As a member of the stock car racing media, or “citizen journalist” as NASCAR likes to call us (simply because their lawyers wouldn’t let them print what they REALLY want to call us), it is no big deal to find yourself rubbing shoulders with a lot of extremely famous people. It is, after all, what we do. In those situations, one is expected to display impartiality and professionalism, lest someone from NASCAR pull you aside and actually call you what their lawyers refused to let them print. While “working” a NASCAR event, one must remember the proper decorum – forget who your favorite driver is to be a “professional” first and “fan” second.
This past Tuesday, however, I had the chance to turn things around a bit. I was going to be a “fan” first and, thinking I could kill two birds with one stone, decided to use that experience to fill a deadline, too. The occasion? I got to go side by side with my favorite driver, Carl Edwards, and support a good cause to boot!
As we raced around the corners and down the long straightaways, my heart pounded furiously. This was awesome! Here I am, side by side and holding my own with Carl Edwards! Why, we reached speeds of probably 15 mph! That’s right, 15 mph. The pounding heart was caused by years of smoking and not enough exercise, and I found myself wondering if it really was such a bright idea for me to be riding bicycles with someone in as good as shape as Carl. That’s right… bicycles!
While it is an experience that I will never forget (and will probably do again), it is only because of an unfortunate accident that I was able to do it at all. You see, the official name of this wonderful experience was “Ride with Carl for Sam: The sequel.” Who is Sam and what does he have to do with Carl Edwards? Well, that is what you are about to find out!
Sam Russell and Carl Edwards are buddies, pals, friends – have been since kindergarten. They played together, got into mischief together, rode mountain bikes together, made potato cannons together… you know, all that normal stuff boys do as they are growing up and dreaming about the future.
“I always wanted to be an airplane pilot,” said Edwards, when asked about the duo’s childhood dreams. “But Sam… he just loved to ride.”
“Sam is our only child. My husband Mike and I are not bicyclists, but Sam was crazy for biking from the time he was a little boy,” his mother, Nancy Russell, explains. “My mom, Sue Gerard and my brother, Walt Gerard were/are the cyclists in the family. My mom (now age 95) bought Sam his first bike when he was four years old. It was a Trek. Then, as he got older, she made a deal with him to get his next Trek. He had to earn half of the cost of the mountain bike and then she would pay for the rest. She also bought him his first helmet.”
Sam quickly put the gifts from his grandma to good use, riding all around the neighborhood and then some with a hobby that became his real life’s work. Turning his passion for the bike into a job with the Trek company itself, Sam may not have been “riding” at the level of his good buddy Carl… but he was pursuing his dream just the same.
However, as with most dreams of youth, they don’t always turn out the way one would expect. While Sam may have been working at his dream job, things took a tragic turn two years ago, as his mother explains.
“He went out for a ride on his lunch hour on June 28th, 2007,” she said. “He had ridden on the Trek mountain biking trails many times, but this time when he took one of the jumps, something happened to propel him, head first, into a tree. The surgeon, a biker himself, speculated that he was going about 30-35 mph when he hit the tree. He compressed the vertebra, and thus the spinal cord, at T-9. He’s paralyzed from about two inches above his waist down. [Only] the Trek helmet kept him from death and a massive head injury.”
As soon as Carl found out about his good friend’s misfortune, as one might expect, he was eager to do whatever he could.
“After Sam’s accident, Carl called the hospital,” Ms. Russell continued. “Sam was in the ICU and they wouldn’t allow cell phones in there, so I kept in close contact with Carl. Carl asked me, every time we talked what he could do for Sam. I told him I didn’t know but that when I did, I would let him know. He made me promise that I would do just that.”
After Carl visited Sam while he was in rehab in Milwaukee, WI, the idea for a fundraiser was born.
“Carl was adamant that he wanted to do something for Sam,” Nancy explained. “When we decided to do a fundraiser to help Sam and Brie [Sam’s wife] with an accessible home, I called Carl and told him that we wanted to do a bike-related event using his celebrity and his love of mountain biking as the draw. He was all for it.”
“We patterned our event after the rides that Lance Armstrong has done to raise funds for his Live Strong organization. Our family friend, John Corn, came up with the idea and brought it to us. We assembled a team of our friends and family and pulled it off.”
During that first fundraiser in 2007, which raised over $25,000, not only did each participant get a t-shirt and a picture with Carl, but Carl made it a point to take the time to ride alongside each one for a bit of one-on-one time.
This year’s ride was a bit different and not quite as big, but Carl’s willingness to help in any way he could was still evident, even if it was sort of “last minute.”
“I will say that this ride that we are about to do was Carl’s idea,” Ms. Russell said this morning. “He only gave me four weeks to organize it. He called me one morning, told me the idea, and said, “‘Nancy, you can do this! You can do anything.’ I laughed at the notion and then ran with it!”
The event this year consisted of a short 10-mile (huff huff puff puff! When is this going to end!) ride with Carl and his friends on what is known as the Katy Trail. Every year, for the last two years, Carl and his friends ride their bicycles from his hometown in Columbia, Mo. to St. Louis over a period of about three days, where he then competes in the Nationwide Series race at Gateway. For a suggested donation of $50, participants got to ride along with Carl for the first 10 miles of that journey.
Despite an early morning downpour which postponed the start a bit, about 25 of us started out through the wet streets of Columbia. Just as during the first fundraiser, Carl made it a point to personally visit with each and every one at some point during the ride.
While my main reason for doing the ride was to help raise money for Sam and to ride bikes with my favorite NASCAR driver, I had also made preparations in advance to interview Carl as well. As it turned out, at one point during the ride (where I had stopped to light a smoke) Carl actually stopped and interviewed me!
“Oh man, this is too funny,” said Carl as he stopped his bike, grabbed his new Flip Phone, and started pointing it at me. “And here we have the Frontstretch guy, stopping to light a cigarette!”
As I slipped my lighter back into my pocket and began to ride again, Carl rode with me for a mile or so and we chatted idly about anything and nothing before he dropped back a bit to chat with another young lady we had passed.
At the end of the ride, while some of us were a bit weary and sore, (OK, probably just me) Carl spent even more time with anyone and everyone present, taking pictures, talking to friends on people’s cell phones and of course, signing autographs with that ever-present smile and a gleam in his eye.
Space limitations keep me from describing everything that took place on this friendly little ride – there was so much to take in. I will say, however, that when I was done, even though I was sore, wet, and had a backside streaked with mud, I felt part of something special. I got to spend some one-on-one time with my favorite driver; but more importantly, I got to help my favorite driver help his longtime friend.
It was my privilege!
Stay off the wall, (and off the smokes if you plan on riding bikes!)