I'm warning you at the door: This is a love story with no satisfaction. It's got plenty of Hollywood but none where you really need it. The hero will do anything to possess the one he has loved since adolescence. He'll run through flames, jump off roofs, step in front of moving cars. But he can never have her. She's changed too much. She's nothing like she was back when he began drawing pictures of her while everyone else slept, fleshing her in with his brush and watercolors, then dreaming of her when he dropped off from exhaustion.
Perhaps, you'll say, this futility revokes his credentials as a hero, and it's fruitless to argue. Clearly we'll never agree.
That's him, on the roof. He's about to lash a 20-pound battery to his back and a 50-pound movie camera to the tail of his motorcycle. Then he's going to take off, hit a ramp, launch over a wall at the edge of the roof, 100 feet aboveground, onto a second roof 20 feet away. A roof where the landing area's so tight that if he's two feet long or two feet short, he's wreckage. All for three sets of B.F. Goodrich tires. Isn't that a hero? But Stanton Barrett won't stop there. He'll keep going and leap again, to a third roof on the Los Angeles skyline, then to a fourth, nothing waiting below but pavement, paralysis or ...
Hold on. The movie director's experiencing a pang. "If you can't do it, no problem," he says.
December 8, 2008
Some mornings Stanton crawls to the bathroom because of all the nerve damage. Some of his headaches last three weeks. Some days his left leg collapses for no good reason, other than the lousy broken-hip repair and the femur that snapped and ripped through the flesh and left a hole so deep you can stick four fingers in—the 34th of 46 bones he has broken.
"I can do it," replies Stanton.
For $6,000. Three sets of racing tires. The director walks away. Stanton drifts into dreamland. Three stuntmen he once worked with have died on the job, one from a high fall, one from a car crash, one in a helicopter accident. Cradle 2 the Grave—that's the title of the movie he's shooting. That's the subtext to the faraway look in his eyes.
Camera ... speed ... ready ... action! He revs the Suzuki, launches off the first roof, lands on the second, flies toward the third. F---! The jolt from the first landing has sheared off the camera mounting; the camera's flying off, pulling the wiring attached to the battery on Stanton's back, ripping him off the motorcycle in midair. His body hurtles toward the third roof, and his landing shatters a foot in 12 places, bone tearing through toenail.
Oh, crap. His left foot. His brake and clutch foot. The one he'll have to jam to the floor 800 or 900 times next week when he drives in the 2002 Busch Series Charter Pipeline 250 in Madison, Ill. Unless, just for a week, he calls off the chase of the one he can't have. No, impossible—that's the reason he did the stunt in the first place.
Behold Stanton Barrett: the man who risks his life so he can afford to risk his life.
Wait a minute. What's going on here? You're trying to tell me that a sport in which thousands of people get so wound up that they show up a week too soon for a race, a sport in which more than 100,000 materialize on Saturdays and Sundays and six million more lean in at home, all to see which of those 43 men making a thousand left turns at 150 mph has got the biggest pair of 'em, that this guy, who has the biggest pair of all, hands down, has to jump between four city roofs on a motorcycle to buy three sets of tires so he can be one of the 43? When he really needs six sets of tires to make it through one race?
You're telling me that in a business in which megacorporations spend tens of millions of dollars on a driver whom they can turn into someone larger than life so that you'll associate his name with their products and reflexively reach for them in a store, that they're not tripping over each other to hire this guy? The handsome guy who's on the big screen all the time taking risks that the stars wouldn't take in a million years, making them look larger than life?
The guy in Spider-Man 2 whom Doctor Octopus dangles by the ankle from the roof of a 22-story building ($2,300: one race car fuel cell)? The guy crashing through a second-story warehouse window in Batman and Robin and landing his motorcycle in front of everyone as his posse races Robin and Batgirl ($3,000: three radios and headsets)?
The guy who makes your popcorn fly on Friday night can't be a Saturday-afternoon hero?
Imagine the world if each man had to pay for his passion with an act of physical courage, if he had to flirt with death to fund his dream. If Gabriel García Màrquez had to jump a motorcycle over a truck to purchase typewriter ribbon, would we have One Hundred Years of Solitude? If Thomas Edison had had to leap from a sixth-floor window to afford filament and glass bulbs, would we be reading García Màrquez by candlelight?
