A 1946 Piper Cub airplane wafts above the lush terrain of central Missouri, before gently setting down on a homemade landing strip in a farmer's field. Behind the controls is NASCAR driver and rising star Carl Edwards, who's pursuing his other passion "flying "during his regular visit home to Columbia, Mo.
"It's the neatest thing in the world to fly a 60-year-old airplane in over the trees and land it in the middle of a bean field," says Edwards, 29, a licensed pilot since 17. "I've got a friend who's got a farm near where I live, and we went out and made a landing strip in one of his fields."
Edwards, who pilots his other plane "a Cessna Citation "to each race, is one of the busiest men on the planet, racing in both the Nationwide (formerly Busch) and Sprint Cup series, making special appearances for corporate sponsors and donating time to charitable organizations. Yet despite his hectic pace as a breakout star in the thick of the championship hunt, he still tries to experience all that life has to offer.
"I'm interested in all sorts of things," says Edwards, who has earned an impressive 12 Sprint Cup victories in just five seasons. "The focus is racing, but in my spare time I like to learn things. Mostly I'm just up for anything. Part of the fun of life to me is to not have a plan, so I really value the days I have off."
One of Edwards' most gratifying pastimes is his involvement with charities. Since 2004 Edwards has helped weave dreams for the Dream Factory, the grant-a-wish organization for terminally ill and chronically ill children. In July, Edwards hosted an event for 200 Dream Factory children and their parents at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., for the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250, a race he won. But it was the meet-and-greet with Edwards beforehand that had the Dream Factory kids buzzing.
"He walked out of his trailer, and the kids were just like, 'It's Carl!' They were so excited," says Stacey Lindsey, 43, of Columbia, Mo., whose 12-year-old son, Joey, was born with a cranial-facial bone disorder called Pfeiffer syndrome. "My son's in a wheelchair, and Carl got right down eye-to-eye with him. Joey's face, with his cranial birth defects, is anything but normal, but Carl treated him just like any other person you'd meet on the street. He's that way with all the kids. He gave time to each of them. He's just an amazing person."
Ann Bunger, Dream Factory CEO and national director, was impressed with Edwards' know-how around the children. "Carl's skills with the kids are so good," she says. "A lot of adults don't know that you need to physically get down on a child's level to speak to them. Carl spent most of his time on one knee, talking to the children in the wheelchairs, because that's the best way to relate to them, psychologically, so you're not looking down on them. He knows all these things inherently. His mother, Nancy, was there with us. And Carl kept saying to Nancy and me, 'Did everyone get something? Did everyone get something?' That was just paramount to him. With Carl, it really is all about the kids."
Edwards also serves as national spokesman for Speedway Children's Charities (SCC), the philanthropic arm of Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, which donated $3.8 million last year to help 511 children's charities across the nation. "I try to do everything I can with kids," says Edwards, in his capacity as a fundraiser and on-camera spokesman for SCC. "I think that's the most important thing in our society."
According to Thomas M. Sadler, SCC's executive director, Edwards has been a huge asset. "Carl to me represents what this country is all about," says Sadler, 83. "He's the epitome of a young man to look up to, who's got all the qualities of what I call a first-class citizen. Every mom and daddy better wish they had a son like Carl Edwards. To me, he is an ideal spokesperson. He never refuses to step up to the plate."
A family tradition
In helping others, Edwards is forwarding a near-sacred rite that was passed to him early on. Many people have helped pave the way for the talented driver, who now sits behind the wheel of the No. 99 racecar for Roush Fenway Racing.
His father, Carl Sr., a "really smart, very good racer," according to Edwards, blew dust all over Midwest dirt tracks in the mid-1970s and early '80s, giving young Carl an authentic racing pedigree. But Edwards hasn't forgotten other early mentors, among them his dad's cousin, NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader.
"He let me come work at his shop for two summers when I was 16, and that was a really big deal," recalls Edwards, the 2007 Busch Series champion. "It really gave me a door into the sport, an opportunity to see it from the inside."
Edwards names others who contributed to his dream of becoming a professional racecar driver; among them is Mike Mittler, who gave Edwards his big break.
"Mike is a self-made man, a guy who does it like they did it in the old days," says Edwards of the Foristell, Mo., machinist and head of MB Motorsports. "He owns a NASCAR Craftsman truck, and he gave me a chance to run some races in 2002. It was in that Craftsman truck that got me the opportunity at Roush the following year."
With instant success in the Craftsman Truck Series, in which he took the checkered flag six times between 2002 and 2004, another Edwards trademark was born: the famed backflip after victories. As a kid, Edwards watched St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith do his crowd-pleasing backflips on the baseball diamond.
"Then I saw Tyler Walker, the World of Outlaws driver, do one after a win, and I thought, 'Well, that's pretty cool!'" says Edwards, who admits that his signature move is made easier when hearing 100,000 cheering fans. After inaugurating the movement at local Missouri dirt tracks, he unveiled it after his first Craftsman truck victory in 2002. "I just decided what the heck, why not?" he says.
Still a relatively young driver with years ahead of him on NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit, Edwards' plan is straightforward: winning titles. "It's not a length of time that I'm planning on career-wise, it's the number of championships," he says. "If that takes 10 years, that's fine; and if it takes 20, then that's what it takes."
And while the ultimate prize is winning, Edwards says he'll enjoy the journey along the way. "The true fun and the true joy is every lap, every race, on its own," says Edwards, who, after his racing career closes, hopes to have a family and travel the world. "You never know, you can't plan very far ahead. So the true enjoyment is the moment. I love getting to do it every weekend."