COLUMBIA – Nancy Russell loves to tell a story about a boy named Jacob.
Two years ago, when he was 8, Jacob and his mom were at a raceway in Knoxville, Iowa. They waited outside the trailer of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, Jacob’s favorite race car driver. Jacob wanted Stewart to autograph his toy race car, which he held in one hand. In the other, he held a Sharpie.
Stewart came out of his trailer and signed some autographs, then left. As he left, he walked passed Jacob and said: “Better luck next year kid.”
Russell stops telling her story for a few seconds. She’s eating lunch at Billiards on Broadway with four Edheads. The Edheads are the unofficial fan group of NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, who was born in Columbia, raised in Columbia and is living in Columbia.
At this point in the story about Jacob, the Edheads become defensive.
“Carl would NEVER do that!” one says.
“NEVER!” says another.
Carl Edwards started driving go-karts when he was 4. Carl Edwards Sr., his dad, was a successful race car driver on tracks around the Midwest, and he built his son a go-kart one Christmas. It was black and had chrome mirrors, aluminum wheels and streamers like ones on a bicycle. Carl Edwards Sr. didn’t know the thing would go 35 miles per hour and that the brakes would hardly work.
When Carl Edwards was a teenager, he started to drive a dune buggy. As the years passed he became known in town as the kid on the dune buggy, said Nancy Russell, the mom of one of Carl Edwards’ childhood friends.
As a child and teenager, Carl Edwards wanted to be a race car driver so bad it was annoying, Nancy Russell said. And he was smart.
“I realized early on that people are what make the world go 'round,” Carl Edwards said in a phone interview. “We feel we have to reach certain standards before we can do something. All you really have to do is have a person who makes the decision decide you’re the person to do the job.”
So when he was in high school, he went to a print shop, Accent Press, and made a business card.
“If you’re looking for a driver, you’re looking for me.”
He handed the cards to thousands of people. At racetracks, he would give out the cards and then find them on the ground. People thought he was crazy.
He gave a card to Mike Russell, Nancy Russell’s husband, who stuck it right in his pocket.
“Good luck with that,” he said.
Nancy Russell still has one of the business cards on her refrigerator. Some people in Columbia still have the cards. They come up to Carl Edwards and show him they still keep it in their wallets, he said.
Carl Edwards, 31, is one of NASCAR’s most successful – and well-liked – drivers. Since joining NASCAR’s highest-level series in 2004, he has won 18 races and finished in the top 10 118 times. He finished second in the series in 2008, and he was the champion of NASCAR’s second-tier series in 2007.
When he wins a race, he climbs onto the window ledge of his car and does his signature backflip, Jacob’s favorite thing about him.
Carl Edwards did all sorts of daring things as a child. Nancy Russell saw them through the lens of her video recorder. Carl Edwards, Sam Russell (Nancy Russell’s son) and a group of friends spent afternoons after school doing bike tricks on MU’s Lowry Mall. Sometimes, they went to Finger Lakes State Park. They attached Styrofoam to their bikes so they wouldn’t sink and did jumps off a self-made ramp into the water.
They loved an audience, so Nancy Russell filmed them. She said Carl Edwards would fly higher and farther than all his friends.
“Carl, whatever he tried to do, he could do,” she said. “He has a touch, he has a sense of his own self, he has a sense of athleticism that is almost like a dancer. He has a complete and total confidence in his ability to try something. And he has a bravery that surpasses the fear of getting injured.
“As a young man, that could have turned him into a swaggering, macho, bullheaded, egotistical guy.”
Jen Burns is a Carl Edwards fan for many reasons. The most obvious: Edwards is H-O-T HOT!
“I was sold after my first hug,” Burns said, smiling.
For the fifth straight year, Burns, 29, has made the 10-hour trip to Columbia from Twin Lake, Michigan, for the Edheads’ holiday gathering.
Burns and Julie Lunstead, an Edhead from Jefferson City, can’t stop talking about how attractive they find Carl Edwards.
Lunstead mentions that she has seen Carl Edwards riding his bike on the MKT Trail without a shirt.
“THAT was the most incentive I’ve ever had to ride my bike,” she says.
The six-pack, dimples and blue eyes help his appeal, but Carl Edwards is more than eye candy. A few years ago, Burns was trying to get into physical therapy school. She kept trying. It wasn’t happening.
“It got to the point – should I even try anymore?” Burns said.
Carl Edwards served as inspiration. She remembered a speech he gave, when he encouraged the people in the audience not to give up on their dreams.
Burns is now a physical therapist.
As his racing career progressed, Carl Edwards moved to North Carolina, the capitol of the country’s racing world. But he found himself missing home. After three years in North Carolina, he moved back to Columbia.
Now, after every race, he returns to Columbia. He flies himself. Although he raced all sorts of bikes and cars growing up, he thought for a while that he wanted to fly jets for the Air Force. He got his pilot’s license in high school.
“I saw the movie “Top Gun,” and I thought that’s what I was going to do,” he said. “Airplanes, motorcycles, girls. That sounds like a blast.”
He flies about as often as he drives. He flies his own planes – he has several – to every race, and anywhere he goes.
After races, he returns to his modest, split-level house that was built in the 1970s.
His wife, Kate Edwards, is also from Columbia. They knew each other when they were students at Rock Bridge High School, but they didn’t start dating until years later when they crossed paths on the MKT Trail, Carl Edward’s favorite track away from the racetrack. They served pizza from Shakespeare’s at their wedding.
