The guy who makes your popcorn fly on Friday night can't be a Saturday-afternoon hero?
IMAGINE THE world if each man had to pay for his passion with an act of physical courage, if he had to flirt with death to fund his dream. If Gabriel García Márquez had to jump a motorcycle over a truck to purchase typewriter ribbon, would we have One Hundred Years of Solitude? If Thomas Edison had had to leap from a sixth-floor window to afford filament and glass bulbs, would we be reading García Márquez by candlelight?
Here's a real world. It's full of rich owners and flush corporate sponsors and $18,000-a-day wind tunnels and gleaming 400,000-square-foot shops where each week armies of engineers and mechanics recalibrate a car's setup for the racing surface, the lap length and the banking of the curves at that weekend's track. No, the most difficult thing to do in all of sports is not, as rumor has it, to hit major league splitters, sliders and curves. It's to own and drive a car on a shoestring budget and succeed, even now and then, in NASCAR.
A few such shoestringers remain. But they're mostly the start-and-park guys, the ones who show up on the Nationwide circuit hoping just to qualify and reap the $20,000 or $30,000 reward for doing so, pulling their cars off the track after five or 10 laps to save them to start and park another day. None of them actually race on a near-regular basis. Except Stanton Barrett.
The men upon whom NASCAR now bestows her favors—the big-team drivers who blow into town by private jet, then helicopter over the traffic to the raceway, hop into somebody else's race car to drive a couple of hundred miles and then jet back home—keep glancing over at this Stanton guy. He's a loner. A gypsy. A mystery.
"How do you do it?" Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have asked him at prerace drivers meetings. Their mothers have taught them better than to ask him the next question, the bigger one, the one his own mother kept asking after she saw him hit the wall at California Speedway in 2004 with one of the highest sustained g-forces ever registered in a NASCAR black box: Why ... why?
A few months ago at a Nationwide race in Montreal, his colleagues' perplexity only deepened. "Is Stanton crazy?" an opponent's crew member asked as he watched Stanton's 65-year-old father corkscrew his stiff, ravaged body through the window and into the seat of a race car, then follow his stiff, ravaged son onto the track.
"Apparently they both are," came the reply from Stanton's crew.
NO ONE ever understands a hero's calculus. No one has a clue what this one must do—besides jump four roofs on a motorcycle—to hold a seat in one of the world's largest floating four-wheel crap games.
He's driving on an interstate with no hands. He's two-thumbing a text message telling his secretary how to execute this week's sleight-of-hand with his six maxed-out credit cards. He's making sure—on his other cellphone, cradled against his shoulder—that his crew chief makes the adjustments to maximize the caster gains on his car. Now he's flipping open his laptop to check an address. He's scanning billboards for potential sponsors while he's eating a sandwich balanced on his left thigh and petting his black Labrador retriever's head, perched on his right thigh, and changing lanes on three hours' sleep at 75 mph ... with his knees. This is what Stanton Barrett must do today. It's no specific day. It's just another day.