Edwards looks back on season

A former construction worker and teacher, the Columbia native remembers his roots.
Sunday, December 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:32 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The fast pace of New York City impresses Carl Edwards, which might be surprising coming from a guy who drives 200 mph for a living.

Walking down Fifth Ave. in Manhattan, Edwards talks on his cell phone about how cool it was to look down a storm grate and see train tracks. But while he’s trying to explain what his breakout season means to him, you get the feeling he knows he’s not in Columbia anymore.

More time passes, and before Edwards can even begin to describe the days of passing out his business cards while trying to catch a break in his career, he realizes he needs help at the moment.

“Excuse me, miss, where is Park Avenue?,” Edwards asks a passerby. “Sorry, I’m lost.”

The pedestrian kindly gives him directions and Edwards’ first week in New York City continues.

The Columbia native, who finished third in the Nextel Chase for the Championship Cup, was in the Big Apple this week as a part of NASCAR’s Champions Week. One of the highlights for Edwards was the opportunity to drive a victory lap through part of the city with the other nine drivers in the Chase. Thousands of fans gathered in Times Square for the parade.

“I never thought I’d be doing a burnout in the middle of Times Square,” Edwards said.

Edwards was also impressed by the size of what he said was his favorite sight, the American Museum of Natural History.

It wasn’t always this way for Edwards. Four years ago it was a much different story. Much has been written this year about the basics of his rise to stardom. He did a few odd jobs, won races on the weekend in places like Moberly and Jefferson City before catching on in the Craftsman Truck Series. Then he exploded onto the Nextel Cup scene with a 10th-place finish in his first race. Now, he is a multi-millionaire and one of NASCAR’s brightest young stars.

One race from Edwards’ early racing days stands out to his father, Mike. Carl was 14 at the time and the race was in Macomb, Ill. Mike Edwards was Carl’s crew chief and though Carl didn’t win, Mike knew there was a place in the racing business for his son.

“He was remarkably fast and aggressive,” Mike Edwards said. “It didn’t look like his first race. I think even then he was wondering what he was doing wrong and how he could get faster.”

But most people don’t know the depth of his struggles to make ends meet. He can recall those days with a smile now, just as he was able to keep smiling back then.

“I was broke,” Edwards said, laughing. “I didn’t have a car and my mom drove me to work.”

One of those jobs was working for an independent construction contractor. He shoveled gravel, did concrete work and helped put up retaining walls. Learning a little about a lot of areas in construction, it was all a blast for Edwards, who said he was just excited to get a paycheck and have the opportunity to work outdoors.

Another job Edwards took up was substitute teaching at five or six of the high schools, junior high schools and middle schools in Columbia. The Rock Bridge graduate didn’t realize how tough it was to walk into a classroom and teach children he never met who were eager to make the class period one of the longest of the substitute teacher’s career.

“It’s a tough job and you really have to be a multi-faceted person to be a school teacher,” he said.

The jobs were a long way from where Edwards wanted to be, yet they provided him exactly what he needed. He could take time off construction work or substitute teaching when he would have to go race.

“The coolest part was that I got time off to go racing,” Edwards said. “It was the reason I did these odd jobs.”

Mike Edwards is a veteran of racing on local tracks. He said it’s not economically self-sustaining.

“Racing is so much fun that if you get started in it, that a lot of times you work just so you can have enough money to buy parts for the car so you can go race,” he said.

All the while, Edwards kept racing, kept winning and kept passing out business cards, trying to catch on. Edwards said it was awkward passing out the cards at first because people didn’t take him seriously. But he persisted and his friend, Columbia native and current movie actor Race Owen helped out with designing the cards by putting on contact information and a picture of Edwards’ face.

“There are a lot of parallels between actors and race car drivers because they’re trying to catch on with movies and we just need the right person to catch on in racing,” Edwards said.

He still has some of the cards stashed in a box in his basement. A few people fortunate enough to keep the cards cashed in for as much as $400 in online auctions earlier this year.

Edwards said he hasn’t had much time to reflect on his success this year. Now, he’s just looking forward to coming back to Columbia for Christmas to catch up with family and friends. He’s already looking forward to next season.

“We set the bar pretty high and we are going to apply the things we’ve learned,” Edwards said. “Any effort less than what we gave this season would be a disappointment.”

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