Fear is the cheapest room in the house. You deserve better living conditions. No, Dad doesn't say that. Hafiz, the 14th-century Persian poet, did. Dad just lives it. So never admit you're scared. Not even when you're five and Dad teaches you how to swim by heaving you into Burt Reynolds's backyard pool, smack in front of Burt's flame, Chrissie Evert!
Every now and then the X Family throttles down for a moment and looks around. Anybody seen Stanton lately? Nope, matter of fact, they haven't. He has slunk away again and burrowed beneath a bed—just to see if anyone, amid all that fuss over hotshot David, will notice that the shy middle child's missing—and sulked himself to sleep.
Then a funny thing happens. The runt can never overtake David in their daily match races on Big Wheels, bikes, skateboards and 50-cc motorcycles. But he realizes he can jam his boot between the wheel and the front fork of his bike, stop it dead and get flung farther than David dares to. He can't whup David in the backyard boxing matches their father sets up, but he can keep wading in and absorbing blows. He can't beat David down one of Mammoth's runs, but he can slip into the adjacent woods and ski solo among birches and pines, over rocks, off escarpments, away from comparisons. "Holy crap!" David yelps. "He's a kamikaze!" He can't be the X Family's fastest, strongest, brashest or brightest. But he can be its grittiest and most relentless risk taker.
At home, his parents' marriage deteriorates, and Stanton keeps swallowing tension. Outdoors, he burns it like fuel. At age seven, when he still looks like he's four, his mother sees him hiss down Mammoth on skis, helicopter off a cliff, land backward and flip a dozen times, the poles, gloves and jacket torn from his tiny body. She races to him in horror. He rises ... wobbles ... then bolts away—to do the exact same thing again.
OKAY, KID. Let's up the ante. Here's what seven-year-old Stanton must do today: watch his father shimmy into a thigh-high, three-wheeled, dorsal-finned red rocket attached to a Sidewinder missile, flick the power switch and hold that bastard in a straight line till he's moving faster than the speed of sound. Good ol' Hal Needham, Dad's maniac mentor, tried to bust the land speed record himself in 1976, three years earlier, tempting death when the parachutes failed and he hit a ditch and went airborne for 180 feet. Older, wiser and far richer from directing Smokey and the Bandit, Needham decided to sink $1.1 million into a second record attempt with a new Rocket Car, add the Sidewinder... and let Stan Barrett drive it. "I knew he'd do it even if it killed him," says Hal.
Stanton? He's a funny kid. He goes off alone to the side of the runway at the Bonneville Salt Flats and collects rocks to paint while Dad's strange dance with death unfolds. Godfather Paul Newman watches the early attempts, then, unable to bear the thought of witnessing the fragmentation of his pal, begs off when the quest shifts to Edwards Air Force Base.
Their first fear is that Stan will black out when he trespasses Mach 1. The second fear is that if the Rocket Car's nose veers sideways, even a few inches, or just one part breaks at that velocity, she'll spin out of control. The third is that the Sidewinder—one of the six they bought from the U.S. Navy for $6,000 each to provide an extra 100 mph when the motor hits 640—will come loose when it's fired and decapitate Stan. The fourth is that when he deploys the parachutes, Stan will gray out from the negative g-jolt.
Eighteen times—before each one never knowing if it's the last he'll see his father—Stanton watches him hiss off into the haze. On the 18th, 16.8 seconds after ignition and 12 seconds after the Sidewinder fires, emitting a shock wave that lifts the two back wheels off the earth for 700 feet, he breaks the speed of sound at 739.666 mph—101 faster than any other earthbound man has ever traveled. If he'd continued traveling on the front wheel alone for just 40 more yards, the telemetrist calculates, the Rocket Car would've rolled and disintegrated. "I don't really even like to think about that feeling," Stan tells an interviewer, "because you want to have it again."
Wheeee! Next thing Stanton knows, his fingers are wrapped around infield chain-link fences as he watches Dad blow by in Cup races at Watkins Glen and Talladega in the Skoal Bandit car bankrolled in 1980 by Reynolds and Needham. Dad's 37. His car-racing experience? He saw a NASCAR race—once. The good ol' boys don't know what to make of him, especially after he howls into the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel and does a 180-degree spin-out right in front of Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. He manages two top 10 finishes in 13 races over two seasons, but who wants to let a guy who wrecks cars for a living draft on his bumper?
Suddenly all the fun and X Games screech to a halt. Suddenly Stanton discovers, even after all those ski jumps, what it really feels like when the bottom drops out. His parents' marriage ruptures, and his father's packing for Colorado when 13-year-old Stanton, to everyone's shock, starts packing too. His heart's too soft to bear the sight of Dad departing alone, and how, if there's a thousand miles between them, will Stanton ever win the approval he's been craving since he began crawling into Stan's stunt bag as a tyke?