Light from uncovered bulbs atop wooden poles reflects off the racetrack mud. From this distance, the race cars circling the far turn look like Matchbox toys on a rain-soaked playground, turning at odd angles, pushed by an invisible hand.
A cluster of dinged cars pulls around Turn 4, barreling down the straightaway toward Daniel. Sliding across the mud, turning practically perpendicular to the track, the cars blast chunks of dirt through two sets of mesh fire fencing. Daniel smiles and tilts a bottle of Bud Light to his lips.
In the mid-'80s, Lakeside Speedway was booted from its location near 97th Street and Leavenworth Road to make way for the Woodlands. The short, half-mile speedway moved roughly 3 miles northwest, toward further obscurity on Kansas Highway 5 along the Union Pacific rail line. Daniel has raced this track only a handful of times, but it's still familiar -- the muddy sandbox corners, the demolition bang of racers along the backstretch, the rowdy cheering of the crowd.
Daniel knows most of the top racers on the local circuit. He used to race with some of them. One was his next door neighbor from childhood -- John O'Neal Jr. remains his best friend. The occasional fan still wears a faded Aaron Daniel T-shirt. In the pits after the races, women recognize him, ask him to sign their daughters' plastic checkered flags.
"This is where I'm from," Daniel says. "Where racers race to race. They'll race for a six-pack of beer."
Before Daniel jumped from the local circuit and small NASCAR touring races to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series -- the multimillion-dollar tier just below the Busch Grand National and Winston Cup series -- he was a local legend. But in 2001, he agreed to drive the No. 11 race truck full time for the Kansas City-based, family-run racing company Team Chick Motorsports. At 34, Daniel saw the opportunity as his last chance to break into racing's upper ranks. Team Chick Motorsports owner Steve Chick saw Daniel as the driver who could give his upstart company some credibility, maybe even a shot at winning.
"What happened in Kansas?" a friend asks Daniel, referring to what was supposed to have been his most important race of the summer, back on Fourth of July weekend at the Kansas Speedway. Car trouble had kept Daniel from qualifying.
"I wish I could forget."
"You done racing for the season?"
The next weekend, Daniel will join another truck team for the American Racing Wheels 200, a $52,000-purse race in California, taking advantage of the fact that a team owner out there couldn't find a driver qualified to run that 2-mile track. In racing terms, Daniel will be there to start-and-park: He will qualify for the race, run a few laps, then bow out, making some money without putting too much wear and tear on the car. After all, in the top tier of NASCAR, even the last-place finishers earn prize money. Financially, there's little difference between a twentieth-place finish and a thirtieth-place finish.
Still, it's the type of move Steve Chick frowns upon. Start-and-park drivers are sellouts.
But the weekend's all-expenses-paid trip to the Golden State will earn Daniel enough for a house payment. He has three daughters; his live-in girlfriend has three kids of her own. His budget is stretched to the limit. If he wanted to, Daniel could be renting himself to any number of teams. He's qualified to compete in all NASCAR truck races, including Daytona in February.
At Lakeside, Daniel and his friends place bets on the numbered cars. By the last race, booze has upped their competitive spirits. Everyone within earshot is in; the ante is five bucks a car. The race will be a 20-lap free-for-all. When the white flag drops, cars accelerate, raising billows of white dust from the just-chalked track. The points leader jumps ahead and pulls away from the pack; he's won most of his races this season, Daniel says.
Entering the last turn, the points leader is ahead. Then the car in front of him stalls, blows its engine and spins sideways. Without time to avoid each other, the cars T-bone. The points leader is out of the race.
The crowd falls silent. Daniel yells and pumps his fist. Amid the smoke and commotion, his car came out of nowhere.
"Pay me," he says. Grudgingly, his friends stack green bills across his palm.
It's the first money Daniel has made racing all year. Auto racing might be based on a simple law of mechanics -- the fastest car wins -- but the opening of the Kansas Speedway two years ago taught dreamers like Daniel and Chick that what really fuels the sport is money.