Here's a real world. It's full of rich owners and flush corporate sponsors and $18,000-a-day wind tunnels and gleaming 400,000-square-foot shops where each week armies of engineers and mechanics recalibrate a car's setup for the racing surface, the lap length and the banking of the curves at that weekend's track. No, the most difficult thing to do in all of sports is not, as rumor has it, to hit major league splitters, sliders and curves. It's to own and drive a car on a shoestring budget and succeed, even now and then, in NASCAR.
A few such shoestringers remain. But they're mostly the start-and-park guys, the ones who show up on the Nationwide circuit hoping just to qualify and reap the $20,000 or $30,000 reward for doing so, pulling their cars off the track after five or 10 laps to save them to start and park another day. None of them actually race on a near-regular basis. Except Stanton Barrett.
The men upon whom NASCAR now bestows her favors—the big-team drivers who blow into town by private jet, then helicopter over the traffic to the raceway, hop into somebody else's race car to drive a couple of hundred miles and then jet back home—keep glancing over at this Stanton guy. He's a loner. A gypsy. A mystery.
"How do you do it?" Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have asked him at prerace drivers meetings. Their mothers have taught them better than to ask him the next question, the bigger one, the one his own mother kept asking after she saw him hit the wall at California Speedway in 2004 with one of the highest sustained g-forces ever registered in a NASCAR black box: Why ... why?
A few months ago at a Nationwide race in Montreal, his colleagues' perplexity only deepened. "Is Stanton crazy?" an opponent's crew member asked as he watched Stanton's 65-year-old father corkscrew his stiff, ravaged body through the window and into the seat of a race car, then follow his stiff, ravaged son onto the track.
"Apparently they both are," came the reply from Stanton's crew.
No one ever understands a hero's calculus. No one has a clue what this one must do—besides jump four roofs on a motorcycle—to hold a seat in one of the world's largest floating four-wheel crap games.
He's driving on an interstate with no hands. He's two-thumbing a text message telling his secretary how to execute this week's sleight-of-hand with his six maxed-out credit cards. He's making sure—on his other cellphone, cradled against his shoulder—that his crew chief makes the adjustments to maximize the caster gains on his car. Now he's flipping open his laptop to check an address. He's scanning billboards for potential sponsors while he's eating a sandwich balanced on his left thigh and petting his black Labrador retriever's head, perched on his right thigh, and changing lanes on three hours' sleep at 75 mph ... with his knees. This is what Stanton Barrett must do today. It's no specific day. It's just another day.
He comes home from a 14-hour day on a Hollywood set and starts a five-hour NASCAR day on his laptop and phone. He works till 3 a.m. and wakes at seven. He makes business calls while he's paragliding, texts while he's skiing, e-mails and works three phones while he cooks three-course gourmet meals—everything from scratch; Lord, it's like watching a man play a whole marching band's drums. He's on a creeper under his race car loosening the track bar bolts while he's on a phone arranging his next motorcycle, bobsled or snowmobile race; did we mention that he races them too? "Daylight's burning," he announces whenever life pauses for breath.
You can guess, with one glance at his face, how many women have been drawn to him. You can guess, with one glance at his life, how many remain. The most recent one remembers their second weekend together, a few years ago, when a tornado approached Texas Motor Speedway the day before a race. The infield was being evacuated, NASCAR personnel were huddling in the tunnel beneath the track, and monster hail was pelting Stanton's truck as he drove past them juggling four calls on two phones. "Do you think we should pull over?" asked Janae Nyholm.
Long silence. Had he heard her? Was he ignoring her? Stanton's mind was always racing around four or five ovals at once, and all his new friends had to learn to wait as if he were a deep-sea diver coming to the surface. "Gotta make this autograph session," he finally murmured, then went right on phone-juggling his way through all hell busting loose.
Gentlemen, start your engines! booms the voice over the loudspeaker at the onset of the Nationwide Series Sam's Town 300, last March in Las Vegas. CALL FAILED, Stanton keeps reading on three cellphones. He's flipping the power switch with one hand while jamming a fourth phone into the mouth hole of his helmet with the other, straining over the roar of 43 cars, 32,000 units of horsepower and 120,000 fans to hear if his godfather, Paul Newman—yep, that Paul Newman—answers so Stanton can wish him well in his battle with cancer 2,500 miles away, then handing off the phone, popping in his earplugs, shifting into first gear, pulling away....
