COLUMBIA — Carl Edwards’ success as a NASCAR driver has taken him all over the country.
In the past week, he’s been to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and Ohio. On Sunday, he appeared in a Super Bowl advertisement that he didn’t see because he was watching the game in person in Arizona.
Still, the 2007 NASCAR Busch Series Champion hasn’t found a place he likes better than Columbia, his hometown. That’s why he continues to live here, regularly mentions the community on national television and lends his celebrity to local causes.
On Wednesday, just a week and a half before he will race in the Daytona 500, he returned home again to find almost 100 friends and family waiting to surprise him at The Club at Old Hawthorne. As part of the surprise, community members revealed a new billboard honoring him and a plan to rename a section of Route WW “Carl Edwards Drive.”
Edwards said he had never seen that many of his friends gathered at one event.
“It’s really special,” he said. “It means a lot that they took the time to do this.”
Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the bureau wanted to do something different for Edwards.
“We wanted to do something that wouldn’t require something of him,” she said. “Not to have him come in and sign a lot of autographs (because) he does that every day, but just to say we recognize your accomplishments, we love you as our hometown son, and we really appreciate what you do for our community.”
Vicki Russell, who worked with other community members as well as Edwards’ mother to plan the event, told the crowd about the billboard and presented him with a miniature version.
The billboard, which will be up for a least the next month between mile markers 127 and 128 on Interstate 70 East, shows Edwards holding his Busch Series trophy and announces Columbia as his hometown.
Route WW in Columbia could get a more permanent reminder of Edwards. State Sen. Chuck Graham and Rep. Judy Baker, both of Columbia, said they planned to file a bill Thursday requesting to rename a portion of Route WW that passes Edwards’ childhood home.
“I’ve driven up and down that road my whole life,” Edwards said, “and it’s a huge honor.”
Baker, who said the bill hadn’t been filed yet because she and Graham wanted to keep the proposal a secret, said Edwards deserved the honor.
“What’s so great about Carl is he has this genuine humility about his successes, and he’s not forgotten where he’s from and who helped him to get there,” she said. “He’s just the perfect favorite son of Columbia in that regard, so we’re just very proud of him.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman was also on hand and addressed Edwards in front of the crowd.
“It’s been a great year for sports in Columbia, but you set the pace when you won that,” he said, acknowledging the large championship trophy that sat in the middle of the room.
He later praised Edwards for his promotion of fitness and bicycling. One friend in the crowd told the story of Edwards bicycling from Columbia to a race in St. Louis last year because it was “close.”
Edwards was grateful — and a little emotional.
“I just can’t thank you guys enough,” he said. He then paused to compose himself as someone in the crowd shouted, “We love you.”
“Sorry,” he continued. “It means a lot. I just want to say thanks, that’s it. Thank you guys.”
“It’s a pretty amazing way to start the season,” he said later. “To start with this perspective and to see everyone be here at home, that’s what it’s all about.”