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The inside track

NASCAR’s Carl Edwards, a Columbia native, recently granted unusual access to a Missourian photographer at the Kansas Speedway. The weekend provided personal snapshots of Edwards interacting with fans, family and crew.
Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:35 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

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Making his mark: Sometimes, the crowd pushes in and items appear out of nowhere for Edwards to sign. Near the vehicle trailer parked outside the Kansas Speedway, fans seek autographs on newly purchased Office Depot Carl Edwards merchandise.

Lyle Whitworth spent Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 with Carl Edwards. Whitworth took the photos in this package and narrated the story to Katherine Reed, a city editor for The Missourian.

About a month ago, I was searching for a final photo story for a photojournalism class in MU’s School of Journalism. I’m a senior, and the photo story is the most important project because it shows everything we’ve learned so far — not just in class but also in work we do outside of class. I’ve been taking photos pretty seriously for seven years, and I wanted the project to be a strong part of my portfolio when the job hunt begins.

But I was having trouble coming up with a photo story subject. I wanted to find someone who would interest me as a sports nut but who would also interest the community. I took photos at many St. Louis Cardinals games and at a Blues game where I had an opportunity to shoot close up through the Plexiglas that separates the crowd from the mayhem on the ice.

I’d also done photo stories on the mascots for the St. Louis Cardinals (Fredbird) and the Kansas City Royals (Sluggerrr). They were fun photo subjects because they let me see the people under the costume (it gets hot in there). I found out that, zaniness aside, being a sports mascot is a full-time job that involves going to children’s birthday parties, business functions and anywhere else there are likely to be lots of sports fans.

So as I thought about whom to choose for the photo story, I thought of people in sports who seem important to people in Columbia.

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Celebrity competition:

Before the Nextel Cup Banquet 400 race on Oct. 1, Edwards talks to veteran NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon about something on the track. Edwards ended the race in sixth place; Gordon placed 39th.

Naturally, Carl Edwards popped into my head. I called my older brother, Doug, a serious NASCAR fan whose 9-year-old son carries a backpack with the number of Carl’s Office Depot car on it. (That’s “99,” by the way, and I think of him as “Carl” – not Edwards. We usually refer to people by their last names in news stories, but I think most people in Columbia think of him as just Carl.)

Doug said he thought it would be close to impossible to get access to Carl. I told him that I would prove him wrong. People told me the same thing about Fredbird and Sluggerrr, and they were wrong then, too. When I’m determined to do something, I make sure I succeed.

I started out by contacting Jim Sterling, who, luckily for me, teaches in the School of Journalism and is Carl’s stepfather. He put me in contact with Lisa Schmitz, Carl’s public relations representative, who handles the account for Office Depot, one of Carl’s sponsors.

Schmitz said she could ask Carl to talk to me about the photo story, but he would make the final decision. It would be more complicated to get access to the Kansas Speedway where all of the events of the upcoming races would take place. That’s where Carl would be the weekend of Sept. 29.

When I looked at the track’s Web site for its press policies, I panicked. Three weeks is the minimum amount of time the track says to allow for approval of press pass requests. I had less than two weeks.

The panic didn’t subside after I e-mailed the speedway press room and received no response. Several days dragged by. I had no Plan B, no Sluggerrr on deck.

Then an e-mail from Sammie Lukaskiewicz at the speedway hit my inbox:

If you’re not on deadline and don’t have to file from the media center, we’ll take care of you ... this once.

But please realize that this is highly unusual. Our credentials deadline was three weeks ago — period.

But Carl Edwards is important to us and to this track. And we like to see him (and us) get good press in Columbia.

But next time ... Ask us three weeks in advance for credentials. OK?

- Sammie

I felt like I was on cloud nine. But I didn’t have much time to relish the moment. It was Wednesday, Sept. 27, and I was supposed to meet with Carl the next day at Office Depot in Kansas City — the first in a busy weekend of public appearances, practices and racing. I pretty much had to pack up and leave.

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Friendly hangout: Edwards, left, hangs out under the driver introduction trailer before the Sept. 30 NASCAR Busch Series race and talks to Cameron Cooper, center, his best friend since high school, and Kenny Edwards, his brother.

But before I left, I just had to call my brother. He was hard-core jealous. And those are the words he used repeatedly.

I shot more than 1,400 pictures over the course of four days. These photos are just a sliver of what I saw, and they don’t capture what happens between Carl and his diehard fans who don’t care about the trouble he’s had this year or his ranking from day to day. By Sunday morning, Carl estimated he’d signed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 autographs.

What I heard and saw made clear that Carl has fans for many reasons. Above all, his generosity has won him fans. Some people talked about how he gives away his trophies to children. Some racers just sign autographs and walk away, or in some instances, don’t sign at all. Carl talks to people and is very personable. When he raced at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., he brought one of his fan clubs, the Ed Heads, into the winner’s circle with him.

I talked to an Ed Head member at Carl’s Friday appearance outside the Kansas Speedway and asked her what she likes about Carl. Her name is Julie Lundsted, a 44-year-old computer programmer for the city of Columbia. She’s a resident of Jefferson City and has met Carl about five times.

She said that Carl got her into NASCAR. “I had a friend who would watch races and I was, you know, ‘OK, it’s interesting,’ but then I didn’t have that local tie to it,” she said. “And Carl’s my tie to it now.”

I can relate. I wasn’t a NASCAR fan until I met Carl and was surrounded by 100,000 screaming fans at the Kansas Speedway. He made me feel like part of his life that weekend, when the demands on his time were enormous. His entire family was there: his mother, father, stepfather, brother, aunts, uncles and some cousins. His best friend from Rock Bridge High School was there — even his former baby sitter.

His friends and family seemed happy with his sixth-place finishes in the Sept. 30 NASCAR Busch Series race and the next day’s NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race.

He was less satisfied with those finishes, and Sunday afternoon was the only occasion that he asked me to stop taking his picture. It was just after Sunday’s race, and he was coming out of his trailer getting ready to leave the speedway. He’d hoped to do better, and he was angry. But he didn’t take it out on me. “No more pictures, please,” is all that he said. But then he thanked me, got into a car alone and drove away.

He’s a competitor, that’s obvious. But that’s just another thing to like about him as far as I’m concerned.

I’m hoping my brothers and I can go to a race together, one of these days. I guess I’d call myself a hard-core NASCAR fan now.

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