The optimistic voice talks slowly, trying hard to hide the hint of desperation. But look within that deep Southern drawl and you'll find distress inside a man whose current job involves nothing more than asking for help.
For Carl Long, it wasn't supposed to be this way.
"I've always been able to float pretty well," says NASCAR's famous underdog-turned-red herring. "But I can tell you right now I've got a lot on my shoulders, and I ain't a real good swimmer right now."
Eight months after a $200,000 fine crippled Long's self-owned team and sent shockwaves through the sport, he's struggling to survive amidst a cavalcade of hard-luck circumstances.
Best known for flipping his car in a wild wreck at Rockingham in 2004, the 42-year-old Long had made a total of 23 Cup starts during the last decade, finishing only five with a best of 29th. But despite patchwork funding and equipment that was two and sometimes three years older than the competition, Long won the hearts of fans with his never-say-die attitude and ability to never stop dreaming.
"I already knew at 40 years old, I'm not going to be the next Jeff Gordon," he says now. "My window, my opportunities to succeed, I didn't take advantage of when I made a good race. We still raced, we still advertised for people, and I still tried to build something. But last year's deal...it kind of stopped me."
"Last year's deal" involved a crippling penalty that still puzzles most in the NASCAR garage. Bringing his self-owned No. 46 to an exhibition race, the All-Star Showdown, Long's car cooked an engine and headed to the garage by Lap 3. But during a random teardown in postrace inspection, NASCAR discovered that its motor exceeded size limits by .17 cubic inches. Considering the circumstances of the rules violation (it was an exhibition event involving an underfunded, part-time team) most expected a simple fine and probation.
They thought wrong.
NASCAR dropped a 20-ton anvil on Long, suspending him for 12 races while slapping on a 200-point penalty and $200,000 fine. It was an immediate death knell for a team without a sponsor, whose 35th-place finish that day only paid five grand.
"I'm not saying that I should have gotten off scot-free," Long says after months of sending out petitions and even setting up a charity ride with David Reutimann to pay the fine still left him short -- fans were only able to raise $25,000 for the cause. "The motor was wrong, I don't deny that. But why the severity of the fine?"
The tough sentence became a sizzling summertime story, with fans decrying NASCAR's picking on the little guy while it was mired in an economic slump. The organization has always defended itself by claiming it was just playing by the rules -- that Long still believes can be selective when it benefits NASCAR.
"What bothers me and everybody else that's been in the garage area, there's things with lots of teams where there was not an intent to cheat -- and they worked with the teams," Long explained. "They worked with the crew chiefs. I've seen so much stuff. I even know a race team that had motors a lot bigger than mine, that for one reason or another they had to try to keep their sponsor and they wasn't running so good. Then, all of a sudden, they run 13th, and NASCAR -- I mean, there's some people at NASCAR that inspected the things, and you never heard nothing about it because it was good for the sport. They didn't win, but they retained their sponsor, and a bunch of guys retained their jobs."
That's a tough thing for a guy to stomach -- especially when he's no longer employed. Banned from the Cup track over the summer, Long focused on his family, putting his own team aside while working a full-time job as utility man for Front Row Motorsports. It wasn't his dream, but it remained a way to earn a living in NASCAR as he looked to rebuild his future.
But then, the rug got pulled out from under him.
In mid-November, Front Row made end-of-season cutbacks with the No. 34, and Long was among those let go. The team has since recovered financially, expanding from one to three cars for 2010, but Long remains on the outside looking in with them and every other NASCAR team heading to Daytona next week.
"When they let me go in November, this is how Jerry Freeze [Front Row's GM] put it to me. 'Carl, we know that you are a survivor. We know that you are a hustler. You will find another deal. You have lots of skills. You will find another deal, but for us, we just can't afford to pay what we're paying to keep you going.'"
Freeze counters: "He's a really fun guy, and we certainly wish him all the best and will help him any way we can, There's a huge value that he brings [to the table]. It just felt like he wasn't really happy just being the utility guy for Front Row Motorsports, and we didn't have anything we were ready to put him in that's a significant jump in the organization."
Still, according to Freeze, Long's bad break with NASCAR eventually took its toll.
"[The penalty] just chewed up so much of his attention and focus, and it was hard for us to sit there," he said. "This guy, he's wanting to crew chief your car, but yet he's on the cell phone half the day with lawyers and media folks and whoever else just trying to drum up support for his case. And it had nothing to do with Front Row Motorsports. Nothing to do with his job."
So out on the streets Long went, and that's when his life truly started to sour.
The life of an underdog in NASCAR is a constant sales job, bargaining for spare parts like a street vendor to simply bring a skin-and-bones car to the track. But it's a sad scene when you walk in to hustle, only for everyone else to walk out.
"I didn't think it would be that big a deal to go find another job," Long explains. "But what I have found is that the problem with this fine, smaller teams -- Nationwide teams or smaller Cup teams or even Truck teams -- a lot of the guys have brought me in to get hired, and then after I've been gone I've called back some, and they're like, 'Hey man, we want you over here, but our owner, he's scared you done pissed off somebody way big at NASCAR for somebody to fine you what they did for that little small infraction."
Long's view of what that means: "I think I've pretty much been blackballed from NASCAR."
Still, Long trudges on, telling his story and begging for work to anyone in the business who'll listen. Just a few weeks back, he seemed to land a job as a start-and-park driver for a Nationwide team -- something he's been adamantly against doing throughout his career -- but the spot went to a "better fit."
At 42, you don't get three strikes in what's increasingly a young man's world. One is about all it takes.
"In Carl's ultimate heart, he wants to be a driver," says Freeze. "He's not ready to give it up yet. So, that's one of those things -- we could make him a crew chief tomorrow, or a shop foreman, and somebody walks up with some money and says, 'Carl, we want you to drive so many races, and we only got this much money, can you make it work?' Well, by God, he'd walk away from us and go, because he's just got that drive to do it. So, God Bless Him. I hope it can work out."
Right now, that's easier said than done. As a contract employee, Long was unable to collect unemployment, and was recently scammed $1500 by a jobhunting service that took him to small claims court. That leaves the underdog in desperate straits, selling off his Cup car and paying his bills by dipping into the money that was raised by fans for his fine.
"You get in a desperate situation and you have to do desperate things," he says, claiming he still plans to honor his pledge to give back donor money if the fine's never paid. "I only took in about $15,000 [minus bank fees and other expenses]. I had it sitting in an account to go back to NASCAR or whichever charity that we needed to donate to, and right now I'm the biggest charity that I know of."
With Speedweeks looming, Long's plan is to drive an ARCA hauler down for rookie Sean Corr, using the first week at Daytona to network and search for any NASCAR job he can find. He still has a Nationwide car he hopes to bring to the track someday, but whether he'll ever get back in Cup with his own team seems unlikely at best. To get around the fine, he needs to transfer his car into someone else's name, and even still the sport could go after him for the $200,000 owed under his wife's name.
NASCAR representatives were at a social media summit Thursday and unavailable for comment. However, they've remained consistent that the penalty will stand, and Long is out of appeals. He's already been denied by the National Stock Car Racing Commissioner, NASCAR's equivalent of the Supreme Court.
That means the passion is being slowly sapped from one of the sport's happy-go-lucky people. NASCAR's biggest example of its blue-collar roots now seems lost in this era of white-collar control.
"I'm not souring," Long insists. "I'm just saying that my boiling temperature is higher than most of the rest. Maybe my fuse should have soured a long time ago. I always took care of everything I was supposed to... but I guess good guys do finish last."