Tuesday, May 15, 2018

#33Stories: Day 15, "Men and Speed"

No. 15: “Men and Speed: A Wild Ride Through NASCAR’s Breakout Season”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!

Originally published in 2002 by PublicAffairs/Perseus


pp. 1 to 4, Chapter One: The Guru and the Kid

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 8, 2000, a man who looked barely old enough to drive climbed into a car designed to race at almost a third the speed of sound. Kurt Busch and thirty-three other drivers fired up their engines. Bone-rattling noise rocked New Hampshire International Speedway and the air smelled suddenly burnt.

From the grandstands, the luxury boxes, and atop the campers and motor homes lining the hill behind the backstretch of the mile-long track, a sellout crowd of some ninety thousand fans watched. Most were getting their first glimpse of Busch, a tall, slender, twenty-one-year-old with a boyish face who only eight months before had earned his living fixing broken pipes. If they knew anything about the kid, it was that he drove ferociously and with uncommon skill -- and that his talent, while still raw, had earned him the backing of one of the most powerful men in American motorsports.

Polite and impeccably mannered off-track, and gifted with an easy humor, Busch became transformed when he took the wheel of a racecar. He drove at the edge – out in that rarefied zone between fearlessness and craziness, the place where speed kings thrive. No track intimidated Busch. No race seemed unwinnable at the green flag, regardless of where he started.

He was starting in fifth place today in this NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race -- behind the series leader and three veterans, two of whom had begun their careers before he was born. As Busch fastened his belts, checked his gauges, and otherwise connected with his machine, he reviewed his strategy, which involved conserving his tires, which would give him track advantage, and a commitment to racing clean. Busch would go eyeball-to-eyeball with an opponent if need be -- would crawl to within a quarter inch of someone's bumper to bully him out of the way, if need be -- but he was determined to avoid contact.

Kurt Busch in 2001. Three years later, he would be champion.
Contact preoccupied everyone that July afternoon in Loudon, a small town in central New Hampshire. NASCAR racing is among the most violent of the motorsports: virtually no race passes without cars wrecking, often in fiery collisions that thrill fans. Protective gear, custom seats and steel caging ordinarily protect drivers -- but concrete and speed can be lethal. Just twenty-six hours earlier, popular driver Kenny Irwin Jr. had died while practicing at this track, whose nickname, The Magic Mile, now seemed a cruel joke. The throttle on his 720-horsepower car stuck at full speed, rendering meaningful braking impossible, and Irwin hit the Turn Three wall head-on at 160 miles per hour. The impact destroyed Irwin's vehicle and fractured the base of his skull, destroying his brain. A virtually identical crash on Turn Three had killed another well-known young driver, Adam Petty, grandson of stock car legend Richard Petty, only two months earlier.

Busch and his competitors circled the track behind the pace car, swerving in and out of file like hornets startled from a nest -- a maneuver that warms tires, improving grip. The field took the green flag and now the noise, fueled by 110-octane gas and the absence of mufflers, exceeded a jet on takeoff. For the moment, Busch pushed Turn Three from his mind. The race known as the thatlook.com 200 had begun. Half a million dollars was at stake.

Standing with Busch's crew on pit road, owner Jack Roush watched his newest protégé blister the mile-long oval.

A short man who favored button-down shirts, cuffed khaki pants and a straw fedora -- an outfit that made him an eccentric in a world of oil and grease -- Roush had built the largest motorsports operation in America. But Roush, fifty-eight, was renowned for more than his racing achievements. Bearer of a master's degree in mathematics, he had taught college physics. He had founded and remained chairman of a $250 million engineering firm, Roush Industries, of which Roush Racing was a subsidiary. He enjoyed piloting his own corporate jet, and he was about to purchase three 727 airliners to move his race teams around the country -- -but he felt deeper passion for his P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter plane that he’d bought, restored, and now used to perform aerobatics, frequently with someone he wanted to thrill riding expectantly (if not nervously) in back.

Before one such adventure, Roush talked to the home office on his cell phone while conducting a pre-flight inspection of his plane, which was parked at an airport near his racecar-building shops in Concord, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. Freshly painted in its original colors and sporting its original name -- Old Crow, bestowed by Bud Anderson, the war hero who'd flown it in combat -- the P-51 sparkled in the midday sun. Roush shed his fedora and pulled a flight suit over his shirt and pants, then removed two parachutes from the trunk of his Lincoln and handed one to his passenger.

"Only two reasons you'd need it," said Roush. "One is if we catch fire. The other is a mid-air collision."

Jack Roush's passenger that day.
 After explaining the basics of operation as he understood them, Roush noted that he had never used a parachute. "I don't believe in practicing for something you only do once," he said, grinning.

