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IS STANTON a slave to compulsion, hurtling into those jaws because the fangs of desperation are hot on his tail? Or is he a boy riding the tailwind of a love he's freely chosen? Like all heroes in all the best love stories, he's both.
God, it feels like love when he sits in that race car and the engine howl fills his ears, the vibrations sing through his body, the smells flare his nostrils and the remorseless demand for perfection in every fragment of that machine, in every interplay of eyes, reflexes, brakes, clutch, gear shift, steering wheel and accelerator occupies all his conscious mind: unifies him. It's his world. Not the relatives who complicated his past, the corporate captains who frustrate his future, the NASCARites who just plain don't get him. Every man out there on the track can kill him. But no one can touch him.
Damn, it smells like compulsion when Dad shows up at one of his early races and barks over the radio, "Go! Go! You're fading!" Dad doesn't get it. He never had to bus tables and sell T-shirts to cobble together a race car, never had to conserve it so one wreck wouldn't finish him. "Dad," cries Stanton, "it's the car!"
"O.K. Hold on. I've got an old woman I'm going to put on with you."
Stanton blinks. "Why?"
"Because you're driving like one!" barks Dad, grinning as his son's car surges.
Lord, it looks like both, compulsion and love, when Stanton's working alone all night in a buddy's basement garage on a car bought on the cheap, falling asleep beneath the rear-end suspension, strapping the car onto a rented open trailer, clasping it to a rented U-Haul van jammed with rims and borrowed tools, driving a thousand miles and parking it right beside the big teams' T-Rex tractor trailers, snatching a couple of hours' sleep in a tent pitched among the Pettys' and Allisons' motor homes, wolfing down eggs scrambled over a pump kerosene burner, feeling just as small as he appeared from the cockpits of the helicopters hauling in the alpha drivers and megasponsors.
He has to pay his way in, buy his first ride in the Dash Series with $4,500 that he earned as a high school senior by driving a dune buggy like a bloody maniac as a stuntman in a 1992 movie, Freejack. He shines right out of the chute in the Dash Series, riding second in points until a couple of late-season wrecks drop him to sixth. It takes a death (driver Clifford Allison's at Michigan International Speedway) for a seat with the big boys to open up, his first ride in the Busch Series—now Nationwide—at Bristol at age 19. He's the youngest driver; sky's the limit, no?
No. He doesn't quite fit. He's so quiet, so slight, almost fragile. Walking around the garages in a surf-brand shirt that hangs over fashionably fraying jeans, his shaggy hair poking out of the backward ball cap—not exactly the way Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are rollin' in the early '90s. Ten years later they might love him, but not now, when NASCAR's still a 30-and-over club of prayer-sayin' Southerners who consider drivers from California soft.
He gets a ride here and there, but nobody big's willing to trust him. By 20 he's swallowed enough dust and reality to know that waiting tables and selling T-shirts won't keep the quest breathing. He goes to Monroe, N.C., to help his father do stunts for another Needham sequel, Bandit Goes Country, and sees Dad break a spinal fusion and rupture another disk. One more death-flirting stunt remains on Hal's shoot list, a crazy jump and flip through a barn. Stanton begs for the chance to do his first high-risk job, and finally Dad relents. But dammit, Stanton better not take it faster than 55.