Brant James
Wednesday April 16th, 2008

Scott Pruett's yellow race car whirred through the corners of the winding track.

"Just a few more laps!'' he thought.

Scott had waited many races for his chance to win in one of these big, rumbly stock cars. Today was going to be the day.

Victory seemed certain. Then ... boom!

Scott went spinning and spinning and a black race car went whizzing past.

"No!'' he exclaimed. "Juan Pablo is supposed to be my teammate.''

Scott was very cross. He didn't win. He finished fifth. It wasn't what he wanted. But he learned a very valuable lesson that day.

* * * * *

"I've been around racing long enough to see that even the best-laid plans and everything that's talked about sometimes can go out the window,'' said Pruett, arguably America's most decorated road racer, and a part-time author of racing-themed children's books with his wife, Judy.

Pruett considered his emotions with eight laps left in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race last year at Autodromos Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, and the notion that Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammate Juan Pablo Montoya had turned him in a corner as he led. He thought about how long he'd waited to finally add a NASCAR victory to an otherwise complete resume. And how it felt to watch Montoya win his first instead.

"I'd have to say -- I hate to use the word -- but [expletive] happens,'' Pruett said. "It does everywhere.''

Though that word is unlikely to represent the letter 's' in the Pruett couple's fourth book, Racing Through the Alphabet, it might be the real moral of the story of Mexico City 2007.

"I hope he would make [the book] about sportsmanship,'' said Judy, with a bit of an edge to her laughter. "Or 'watch your back.'''

But that's just one chapter. A nine-time champion -- winning with sports cars and open-wheel cars alike -- Pruett ranks among the most successful to ever compete in the Grand-Am Series, remaining equally relevant and elite at age 48.

He is the Daytona Prototype career leader in wins (16) and poles (21), a two-time champion going for his third win in as many Grand-Am starts this season in Mexico City this weekend, where he will race sports cars and the No. 40 Dodge for Ganassi in the Nationwide Series. He won two CART races, was the Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year in 1995. He also won two races in the International Race of Champions series.

A record-tying three-time winner of the 24-hour Daytona race, the last two as overall champion with Montoya as a teammate, Pruett remains anonymous except to the most ardent of fans and his peers. Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, a native Californian like Pruett , said in 2006, "I remember as a kid racing go-karts, Scott Pruett was a god."

Signed by PPI Motorsports, Pruett made 28 of his 39 career Sprint Cup starts in 2000 but was eventually replaced by Ricky Craven. That team, still the last single-car venture to win a Sprint Cup race (in 2003), has since folded and Pruett's few NASCAR dalliances come as a road racing specialist for Ganassi. His NASCAR career to this point: Forty-eight starts in the Cup and Nationwide series, with four top fives but no victories.

With precious few chances for Pruett to add that last line to his resume, Mexico City meant something last year, and to lose it the way he did was agitating. He fumed on pit road after the race, wondering aloud how Montoya could do such a thing. An ESPN shot of Ganassi's two pit boxes showed the boss with his arms crossed and a bearing toothy snarl, co-owner Felix Sabates raising his arms in dismay and Montoya crew chief Brad Parrott seemingly attempting to pull the brim of his cap down over his entire body.

"Juan's just starting out his career in NASCAR. He's a wonderful driver and he's an excellent racer,'' said Judy Pruett. "He's going to have a lot of success. But [for Scott] to be that close and to have it happen like that, by your teammate, I think it was really hard at the time. But because Scott is a professional, he moves on. I think that's how they keep their sanity.''

Moving on has been a theme for Pruitt, a barnstormer at heart who would have reveled in the era when drivers like Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt or Dan Gurney could win races in stockers, roadsters and Indy cars in a single weekend. But he's never been about dabbling.

"You can do a lot of things, but if you don't win at any of them, then you're not worth a crap anyway,'' Pruett said. "I think if you can diversify and go win, you're a well-rounded driver. Look at Mario Andretti: an Indy 500-winner and a Formula 1 championship, CART championship, Daytona 500. I like that.''

Overcoming the desire to remain in a niche, where competition is comfortable and life is easier is crucial, he said. But then again, motive is everything.

"You have to be careful,'' he said. "You've seen some guys make the jump to go do other things. Some guys that went from IndyCar to Cup, it was devastating to their careers. Look at A.J. Allmendinger. We did a press conference together [in 2006] at [Sonoma, Calif.] and I said, 'Dude, it's just going to get harder and harder.' He said, 'Are you trying to cheer me up?' I said, 'I'm not trying to cheer you up, I'm being a realist.'"

Allmendinger, who won five Champ Car races in 2006 before jumping to NASCAR, has been temporarily removed from his Sprint Cup ride in the No. 84 Toyota at Red Bull Racing.

"For me personally, I want to be remembered as one of those guys who was successful in whatever he did,'' said Pruett.

That's why a first NASCAR win would mean so much -- why his venture with wife, a retired occupational therapist, has been so rewarding. The books were born as an outlet for Judy's creativity when she sold her East Bay, Calif., practice and became a stay-at-home mother with their second child, Taylor, in 1998.

"It was something to do when I was rocking the baby and doing rhymes,'' she recalled. "Me and Scott started trying to one-up each other and we started writing them down. Then we really got into the educational aspect of it all.

"It's been so rewarding. Seeing our names on the spine of the book, knowing it would be on little kids' bookshelves and knowing when they pulled out their favorite book, hopefully, it would be ours before they went to bed.''

The Pruetts hoped to sell a few thousand copies of their first children's book, 12 Little Race Cars, but have moved more than 100,000 of their first three books.

"I always felt there wasn't enough stuff around for kids at racetracks. Most stuff you see if adult or adult-based: woman's shirts and hats and stuff,'' he said. "It came down to giving the kids something they can take home.''

And if that NASCAR win ever comes, what a storybook ending that would be.

Never stop trying...

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