In Columbia, many people don’t know him as the famous NASCAR driver, and he likes that. Many of his friends don’t even know him as Carl. Since he shares a name with his dad, he grew up as Mike or Mikey to his family and closest friends.
When he’s home, he goes hunting or fishing or horseback riding with his friends, often the ones he grew up with.
Not surprisingly, he’s a back-seat driver. He’s so bad that on multiple occasions, his friends pulled over and said, “Stop, you can drive.”
“My good friends don’t even ask me anymore,” he said. “They just give me the keys and let me go.”
Like Nancy Russell noticed when Carl Edwards was a child, he trusts himself, and he is constantly learning.
He sits in on classes at MU, just for the heck of it. Cosmology. Forestry. A presentation on the chemistry of NASCAR.
“I’m just a curious person,” he said.
He attended MU on and off for four-and-a-half years. He started as an engineering major and switched to general studies after his freshman year, but he never graduated.
“I didn’t go to enough (classes) when I was a student,” he said. “That was the problem.”
He mentions Columbia during interviews any chance he gets. In April 2009, he did a story with CNN about Columbia, when he posed for a photo outside Shakespeare’s Pizza.
Shakespeare’s, by the way, is his only indulgence, Nancy Russell says. He doesn’t drink alcohol. The Edheads remember a story about him attending a racing party.
“Well, at least they have O’Doul’s,” he said, thankful for the non-alcoholic beer.
He is always working out. He often parks his truck at the Russells, whose house is down a long hill from his house, and rides his bike to the MKT Trail. The Edheads say he is constantly deemed NASCAR’s fittest driver.
But he has done more for Columbia than represent the city in interviews.
He is still listed as a reserve officer for the Boone Country Sheriff’s Department. He became an officer in 2004 or 2005 and went on patrol every now and then, even as he was becoming a racing star. He thought it would be a learning experience, and it was. He said he went on patrol enough to see how big of a risk law enforcement officers take every day.
Gene Baumann interviewed Carl Edwards for the reserve officer position. Carl Edwards is one of the most famous sports figures from Columbia, and for everything he has done for his hometown, Baumann, an Edhead, thinks Columbia and the state of Missouri have done a poor job recognizing it.
In 2008, Baumann and a group that included then-mayor Darwin Hindman raised money for a billboard along I-70 that showed a photo of Edwards and announced Columbia as his hometown. They also helped come up with a plan to re-name a stretch of Route WW “Carl Edwards Drive.”
Since Route WW is a state highway, then-State Sen. Chuck Graham proposed a bill to make the name change official. The bill looked like it would pass until State Sen. John Loudon stepped in. Graham was blocking a vote on Loudon’s bill to legalize and regulate midwives, so Loudon proposed an amendment to Graham’s bill. He proposed the stretch be re-named “Home Birth Highway.” The act of local politicking, as Baumann calls it, stalled Graham’s bill.
Edheads from across the country wrote Loudon asking him to withdraw his amendment, but the legislative session ended. The bill died.
“We thought we had it done,” Baumann said. “We just couldn’t see any reason why this wouldn’t (pass).”
As a back-up plan, the group had talked to the Columbia City Council about re-naming a city street after Edwards. Nothing has happened.
“There are a lot of people in Columbia who get it,” Nancy Russell said. “My assessment of this is some of the more administrative people in Columbia don’t see it.
I think it’s slowly changing. I don’t think it hurts Carl as much as it does the rest of us. It (the failing of the state bill) ticked me off probably more than it did Carl.”
Carl Edwards told her recently that he will never live anywhere else.
“He’s the best ambassador Columbia’s got,” Baumann said. “They don’t realize it."
Three years ago, Sam Russell went for a bike ride on his lunch break, like usual. It was a beautiful spring day in Wisconsin, where Sam Russell worked for Trek Bikes.
He went out on the trail. He knew the trail well. He knew how to approach each turn and each jump. But one of the jumps had been changed.
He approached the jump too fast. He flew off his bike and into a tree. He lay there in the woods numb. Completely numb. No feeling, anywhere. After a few minutes he felt the most excruciating but welcoming pain above his waist.
He broke his shoulder blade, a bunch of teeth and 11 ribs, and he could feel it.
He had compressed his vertebrate and was paralyzed from the waist down. He was taken to a hospital in Milwaukee. The first one there outside of his family was Carl Edwards.
“Sam was injured, and Carl told him that he would do what it took to help him,” said now 10-year-old Jacob McKinney, from Cairo, Missouri.
Jacob met Sam Russell and Carl Edwards two months after the accident. Nancy Russell quickly organized a fundraising event to help her son’s recovery. It was called Ride with Carl for Sam, and it has continued every summer since 2007. Participants ride their bikes on a course. At some point during the event, Carl Edwards rides next to each participant and chats.
Tonya McKinney, Jacob’s mom, heard about the event from Nancy Russell. So she took Jacob, who took his toy race car – this one with Edwards’ No. 99 – and a Sharpie. Tonya McKinney had heard about Edwards from Nancy Russell. She knew her son wouldn’t be disappointed again.
Carl Edwards found Jacob and talked to him. He signed Jacob’s toy race car. Jacob, Carl Edwards and Sam Russell took a picture together.
“It was awesome,” Jacob said.