that era that are still with us have not driven in a long time. I am thinking David Pearson, the Allisons, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough, and Buddy Baker could not hop right in and wheel a car at the next race.
Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, and Sterling Marlin are three of the greats that are still driving on a part time basis.
Dale Jarrett only recently hung up his helmet, but he too reminded me of Petty in his last races. I prefer to fondly remember a DJ that was taking names at the front of the draft.
Ernie Irvan chose to step away for his own health more than ten years ago. I think he should stay where he is while we look back on the hard charging style he was known for.
One man who could generate some return buzz was Ricky Rudd. He already did it once. While taking a year off from driving, Rudd filled in for an injured Tony Stewart during the 2006 spring Cup race at Dover. It was an exciting moment but not the Cinderella finish. Rudd was penalized for speeding on pit road and soldiered on to a twenty-fifth place finish.
Our fendered world’s most likely candidate for pulling a Schumacher-esque “I’m going to come out of retirement and win the darn race” for real would be Rusty Wallace.
He is a series champion from 1989, ranked seventh in all-time Cup wins with fifty-five, and has only been retired since the end of the 2005 season. I believe he could still climb through a window and be competitive and maybe surprise us all with a little bit more, especially on a short track.
Now please understand this is not an endorsement or a prediction, just a fun ‘what-if’ game. The European Grand Prix had me genuinely more excited than usual for a Formula 1 event. I see our closest comparison at this time to be Rusty Wallace filling the same role.
However neither occasion looks to be taking place anytime soon. Wallace is happy working in television, owning his Nationwide team, and has said repeatedly that he is not coming back. But Schumacher was oh-so-close to making the “one more time” chant come true. I was hoping for Jordan with the Chicago Bulls type of return. Not Jordan with the Washington Wizards though.