The plane rattled and shook as it sped down the runway, and, after a final shudder, lifted like an eagle into the blue. Roush cruised northwest, turning the plane upside-down as he passed over the business headquarters of Roush Racing, where the mahogany walls gleam and the employees wear suits. A few moments later, having determined that he had the airspace all to himself, Roush executed maneuvers that he described in an animated monologue over the plane's intercom: a barrel roll, an aileron roll, a four-point victory roll, an enormous loop. At this point, having repeatedly achieved five Gs, a force that can flood the body with adrenaline, Roush leveled off and headed toward a friend's farm, which he buzzed at treetop level. Only then did Roush confide that he'd never taken lessons in aerobatics, but had figured things out himself.

But automobiles, not aircraft, had remained Roush's foremost obsession since childhood, when he got his first taste of speed…

NASCAR. Really?

Yes, really.

Every author needs to write at least one sports book, right?

Well, maybe not. But I wanted to, and after some thought, settled on motorsports, whose speed and ultimate risk-taking participants fascinated me. I also like fast cars (and would return to them, in a later book about a much earlier era, “Car Crazy,” coming on Day 30).

Through a combination of luck, determination and the good fortune to meet the great Jamie Rodway, who worked for Roush, I succeeded in winning Jack Roush’s permission to be embedded for an entire season with his NASCAR team of veterans Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, and rookie Kurt Busch and young driver Matt Kenseth, both of whom would later become champions.

So I travelled the country during the 2001 Winston Cup (now Monster Energy) season – a season that began with the death of legendary seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt at Daytona. I said good morning to him before that race, and snapped a picture…

Dale Earnhardt, befroe the race at Daytona in which he died.
Quite a year – and with tracks like Talladega, in Alabama, quite a number of places I otherwise likely would never have visited. I drove a bit myself, too: somewhat recklessly and with my first taste of pure speed in one of Jack’s Stage 3 Mustang convertible that hits sixty in 4.3 seconds and tops out at some 170 miles per hour. That day-long ride, from Knoxville, Tennessee, and on into Lexington Kentucky, with Jack in the passenger seat, remains etched in memory. What a day. I should note that Jack never offered to hand me the wheel again: hitting 120 mph during rush hour on a highway into Lexington was not, shall we say, law-abiding. But damn, it felt good.

“Men and Speed” was my first book for PublicAffairs, and editor Paul Golob took a workable manuscript and elevated it into a critically acclaimed book. PublicAffairs would later publish two more of my books -- “The Xeno Chronicles,” coming on Day 16 of #33Stories, and “Car Crazy” –and Lisa Kaufman would edit them. Thanks again, Paul and Lisa, and thanks publisher Clive Priddle.

Some of the reviews for “Men and Speed”:


"Eye-opening and provocative...revealing the humanity of these daredevils may be Miller's greatest accomplishment." -- Daytona Beach News-Journal, June 29, 2003.

"One of the strongest narrative sports books since John Feinstein’s classic A Season on the Brink." -- Editorial Board, BOMC, July 30, 2002.

"Thrilling." -- Boston Globe, July 3, 2002.

"An edge-of-your-seat read." -- Providence Journal, June 2, 2002.

"Recommended." -- Library Journal, June 1, 2002.

"Miller's insights into the economic, technological and emotional workings of a top team are fresh and valuable." -- New York Times, May 26, 2002.

"Mesmerizing... The moving stories of bravery, winning, and defeat, and the exploration of the addictive nature of speed make this a must-read: not only for race fans, but for non-enthusiasts who will finally understand once and for all what all the fuss is about." -- Writers Write, The Internet Writing Journal, May 2, 2002.

"A no-B.S. account of a season in NASCAR. Enjoyable, straight-ahead and smart." -- Paul Newman, actor and racer.

"If you're a racing fan and you've often wondered when you look down on pit road or in the garage area what those guys are talking about -- here's your chance to find out. MEN AND SPEED is awesome." -- Benny Parsons, Winston Cup champion and NBC broadcaster.

"New people with new perspectives, new ideas, have joined the throngs at America's superspeedways to take new, fresh looks at NASCAR, the fastest-growing sport on the commercial radar screen. Thankfully, G. Wayne Miller is one of them. He latched a ride through the 2001 season with the Roush Racing team and the result, MEN AND SPEED, tells the late-comers what the noise is all about. Sit down. Buckle up. Take the 288-page ride and kiss the beauty queen at the end. And enjoy." -- Leigh Montville, former Sports Illustrated writer, and author of AT THE ALTAR OF SPEED.

"If you want to learn about NASCAR, talk to the best, Jack Roush! If you want to learn about faster speeds, talk to Jack again! I have flown with Jack in his P-51 Mustang at more than 400 mph. He is as good as they come. And writer Wayne Miller captures the essence of Jack, NASCAR, and speed in his book MEN AND SPEED." -- Gen. Chuck Yeager, subject of Tom Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF.

"A title race fans will be talking about for years to come." -- Bob Schaller, StockCarCity.

Praise for Miller's last book, KING OF HEARTS, about another group of daring risk-takers:

"Breathless, spirited and dramatic." -- Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down.

"Gripping." -- Los Angeles Times.

"You'll find yourself surfacing every few chapters to remind yourself it's nonfiction." -- amazon.com

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