Published June 14, 2013
The greatest quote I have ever gotten and ever will get happened not in a locker room, but in the lobby of a hospital. It came from my very much in-labor wife. “Something is out,” she said. Like any good reporter, I asked a follow-up question. “What do you mean, something is out?”
So I yanked my wife’s pants down, right there in the lobby of the hospital.
My wife was fully dressed, bundled in a winter coat, sweater, pants and shoes. She was standing up, holding on to a wheelchair. The lobby was deserted. The receptionist had run to the ER to find a doctor. We were alone, just my wife and I and the baby girl we had been waiting months to meet.
I didn’t know precisely what “something is out” meant, but I had a pretty good idea. The time for decorum on this crazy morning had long since passed. So I yanked my wife’s pants down, right there in the lobby of the hospital.
And there was my daughter’s head.
My least favorite Internet writing shtick is, “What We Learned.” The approach is particularly bad in sportswriting. The Internet has made it possible to publish a story the second a sporting event ends. Sports editors have decided that in the final minutes of an event, sportswriters should prepare an explanation of what that event taught them, even though it’s still going on while it’s teaching them. They’re not paying attention, never mind learning, because they are too busy writing. It is my opinion that every story that attempts to explain “What We Learned,” should be one word long: “Nothing.”
Collectively, yes, sports teach us a lot. Some of it is real, some of it is not, but unless in the course of finishing a spreadsheet one can apply lessons about meeting the monthly budget as a way to honor a co-worker whose shinbone snapped in half and is sticking out of his or her leg, almost all of it is useless.
my wife, the baby rappelling out of her, and I might have never made it to the hospital.
Even those sappy lessons, delivered ad nauseum during the Olympics and on Super Bowl pre-game shows, are usually baloney. Virtually nothing about sports has any practical application to our daily lives … with the lone exception of auto racing. Driving like a maniac is a valuable real-life skill. If not for what I learned covering NASCAR, my wife, the baby rappelling out of her, and I might have never made it to the hospital.
I grew up in Detroit. I write about NASCAR. But I’m not a car guy. I don’t care about cars and know nothing about them. All I know is that the steering wheel tells the car where to go, the pedal on the right makes it go fast, and the pedal on the left slows it down. I’ve heard that sometimes there’s a third pedal, but I’m not sure what it does. It might be an urban myth.
I drove our Pontiac Vibe to the hospital that day, and the only reason I own a car that “nice” is because the Dodge Spirit I used to drive was so bad one of my friends said he would call Child Protective Services if I ever put my kids in it. When the Spirit stopped running in the fast lane on the interstate during rush hour, I decided to get rid of it. The dealer gave me $100 in trade when I bought the Vibe. It should have been the other way around.
Although I don’t care about cars, racing, race fans and racecar drivers fascinate me. I could go to a race every week for the rest of my career and never run out of interesting things to write about. The events are crazy, the fans are really crazy, and the drivers, above all, are absolutely crazy out of their minds. It takes a special person to do what they do, and by special, I mean missing the part of the brain that governs rational decision-making.
Jeff Gordon stars in a commercial this season in which he scares the crap out of a car salesman on a test drive of a Camaro. The joke is that Gordon is incognito and his maniacal driving is a prank. The viewer knows who Gordon is, but the salesman doesn’t. Gordon acts feeble and overwhelmed when he first gets in the car. Then he barrels out of the parking lot and onto the road. A “secret” camera catches the terrified salesman. He yells, “You’re an idiot and I’m going to kill you.”
I’ve driven with enough NASCAR drivers to say with absolute certainty that they drive like maniacs.
According to some reports, the salesman is an actor and a stunt driver handled some of the scenes. I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t care. The commercial is great because not only is it funny, but also because however fake it is, it is also true. I’ve driven with enough NASCAR drivers to say with absolute certainty that they drive like maniacs.
Denny Hamlin once drove me in a passenger car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track has two long straightaways, and as we sped more than 100 miles per hour down one of them, he inched the car toward the outside wall. Hamlin was not looking ahead, but to his right. At the time, I thought he was looking at me — I was in the passenger seat — to see what fear looks like. The photographer and the PR guy in the backseat were freaking out, too. I realized later that Hamlin might have been looking at the rearview mirror. This is when I learned that each turn on a NASCAR track is numbered — the phrase “Turn 4” is painted on the wall in turn 4, for example. I was close enough to touch it — or if we hit the wall, taste it.