Pop the clutch. Shift into neutral. Yank the emergency brake. Wrench the steering wheel. We're pulling a 180. Hell, Stanton does it all the time. We're going back to Dec. 1, 1972. C'mon, we can do this. We can watch Act II while we're watching Act I, cover Stanton's first 34 years while he's covering 300 miles at up to 180 mph; let's go, people, daylight's burning! It's the day he's born, but he'd better get moving because here's what Stanton Barrett must do: find his footing in a family that's flying. Find his stature in a house full of giants. Find sunlight in a redwood forest.
Shadows, they're everywhere he turns. People who do things no one else has ever done. Hurry, kid, let's get the intros out of the way. That's the family patriarch, your grandfather, Dave McCoy. He's a legend in California's Sierra Nevada, the man who tamed the untamable, turned a 14,000-foot beast named Mammoth Mountain into one of the world's most renowned ski resorts. Coach of 14 Olympic skiers and a surefire Olympian himself if not for a devastating skiing injury; a hellion who'll win 40-and-over world motocross championships in his late 60s and pump across Death Valley and up Mount Whitney in 100-mile bike races in his 70s. He's that statue on skis in the central plaza of Mammoth Village, forever as powerful as the day back in the '30s when he blew bare-chested into Bishop, Calif., atop a Harley and beneath a red bandanna, booming that Santa Claus laugh that will brand him as Ho-Ho to the tribe soon to spring from his loins.
Beside Ho-Ho stands Grandma Roma, once a local ski champ herself. Of her all you need know is that when she'd piggyback on that Harley, she'd lean into Dave's ear and urge him to swap seats with her ... at 70 mph. Then do it.
There's your ma, Penny. As a 12-year-old she would wake up at 4:15 a.m., hike up Mammoth in her ski boots and ski down at dawn, when the snow was at its iciest and most harrowing. At 16 she was the youngest U.S. woman to win a World Championship medal. In a few years, at 31, she'll be doing 400 laps in Ho-Ho's 40-foot swimming pool, pounding out 18-mile runs through the desert hills behind his house and 30 miles on the kitchen exercise bike while reading the Bible splayed on the butcher block, prepping for Ironman triathlons and kingdom come.
Beside her, that's Dad, Stan Barrett ... ohhhhh, boy. The Golden Gloves boxing champ, the karate black belt, the guy leaping off the chimney just to stay sharp for his day job and the first man to break the speed of sound on land. The man who teams up with Hal Needham to pull off the wild car chases, flips and crashes that make Smokey and the Bandit and its spin-offs one of the hottest film and TV crazes of the '70s and '80s ... not to mention the man who doubles for and pals around with the star of those films, Burt Reynolds.
That's brother David, older by a year and a half, wriggling in Mom's arms. Soon to be a straight-A student, a soccer, basketball and tennis stud, a Junior Olympics skier, a Junior National snowboarder and one of the two best junior motocross racers in the U.S. ... as prelude to a career as a Hollywood director and producer.
Coming soon, little sis Melissa, the cutie-pie in pigtails and ribbons who, by age five, will be belting out every word of My Favorite Things and melting any heart she cares to.
All those folks just behind them, they're aunts and uncles, the Turbo Tribe of acrobatic pilots, future Olympic skiers, equestrian champs and multimillionaire land developers that Grandpa Dave and Grandma Roma have reared.
Ready, Stanton? On your mark! ...
Hold on. He's such a scrawny little white-haired runt, cautious and hesitant.
Get set! ...
Wait a minute. He's having trouble reading. He'll repeat second grade.
Stop. He's not the cocky little rooster and cutthroat competitor that David is. He's so slight and sweet and gentle that his father fears he won't even make it to adolescence. At age five, when Stanton sinks an arrow into the back of a duck on the family's pond with his miniature bow-and-arrow set, he's so distraught that he pulls a lounge chair to the water's edge alongside Zipper, his Rhodesian Ridgeback, and stares sorrowfully at the wounded bird for hours, into darkness, till his father comes home and removes the arrow. Then he bursts into tears. "Mommy," Stanton sobs, "will you call Campus Crusade for Christ and put the ducky on the prayer chain?"
