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Stanton cries as they pull away from the McCoys' mammoth legacy and magical playland, away from Mom and Sis and the brother who has been Stanton's best friend and rival all his life ... and into the teeth of a snowstorm. His exhausted father's eyes can stay open no longer. "I'll drive, Dad," murmurs Stanton, nestled against him. His left hand reaches to take the wheel, his left leg reaches across his father to work the accelerator and brake. For three hours, as Stan sleeps, the 13-year-old drives the turbocharged pickup truck hauling a trailer on a one-lane road through a blizzard.
Adulthood, way before its time. Stanton cooks their dinners, keeps the checking account, pays the mortgage and electricity bill. He's the caretaker, the one always trying to make sure Dad and everyone else are O.K.—but they're not. David and Missy drop out of school, leaving them to scramble later for their GEDs. At his parents' divorce hearing, Stanton supports his dad's version of their conflicts, then sits alone outside the California courthouse and weeps. He returns home with his dad with the ashes of exile in his mouth.
He takes a long, cool look at his life. He's a wisp of a 15-year-old who looks and sounds as if he's just located puberty. He's washing cars at his father's new dealership in Colorado, which is already gurgling down the drain. He's sure not going to college.
But failure's not an option. Not for a McCoy-Barrett. Hadn't his great-grandparents split back when his grandfather was also about 13, and left Dave McCoy to his own devices, a teenage drifter jumping freight trains and living in the woods with hoboes during the Depression ... and still going on to create a ski resort that would sell for $365 million?
Didn't Stanton's father, on the set of the TV series Custer, stick needles full of xylocaine and cortisone into his busted kneecap to kill the pain so he could keep tumbling off galloping horses in battle scenes rather than disappoint his mentor, Needham?
Wouldn't Stanton's mother—convinced she was a failure when she was scratched from the U.S. Olympic ski team on the eve of the 1968 Winter Games—be so wracked by remorse that 17 years later, suffering from hypothermia in the final miles of an Ironman, she'd tell herself she'd die before she stopped and at the finish line, nearly do just that? Apologizing to her dad, she'd lose consciousness in his arms and end up in an intensive-care unit with a core body temperature of 87°.
But how do you answer the genetic cry for a life larger than life when you're small, softspoken and so sensitive to others' needs? Stanton keeps finding himself, at 3 a.m., painting meticulous watercolors of this image that's gotten lodged in his head, this machine his dad competed in but never conquered: a race car. Stanton goes to Talladega and talks driver Phil Barkdoll into letting him crouch on the floorboard of his car and hang on to the roll bar—if a tire blows and they hit the wall, Stanton's dead—so he can feel 33-degree banked curves and 180 mph. Wow.
He tears up the World Karting Association circuit at 16, wins 21 of 28 go-kart races. He burrows into a fat library book containing the names, addresses and phone numbers of the vice presidents of marketing and the CEOs of nearly every corporation in the U.S. He needs a patron to take the next step. Forget his wealthy grandfather and his godfather, Paul, two men he worships; he can't bring himself to ask them. Forget his father; Dad's lost his dealership in the divorce, and he's back, battered and 45, at the stunts, doing car flips and spinal surgeries.
Five grand. One race. A foot in the door. That's all Stanton asks of the money men, a chance to pilot a NASCAR Dash Series car—a scaled-down version of the big boys' chariots—at the season opener in Daytona. In return they'll get stickers on his car and all his winnings. He cold-calls executives, a hundred a week, and types rough three-paragraph proposals every moment he's not in school or working. He lowers his voice on the phone so they won't think he's a girl. He's heartbreakingly polite. He pays for the calls and mailings by busing tables, pulling weeds, mowing lawns: the 16-year-old every parent yearns for. He keeps a log of the replies. No. Not available. No answer. No. No. Soon he's sending out 30- and 40-page proposals highlighted by matted watercolors of his race car parked in front of his targeted businesses, and a letter from Godfather Paul saying, "To Whom It May Concern: This letter serves to introduce Stanton Barrett. He is a gentleman. He is also a fierce son of a bitch. The two in his case are mutually compatible." No. Sorry. Call back. Not available. No. No. No. And then, after two years of that, comes the reward for such remarkable adolescent grit....
No. It doesn't. No one gives him that five grand to break in. Behold Stanton Barrett: The kid who hurls himself over and over into the jaws of no.