I was warned about Carl Edwards before I spent a weekend driving and flying with him. One of his old bosses told me that Edwards liked to pull the emergency brake and spin out — on the interstate ramp with a car full of guys on lunch break. Edwards thought it was funny when he dropped his plane low enough to make the automatic “Emergency, too low” announcement come on over the intercom. When we landed, we heard about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” incident which had happened earlier that day. Edwards reacted with awe when he learned how Chesley Sullenberger had landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. It might have given him ideas.
It was too cold that weekend to go up in his stunt plane. It’s red and awesome looking. Edwards flew it for fun and from what he told me, seems intent on making each of his passengers throw up, including his wife.
While driving a rental SUV, Edwards rocketed out of the tunnel that goes under the track at Daytona International Speedway. We landed about 45 feet later. When we pulled up to a parking attendant, Edwards rolled down the window. “You again,” the attendant said.
Near Edwards’ hometown of Columbia, Mo., is a road that runs along the Missouri River. As we drove, Edwards pointed out to me a place where Lewis and Clark had once explored. Among all the drivers I’ve met in NASCAR, only Edwards, a former substitute teacher and one of the most curious men I’ve ever met, could give a history lesson while hurtling down the highway. At night. With his lights turned off.
Kurt Busch’s off-the-track driving style was more subtle. On the way to a golf course, Busch sped through heavy traffic on a Charlotte interstate. His hand barely touching the wheel, he maneuvered this way and that, like a ghost navigating a corn maze. He never tailgated. He also never drove at a reasonable speed. And he never showed any evidence that this was any different from every other time he drove. He was as calm as an NPR host.
Serenity, however, is not usually his thing. When Busch was on NASCAR probation last year and the great Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass asked him whether the fear of getting in more trouble made him drive less aggressively, Busch told Pockrass that, in fact, probation “refrains me from not beating the shit out of you.” Busch can’t control his mouth or his temper, but he can control a car.
My wife could barely walk down the stairs. We prayed, asking God to help us get to the hospital in time. We should have been more ambitious. As we got in the car, I acted cocky to mask how terrified I was. I told her “I’m going to put all those years covering NASCAR to use.”
I mashed the gas.
I slammed the brakes.
I missed smashing into our other car, which was parked in the driveway, by less than a foot.
I hadn’t even left the garage and already I had applied this NASCAR nugget, albeit barely: Steering with your feet is as important as steering with your hands. Put another way, too much acceleration when the wheel is turned can cause you to lose control. I didn’t look where I was going or check to see if the wheel was straight and almost wrecked on the parade lap.
The first five miles of the 20-mile trip were on two-lane roads. The rest was interstate. My philosophy for those first few miles was that the best way to drive like a maniac is not to drive like a maniac. No passing, no tailgating, because neither would get me there fast enough to mitigate the risk. There’s a difference between being impatient and being in a hurry. It’s the difference between a driver who leads after 300 miles and the driver who wins after 500.
I knew from years of watching guys overdrive that the more inputs a driver gives the car — accelerating, braking, turning the wheel — the more ways a driver can screw up. With that in mind when I hit the interstate, I got in the fast lane and wanted to stay there.
I emulated Kyle Busch. He uses his brakes less than any other driver in the sport. I used my brights to flash people out of the way. I coasted up to them rather than tailgating and braking. Doing so allowed me to pass without losing momentum. Drivers call this “getting a good run on him.” If the person stayed in my way, he was blocking me, in NASCAR parlance. Tony Stewart often wants to fight guys who block him. I didn’t have time for that, though I might have spoken a few uncharitable words as I went around them. Staying in the same lane was made more important by the fact I was driving one handed, as my wife was holding my other arm and almost breaking it in half every two minutes when a new contraction hit.
I normally set the cruise control at 75 mph. This day, the few times I looked down at the speedometer, I was going 95. I wondered how long that would go on before my wife would tell me to slow down. Then I remembered she was distracted by giving birth. I don’t know what the top-end speed is for me after which I can’t safely control the car, but I guess it’s about 85 mph.
For them, fast is not the point. Faster is.