He walks 50 yards up the road to the Rocking K Ranch, where the extended family always gathers to plot that day's X Games, two decades before cable TV invents them. He wanders out Ho-Ho's back door. On the edge of the yard begin hundreds of miles of untouched desert valley. From the earth rise cottonwood trees, mesas and fantastic rock formations—sharks and walruses and monkeys and minarets. To the west Mount Tom and Mount Humphreys loom over the Sierra Nevada foothills. To the southwest jut the Coyotes. To the north, just out of sight, shimmers Mammoth, the leviathan that Swiss engineers deemed too tall, too rugged, too windy, too snowbound and too remote from any road to harness, the mountain for which no corporation offered a red cent when the U.S. Forest Service put a lease up for bid and which fell by default to Grandpa Dave, the solitary dreamer who'd been crisscrossing it for years, measuring snow depths for L.A.'s Department of Water and Power to predict the volume of water it would supply to Los Angeles when the thaws came.
The small boy stares across that majestic sweep. Silence forever ... except for the roar of McCoy and Barrett motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles flying up the foothills and around the four tracks that Ho-Ho has carved into the desert with his land movers from Mammoth. And before the kid's tall enough to see over the sagebrush, he's being tucked between a relative's legs atop a motorcycle or at the wheel of an ATV, or he's perched on Dad's shoulders as Stan drives with no hands, bouncing over berms and off dirt ramps, fishtailing around curves, and Stanton's hanging on for dear life as Dad crows, "Golly! Look at that! Were you scared, Stanton?"
Fear is the cheapest room in the house. You deserve better living conditions. No, Dad doesn't say that. Hafiz, the 14th-century Persian poet, did. Dad just lives it. So never admit you're scared. Not even when you're five and Dad teaches you how to swim by heaving you into Burt Reynolds's backyard pool, smack in front of Burt's flame, Chrissie Evert!
Every now and then the X Family throttles down for a moment and looks around. Anybody seen Stanton lately? Nope, matter of fact, they haven't. He has slunk away again and burrowed beneath a bed—just to see if anyone, amid all that fuss over hotshot David, will notice that the shy middle child's missing—and sulked himself to sleep.
Then a funny thing happens. The runt can never overtake David in their daily match races on Big Wheels, bikes, skateboards and 50-cc motorcycles. But he realizes he can jam his boot between the wheel and the front fork of his bike, stop it dead and get flung farther than David dares to. He can't whup David in the backyard boxing matches their father sets up, but he can keep wading in and absorbing blows. He can't beat David down one of Mammoth's runs, but he can slip into the adjacent woods and ski solo among birches and pines, over rocks, off escarpments, away from comparisons. "Holy crap!" David yelps. "He's a kamikaze!" He can't be the X Family's fastest, strongest, brashest or brightest. But he can be its grittiest and most relentless risk taker.
At home, his parents' marriage deteriorates, and Stanton keeps swallowing tension. Outdoors, he burns it like fuel. At age seven, when he still looks like he's four, his mother sees him hiss down Mammoth on skis, helicopter off a cliff, land backward and flip a dozen times, the poles, gloves and jacket torn from his tiny body. She races to him in horror. He rises ... wobbles ... then bolts away—to do the exact same thing again.
Okay, kid. Let's up the ante. Here's what seven-year-old Stanton must do today: watch his father shimmy into a thigh-high, three-wheeled, dorsal-finned red rocket attached to a Sidewinder missile, flick the power switch and hold that bastard in a straight line till he's moving faster than the speed of sound. Good ol' Hal Needham, Dad's maniac mentor, tried to bust the land speed record himself in 1976, three years earlier, tempting death when the parachutes failed and he hit a ditch and went airborne for 180 feet. Older, wiser and far richer from directing Smokey and the Bandit, Needham decided to sink $1.1 million into a second record attempt with a new Rocket Car, add the Sidewinder... and let Stan Barrett drive it. "I knew he'd do it even if it killed him," says Hal.
Stanton? He's a funny kid. He goes off alone to the side of the runway at the Bonneville Salt Flats and collects rocks to paint while Dad's strange dance with death unfolds. Godfather Paul Newman watches the early attempts, then, unable to bear the thought of witnessing the fragmentation of his pal, begs off when the quest shifts to Edwards Air Force Base.
Their first fear is that Stan will black out when he trespasses Mach 1. The second fear is that if the Rocket Car's nose veers sideways, even a few inches, or just one part breaks at that velocity, she'll spin out of control. The third is that the Sidewinder—one of the six they bought from the U.S. Navy for $6,000 each to provide an extra 100 mph when the motor hits 640—will come loose when it's fired and decapitate Stan. The fourth is that when he deploys the parachutes, Stan will gray out from the negative g-jolt.