On October 11, Daniel hopes to drive in the Silverado 350, a race paying a $59,380 purse at the Texas Motor Speedway. A good finish might help bankroll another few races. A bad finish would probably end his already rough season.
Early on the morning of July 17, Daniel lay beneath the chassis of Chick's race truck, putting wrench to bolt. Chick stood beside him, nervously swinging a socket wrench and inspecting the 3,400-pound truck parked in the center of his two-car garage in Olathe. They'd been business partners for three years -- by verbal contract, anyway. Chick had hoped to spend a few years establishing a successful program in the Truck Series before making a run in the Busch Grand Nationals or the Winston Cup. Daniel had wanted to drive for him. If they were successful, the payoff would be huge -- truck purses ranged from $40,000 to more than $60,000. At the higher levels, such as Winston Cup, that figure would more than double.
Their "truck" was a car 2 inches longer and 9 inches taller than the dimensions of a Winston Cup car, but the engine was basically the same. Its door panels were emblazoned with ads -- Fram-Auto Light, Wendt Abrasives, MOOG Chassis Parts, Dayco belts and hoses, Johnny's Barbecue, Norma Dell Smith Duplexes, Bargain Depot. The tailgate was stickered with a giant emblem for Royal Purple Lubricants. On big-time cars, the logos mean sponsors have contributed from $100,000 to more than $1 million for exposure on the track. Chick needed figures like that, but truck No. 11's logos were mostly in return for comped parts and mom-and-pop Kansas City businesses.
Grabbing a rag, Daniel began spraying cleaning solvent across the truck's front end. For this weekend's race, the hood would sport a decal for his wife's accounting business, but otherwise it would remain blank. Operating without a primary sponsor, Team Chick couldn't fill the most important space.
Still, Chick wanted to race eight times before the end of the season in November. He believed that moderate representation on the track would earn him enough name recognition to recruit more local sponsors.
"The better we do, the further we go," he said. "We want to race as much as we can this fall. Obviously, it's going to boil down to what we can afford."
All around him, mechanics ducked to collect fallen lug nuts, wrenches and bolt guns scattered between lanes of power cords. Team Chick Motorsports had raced in Sparta, Kentucky, the weekend before. Now, four days later, they were getting ready to run the Ram Tough 200, a 160-lap, 200-mile race starting the next day at Gateway International Raceway in St. Louis.
The mechanics had been at Chick's house all week. Volunteers with day jobs, they'd show up after 6 p.m., pull two long tables into the driveway and solder electrical wires and reshape metal parts until well past sunset.
The trip to St. Louis was important. In Sparta, Daniel had driven to fifteenth place, his best truck-series finish ever. For the St. Louis trip, Chick had invited a friend who runs Bakewoods Coffee, a budding coffee distribution company in Phoenix, to travel with the team. If all went smoothly, Bakewoods would kick in some money to add its logo to the car.
A big rig with an extended cab pulled into the driveway, negotiating the thin line of asphalt leading toward the house. Chick's newly purchased hauler was loaded: air conditioning, a satellite TV, a three-disc CD player, a microwave, a sink, a refrigerator, a bunk and enough bench seating for at least six people. Until a week ago, the team had been traveling on a borrowed hauler with a borrowed trailer, flanked by a fleet of compacts and SUVs.
Well past 3 p.m., workers were stacking tires, coolers, jacks, a backup engine, a canister of nitrogen and unfilled gas cans inside the trailer, placing heavy blankets between them for cushioning. They needed to get to the track in St. Louis by 7 p.m., or they'd miss registration and have to set up shop in the morning, giving other mechanics a head start. In the garage, Chick continued swinging the wrench, its socket joint clicking away seconds. They were supposed to have left hours ago.
Already, they were behind.