In NASCAR, the magic line is about 200 mph. After that, the cars become unstable. Drivers will not of their own volition race at safe speeds. They will drive the car as fast as it can go even when they know the car will behave unpredictably. That’s why at Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR mandates restrictor plates, which choke the engine’s horsepower. Nobody likes restrictor plates, but it’s not because they make the cars too slow. It’s because they make the cars too equal. All of which leads me to this: The one thing I didn’t know about NASCAR drivers before I started covering the sport that I know now is that speed isn’t important to them. Their race cars don’t have speedometers, and drivers never brag about how fast they are in miles per hour. Instead, they celebrate how fast they are relative to other cars. For them, fast is not the point. Faster is.
On the way to the hospital, I had to be both fast and faster. I got lucky — the last stretch of the interstate was an uncommonly long exit-only lane. It was clear from me to the exit, so I floored it. I wasn’t sure where the hospital was, but a few weeks before I had printed out directions and put them in the glove compartment. Now I somehow managed to take them out, read them, drive, and hold my wife’s hand all at the same time. It was a good thing I had them, because, true to NASCAR form, I thought I was supposed to turn left when I was really supposed to turn right. After all that, I still first pulled up in front of the wrong door. Finally, I parked near the main entrance. My wife had a contraction in the parking lot, and we staggered into the hospital.
Face to face with my daughter for the first time, I screamed. I cupped her head. Was I about to deliver a baby? The question was not whether I would drop her, but how badly she would be hurt when I did. I can catch a baseball with a glove and a football as long as you don’t throw it hard. But a greasy, slimy, coated-in-amniotic-fluid baby? Not a chance.
My wife never screamed, never said anything. She had the presence of mind to step to the side to get out of the sightline of the hospital’s automatic door opener.
There was enough time to be amazed at the moment, this in-between phase for our daughter, no longer in utero, but not yet born either. I told my wife that our half-born daughter had brown hair. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her lips were pursed. Her face was blue. She looked like a Rock ’em Sock ’em Robot.
Then I noticed that my brown-haired, purse-faced, half-born daughter was not moving. Shouldn’t she be crying, or at least be giving some sign that she’s alive? Shouldn’t she be, um, NOT BLUE?
I thought my daughter was dead.
I looked at her for a few more seconds. She still didn’t move.
Using my right index finger, I poked her little nose, trying to get a reaction, so I would know she was breathing, so I could breathe again.
Nothing, no reaction at all.
I thought my daughter was dead.
Part of what makes racing interesting and drivers compelling is that driving that fast is life-threateningly dangerous. Most fans watch not for the crashes, but for the tension that exists because crashes, and therefore injuries and death, are possible.
Nobody has died in a NASCAR race since Dale Earnhardt in 2001. There is occasional hand wringing that NASCAR has become too safe, but the tragic death of Jason Leffler on Wednesday in a sprint car race underscores the fact that no race is completely safe.
More evidence of racing's inherent danger came in March, at Auto Club Speedway in California. Most walls at NASCAR tracks are SAFER barriers, which are designed to absorb the energy of the crash. A concrete wall transfers the energy back to the car and therefore back to the driver.
Denny Hamlin hit one of these concrete walls head first. When the car stopped, Hamlin climbed out and laid down on the track. He did that because he wanted to start breathing again.
Hamlin spent the night in a hospital with a compression fracture in his lower back. More than a week after the accident, when he met with reporters for the first time, his breathing was still labored. He missed a total of four races. As bad as that sounds, he could have missed the rest of his life.
Hamlin’s wreck came on the last lap as he was battling for the win with his archrival, Joey Logano. At least that seems like a reasonable time to crash. But most crashes happen just because crashes happen. They are inevitable.
But this is a fact: They have abilities normal people don’t.
I’m not surprised at how frequently drivers crash; I’m surprised how infrequently they crash. I won’t wade into the tired argument about whether drivers are athletes. But this is a fact: They have abilities normal people don’t. Kyle Busch told me once that he can see out his windshield and out the rearview mirror at the same time. Next time you’re on the road, try that. Better yet, don’t. After he said that, I started testing his peripheral vision. Can you see me now? It was so big, it was spooky.
All good drivers have fast-twitch hands and feet, sharp vision and smart butts. The best drivers can describe in great detail what each of the four corners of the car is doing in each turn on the racetrack.
What makes a good driver great is his ability to assess what he’s feeling with his hands and feet, seeing with his eyes and sensing with his rear end all at once and make prudent split-second decisions based on that.
