The wind's gusting. It's crazy, what he's about to do on that leg, on that mountain. It's crazy what a lifetime of regret will do to a mother and son still trying to rewrite that family earthquake scene from 16 years past. Penny's not paragliding with him; she's just holding his harness to anchor him because his leg's too weak to hold his ground, and the wind could sweep him away before he's.... Oh, s---, it just did! A gust grabs the paraglider; they both take off. There's an instant when she can release and drop to safety, but she's not going to let go of her son ... not again.
Into the sky they levitate, the Icarus and Oedipal myths entwined in a rising double helix. "Don't let go!" shouts Stanton, trying to control the jerking wings. He's got to get them down before she loses her grip. He dips a wing, they hurtle toward earth. Penny bangs against a boulder and falls on her face. Stanton careers through the rocks and finally skids to a halt.
What's he doing, on a devastated leg that needs more surgery and six more screws, paragliding? "Doctor said to keep my weight off it," he murmurs, shrugging.
SISYPHUS WAS Albert Camus's hero. Condemned by the gods to shove a boulder up a mountain for eternity, only to have it roll back to the bottom each time he neared the summit, he resorted to neither complaint nor suicide. He kept retrieving and shoving the boulder.
Stanton borrows from friends to keep racing. He borrows from banks. He sells his transmission gears and welding torches, cannibalizes himself to sustain himself. Stanton stays in dungeon motels. He loses mechanics and crew chiefs, jack men and gas men, to higher-profile teams. He networks sponsors and puts together elaborate marketing strategies, presenting them like a polished Madison Avenue veteran at corporate board meetings ... only to watch some sponsors, a year or two later, gravitate to bigger teams. He runs out of nuts and bolts at the track. He runs out of toilet paper at his tiny shop, a bare-bones metal garage just north of Charlotte where the electricity shorts out if the microwave and minifridge are turned on at the same time. Stanton grinds himself to dust, forever rasping and bleary with colds, flus, insomnia, tension headaches, the kind a man gets when he walks into opponents' fortresses 100 times the size of his, with 50 times more than his seven to 12 employees. He rejects his brother's offers to join him full time in Hollywood. He's so close to that one breakthrough win, sitting top 10 late in nearly 20 races over the years, but something always snaps or someone spins him or some poor sap in his crew turns a 13-second pit stop into a 28-second nightmare.
He cries when no one's looking. But he never whines about the script—that crazy one with the ridiculous stunt in which, as he's trying to escape the shadows of the family redwoods at 168 mph, he has to pull a 180 right back to them, to complete something interrupted. The one that has him driving 4 1/2 hours from stunts in L.A. to Rocking K Ranch just to cook dinner for his mom and grandparents, then driving 4 1/2 hours right back to catch a red-eye to Charlotte to work all day on his race car. The one that has him flying to the Balkans in 1993 to don a bulletproof vest and accompany his father into the Bosnian battlefront to deliver 7,000 Christmas gifts to children suffering from cancer in a bombed-out hospital in Mostar. That rarest of lone wolves and speed freaks—the one not hightailing away from his past.
"He's a sweetheart of a person," says driver Kenny Wallace, "and a damn good driver who just hasn't had the opportunity to drive good cars."
Until, finally, 2003. Jack Roush—owner of a NASCAR megateam—anoints Stanton as one of his Busch Series drivers, and at long last comes the reward for 13 years of remarkable grit....
No. It doesn't. Four top 10 finishes and 15 races later, OdoBan—a cleaning product and his primary sponsor—shuts off the cash faucet, never giving Stanton the year's grace that Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson would get to ripen inside a good car, with plenty more where that came from, so they could drive each one like they stole it. Stanton is cast back into NASCAR wilderness. Only the game's changing beyond recognition, with so much expensive technology and testing that the small fry all get flattened. Flooded with so much marketing that the sponsors begin selecting the drivers—younger and younger, of course; this is America—and the Kasey Kahnes, the Carl Edwardses and Kyle Busches become the rock stars, the brand names. Tough luck, Stanton. Too early and too late. Too young when the old lions ruled; too old today, at 35, when the cubs do.
"He'll be in it till he can't buy a gallon of gas," sighs his grandfather. "He's a very talented kid. But at that level, you have to focus on one thing to do it well—why's he doing five at once?"