Eighteen times—before each one never knowing if it's the last he'll see his father—Stanton watches him hiss off into the haze. On the 18th, 16.8 seconds after ignition and 12 seconds after the Sidewinder fires, emitting a shock wave that lifts the two back wheels off the earth for 700 feet, he breaks the speed of sound at 739.666 mph—101 faster than any other earthbound man has ever traveled. If he'd continued traveling on the front wheel alone for just 40 more yards, the telemetrist calculates, the Rocket Car would've rolled and disintegrated. "I don't really even like to think about that feeling," Stan tells an interviewer, "because you want to have it again."
Wheeee! Next thing Stanton knows, his fingers are wrapped around infield chain-link fences as he watches Dad blow by in Cup races at Watkins Glen and Talladega in the Skoal Bandit car bankrolled in 1980 by Reynolds and Needham. Dad's 37. His car-racing experience? He saw a NASCAR race—once. The good ol' boys don't know what to make of him, especially after he howls into the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel and does a 180-degree spin-out right in front of Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. He manages two top 10 finishes in 13 races over two seasons, but who wants to let a guy who wrecks cars for a living draft on his bumper?
Suddenly all the fun and X Games screech to a halt. Suddenly Stanton discovers, even after all those ski jumps, what it really feels like when the bottom drops out. His parents' marriage ruptures, and his father's packing for Colorado when 13-year-old Stanton, to everyone's shock, starts packing too. His heart's too soft to bear the sight of Dad departing alone, and how, if there's a thousand miles between them, will Stanton ever win the approval he's been craving since he began crawling into Stan's stunt bag as a tyke?
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.
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.
Stanton nods, guns it to 70, hits a ramp, explodes into the sky and lands the car on its nose and flips end over end through the barn ($4,500: two race car seats). Dad, terrified, hurries to him as fast as a man with a broken back can. "Dad," murmurs Stanton, "I can't believe how hard that impact was."
"Welcome to the family, son!" cries Stan.
Welcome to a life in which he must perform lunacy precisely, in one take, because you can't smash things to bits twice and because a half-million dollars in actors, props and technology are riding on it. A life in which he must eat doubt and devour pain because either, undigested, might silence his cellphone and slay his dream.
"Most stuntmen come from dysfunctional families," says stuntman Scott Rogers. "You have to be used to being abused. It takes the timing and reflexes of a great athlete, but it's more of a mentality than an ability. Even doing this part time, he's among the top 25 percent of stuntmen in the world."
His brother, David, rising through the Hollywood directors' ranks, begins conjuring ever more complicated stunts to help Stanton make enough to cling to NASCAR's bumper by his fingernails. Stanton shows up in his father's old leather stunt boots, clutching Dad's old leather stunt bag, and studies David's plans: a 65-foot fall from a hotel window while fistfighting another man ($2,000: rear-end housing and one set of axles), a van rocketing 80 feet and exploding ($4,500: crew's flights and hotels for one race), all so beautiful and brotherly—the reforging of their broken childhood link with midair flames—until it's time to do theparaglid stunts, at which point David begins pacing and snarling and lighting cigarettes, even though he doesn't smoke, petrified that he has designed his sibling's death.
Stanton's rep in the industry ripples. He wins its highest honor, the Taurus Award, in 2002. Sure, you've seen him—you just don't know it. He's William H. Macy in Jurassic Park III when the Spinosaurus blows its cool. The guy tumbling into the ocean in the cage that the dinosaur slaps off the back of the ship, the guy being chased through jungle and up trees, hanging from limbs while gritting his teeth against the hellish pain of a fractured arm, a broken thumb and a torn knee ligament that he suffered—and hid from moviemakers—in three motocross accidents during the movie's eight months of production.
A bungled motocross triple jump in 2000 launches him 18 feet into the air and breaks four ribs, separates one shoulder, dislocates the other, collapses a lung, bruises his kidneys and causes internal bleeding and a concussion. Ten days later, for a scene in a TV series, he gulps six Advils and hobbles in front of a moving car, which knocks him another 10 feet ($1,100: gray paint job, chassis interior).
"Why, son, why?" his father demands. Why's he running around risking dismemberment for peanuts in motocross while he's risking dismemberment in Hollywood so that he can risk dismemberment in NASCAR? Here's Stanton's first answer: "That's what you did, Dad." Here's his second: He joins the World Snowmobile Association circuit. He enters an international bobsledding competition a few years later, in 2006. He doesn't win, of course, so, Why, son, why? Because maybe cross-racing will give him exposure and attract a new sponsor for NASCAR, he says, trying a third time to explain. "Because if he's not going Mach 2 with his tail feathers on fire, he's not happy," says Jeff Hammond, one of his former crew chiefs, "which made some people in the sport question his commitment."
