Look into Mike Green-well's eyes, and you can see the fire burning. Talk to him for five minutes, and you get the impression that his 12-year career with the Boston Red Sox didn't give him half the rush he's feeling now.
Twice a month from January to November, Greenwell, 35, races limited late-model stock cars, usually at Charlotte County Speedway in Punta Gorda, Fla. He's in his first full season behind the wheel, and though he's still searching for a victory, he's having the time of his life. To Greenwell, becoming a top driver—maybe even in NASCAR—has long been a dream. Growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., he had two loves, baseball and motor sports, the latter owing to a stock car race his father took him to at age four. It wasn't until his 19th birthday that he raced for the first time, driving a stock car to a fourth-place finish in Naples, Fla., on July 18, 1982. A few days later the Red Sox signed Greenwell, their third-round draft pick, and shipped him to Class A in Elmira, N.Y. His contract stipulated that he would not race.
That didn't dampen Green-well's enthusiasm. He assembled a racing team six years later, gained sponsorship, and entered his team in races all over the country, including many in the Busch Grand National Series. But as hard as he tried to get the no-racing clause removed from his contract, the Sox wouldn't budge.
He caused a stir in June 1991, when he drove three laps during a promotion at Seekonk Speedway, south of Boston. "I was in the first year of a four-year contract, and I was hitting, like, .330," says Greenwell. "I went to the speedway, signed some autographs and drove a few laps. Somebody caught it on tape, and the media made a big deal about it. I went up to [ Red Sox general manager] Lou Gorman and said, 'Well, I violated my contract. It looks like you should release me.' He told me he didn't release .300 hitters."
Greenwell played five more seasons with the Red Sox and finished with a .303 career average. He played briefly in Japan before a broken right foot led to his retirement in 1997 As soon as his foot healed, Greenwell inserted himself as the driver on his racing team. His progress has been steady, but he realizes he's not ready for the big time yet. "Racing is much more difficult than I thought it would be," he says. "I'm at a bit of a disadvantage because I'm going up against guys who have been doing this for years. Still, I think I'm ahead of schedule. I work on my car like everyone else, so I think I've earned the respect of the other drivers."
Greenwell's reel Monte Carlo, with his old Sox jersey number (39) painted on the hood in fluorescent yellow, blended in with other cars on a muggy Saturday evening in July. After a prerace test drive, Greenwell threw off his helmet, leaped out of the car and became animated. "This replaces the adrenaline of baseball," he said. "Some athletes are lost when they finish their careers. But racing has always been a part of my life, and it's important for me to keep close to my roots and do something like this."