In a race at Martinsville in early April, Kurt Busch’s brakes failed. He tried them again, and they worked, he tried them again, and they didn’t, so he knew he was in trouble. His solution was to drive into the wall at an angle he could control. The crash caused his car to catch on fire, but he was not hurt. This incident provides insight into NASCAR drivers’ daily lives: All of them have jobs in which the best solution to a particular day’s problem is to drive intentionally into a wall, and when they do it, they will seem brilliant for it.
I don’t have any of these skills. On the way to the hospital, I was driving far over my head and having a hard time thinking clearly. I didn’t have peripheral vision, I had tunnel vision, and I was worried about hitting the wall … and the car next to me … and the car in front of me. I never want to go through that again.
I cried uncontrollably. I prayed desperately.
I could see one thing, my daughter’s face, for this first time, and it was blue and not moving. I have a memory of clinging to my wife’s leg, but I’m not sure that’s real. I blubbered, “Please be OK, please be OK, please be OK.” Over and over again. I cried uncontrollably. I prayed desperately.
I started mourning my daughter’s death and concluded that she would be alive had I made better decisions. I should have left for the hospital after the first contraction, I should have called 911, I should have gone to a closer hospital. How could I explain all of this to the people who loved us? They would blame me for my daughter’s death, and they would be right to do so.
An angel disguised as a nurse named Tyana Martin arrived and nudged me out of the way. I looked up and there was a doctor named Jason Mutch standing beside me.
Nurse T later told me she had always run the other direction when pregnant women arrived at the ER, but not now. She was beyond brilliant in this moment, checking to make sure the umbilical cord wasn’t wrapped around my daughter’s neck, asking my wife questions and trying to calm me down.
My daughter’s shoulder popped out of my wife. Then her whole body flopped out. Nurse T caught her. She handed her to Dr. Mutch.
He carried my daughter to a stretcher, which had arrived at my wife’s side, but how and when I have no idea. The umbilical cord — still connected to my wife and my daughter — unrolled right in front of my eyes, like a hose pulled out of a fire truck.
My daughter moved her arm, her perfect, beautiful, right arm.
Moved her arm!
If I had caught one light or been slowed by one guy on the highway, my daughter might have been born on the side of the road.
Within a few seconds, it was obvious she was fine — at least to Dr. Mutch and Nurse T. I was still hysterical. Someone cut the cord and clamped it tight to my daughter’s tummy. Someone tied a knot in the rest of the cord. It remained connected to my wife, who was still standing and still fully dressed, except her pants were at her ankles. Dr. Mutch and Nurse T marveled at how serene she was. I settled down for a minute, but only a minute. Pretty soon, I started sobbing again.
All of this happened about 10 feet inside the hospital and took three minutes. If I had caught one light or been slowed by one guy on the highway, my daughter might have been born on the side of the road. From start to finish, labor took two hours, tops. That’s like running the Daytona 500 in 20 minutes.
We’ve never seen Dr. Mutch since that day, but my wife and I have become friends with Nurse T. She loves both of our daughters. She is deeply passionate about nursing, which makes me doubly glad she was there to have what she called the highlight of her career. Nurse T is a fan of driver Kevin Harvick. No wonder. His nickname is “The Closer” because he pulls great finishes out of bad situations.
I told this story 1,000 times that day and a million times since. I called a friend and told it as I drove home from the hospital. I was going 85 mph and not watching where I was going. I was so caked with adrenaline I couldn’t stay in my own lane.
Everyone says that with a birth like that, “The Dangler,” as my father dubbed her, is going to be something special. There are already signs. She’s a hoot, or at least my Facebook friends think so. She’s now 3 years old and spends much of her waking hours wearing a princess dress or a ballerina dress and sometimes both at the same time. She pretends to care about sports when a game is on TV because it means she gets to be with me, but she never stays for more than a few minutes before running off, often in pursuit of her sister, whom she adores.
On Opening Day this year, I watched the Tigers play the Twins as my girls played “Little House on the Prairie” with my mom. Sitting next to me was my dad, who ran out of gas taking my mom to the hospital when my older brother was born. For Christmas every year, we give him a sweatshirt with a picture of the girls on it. He has worn them all to threads.
The Dangler, her soft brown hair flopping in her face, heard me get excited during the game and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. She climbed up on my lap. I helped her get situated on the arm of the couch. She looked at the baseball game on the TV. She looked over at me and my dad.
“I hope Danica wins,” she said. And then she hopped back down.