He hits a rut in a snowmobile race in 2001 and flies out of control. His sled lands on his left leg, his femur snaps, tearing through muscle and flesh. He lies in agony, hissing at the medic, "Don't move it—if you cut the artery, I'm dead!" He gushes blood, reels into and out of shock on the half-hour ambulance sprint to the hospital and then emerges from surgery with a rod and a divot in his thigh and a leg that keeps caving beneath him because imagine how much daylight would burn if he let it heal properly.
A month later, on that shattered leg, he's dodging a fireball launched by the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, getting his eyelashes and eyebrows burnt off and lunging to save Kirsten Dunst from a collapsing balcony ($1,000: one decal kit). Two weeks after that, carrying an umbrella that he uses as a cane to stay vertical in front of NASCAR officials, he's racing a 200-miler. Two weeks after that he's crouched beside his mother in the Coyotes, strapping a paraglider harness to his chest.
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?"
"He'll die before he fails," worries his father. "But the fields of reality seldom bloom with the flowers of our imagination."
Stanton's guard comes down. Tears well in his eyes. The words, for once, come fast. "My brother, my dad, my grandfather and people in the sport tell me that this is crazy, that you can't win doing it this way. It's like building a ship with hand tools. I drive everyone crazy. I've been told all my life, 'You try to do too much. You can't do more than one thing well.' Screw that. I want to conquer the world. I make the most of what I have. I live. I'm going to live.
"I'll go where you're not supposed to go and do what you're not supposed to do. It's my job to test my limits, so I have to keep building the mental strength to do that. I do it everywhere.
"That makes some people think I'm not serious about NASCAR. Not serious? What I go through to do this, all the stress—don't tell me I'm not serious. I've spent more time under cars than any driver out there. I've given everything I know, everything I make, and all my heart and soul."
The wind's savage. The rain's worse. It's crazy that they're up here, a 65-year-old man and his 35-year-old son, skidding around a Montreal track at 110 mph in the 2008 NAPA Auto Parts 200. Dad's old injuries are killing him. Every car in front of them is rooster-tailing spray, and neither of them has windshield wipers, his crew never dreaming that NASCAR would mandate treaded rain tires for the first time in a points event and keep the Nationwide race going through a deluge.
Stanton's multitasking again. He's sharing another wonderful adventure with his father ... and letting him see how much harder NASCAR has become, so that maybe, the next time Stanton finishes 25th, Dad won't say, "Gee, I could finish that good." Dad hits his brakes and lurches into a wall, tearing up his right front, but keeps going. Stanton hits a puddle and does a 360. Dad hydroplanes and does one too. Stanton's far off the pace, but with each 2.7-mile lap around the road course he's adding another 10 seconds to his lead over Dad. It's a loop, of course, so even as he's pulling away from his father, he's chasing his father. Again.
Dad drops out, after seven laps, with brake trouble. Stanton keeps going. It's getting dark. "I can't f---in' see where the corners are!" he screams on the radio. Finally NASCAR halts the fiasco on the 48th of 74 laps. Stanton finishes 25th. Stan, 39th.
"It was embarrassing," says his father. "I'll never be critical again. I never dreamed of what he went through. I worry about his sanity. What I saw is just the tip of the iceberg, but the tip of the iceberg sunk the Titanic."
Eight weeks later Stanton issues an announcement. He's jumping to IndyCar with Team 3G next year, running all 18 races, and still planning to enter 19 to 21 Nationwide events with Rick Ware Racing. Indy cars are faster. They're more dangerous. Stanton has never driven one. No man has tried to drive that many races in both circuits in one season. The odds against him are enormous. No one will understand. His love will blaze anew. His life will make sense again. Isn't that a hero?
Stanton hurtles toward the third roof, and his landing shatters a foot in 12 places, bone tearing through toenail. Oh, crap. His left foot. His brake and clutch foot. The one he'll have to jam to the floor 800 times next week.
He's perched on Dad's shoulders as Stan drives with no hands, bouncing over berms and off dirt ramps, fishtailing around curves, and Stanton's hanging on for dear life as Dad crows, "Golly! Look at that! Were you scared?"