Aaron Daniel never went to college. He got his education in the hard-luck school of short-track racing. Entering the BMX bike-racing circuit at age eight, and winning motocross races at thirteen, Daniel had found himself sitting behind the wheel of a dirt-customized Chevy Cavalier at Lakeside Speedway as soon as he was old enough to drive. He faced off against a field of more than forty racers almost twice his age.
By the time he graduated high school in 1985, Daniel had earned a handful of first-place finishes, giving him cult status among high school girls and local race fans. He spent his weekends at the track and his late nights racing motorcycles with friends across the grass fields of his Kansas City, Kansas, subdivision, roaring past police cruisers, then clipping street corners at full throttle to disappear. He had a skill most people lacked: He could see distances and obstacles relative to speed. At Lakeside, Daniel was known as a kid who would push his engine to the limit -- he'd finish in the top three or blow up trying.
His plan was to gain experience at small, local tracks, then enter a NASCAR touring series and be recruited by a team to run the Busch Grand Nationals or Winston Cup. When he started racing, NASCAR drivers were still peaking around age thirty. The sport's icon, Dale Earnhardt, was in his midthirties. Daniel still had plenty of time.
At 24, Daniel married a woman he knew from the track; later, he'd find out that she wasn't as much of a racing fan as he'd thought. Then, in 1997, he watched through his windshield as his friend O'Neal ran headlong into the retaining wall at the I-70 Speedway, suffering more than a dozen skull fractures, rupturing both eardrums and ripping the muscle lining from around his brain. Daniel knew the feeling: In high school, Daniel's Dodge Daytona had locked front and rear tires with another racer and launched end over end more than six times, sending him tumbling inside the driver's cage. He suffered broken ribs, bruised lungs and swelling around his heart.
"The only way to look at it is, it's not you, so you're fine," Daniel says of O'Neal's accident. A year later, O'Neal returned to racing. "You know the risk every time you get into a car. When you start thinking about it, it's time to get out of the car," Daniel says.
By 2001, Daniel's record stood at more than 400 top-five finishes and nearly 100 feature wins. Daniel had climbed the ranks of Kansas City's speed circuit, racing self-made, modified cars and then late models -- a Chevy Lumina, a Pontiac Grand Prix, a Chevy Monte Carlo. His face was on T-shirts. He'd won so many times that some fans had started booing.
About the same time in Columbia, Missouri, a college kid named Carl Edwards got picked up to run trucks for Roush Racing, a NASCAR powerhouse. Then Randy Briggs, a seasoned racer Daniel was consistently beating, skipped town, too. Briggs, who was Daniel's brother-in-law, wanted to race trucks and had created a business model to do it. He'd started a consignment tire business based in Mooresville, North Carolina. Dubbed Race City, U.S.A., the town was the informal NASCAR capital of the nation, home to more than thirty warehouse garages for big-name teams -- a perfect place to sell used tires.
Daniel's wife didn't want to travel. Still, he spent seasons driving on the NASCAR RE/MAX Challenge and Slim Jim All-Pro series touring circuits, doing body work at different dealerships to make ends meet. In January 2001, Daniel sought refuge with Dave Jensen, a friend from Grain Valley who owned a parts shop in Mooresville. There, he thought about becoming a full-time grease monkey for a racing team, maybe trying to lobby for track time in the evenings.
He'd spent thousands of dollars on body and engine repairs, hurtling around dead-end tracks for $500 purses. His first love had cost him his marriage. The strategy of the sport had changed, too. Suddenly, he was too old. Teams recruited younger drivers who would appeal to more fans. A veteran who wanted to race at the top level would have to pay his own way.
And Daniel was broke.
Steve Chick had grown up in the pits. As a kid, he followed his father, a race-car builder and crew chief for the Canadian-Atlantic and Formula 5000 series, to racetracks across the county. After graduating from high school, he took classes at Johnson County Community College; when he wasn't studying, he was building Sports Car Club of America cars for local racers.
"I was hired by a different team every other weekend," he says. "I was probably the only eighteen-year-old kid in town making money racing."
A year later, Chick transferred to Pittsburgh State in Southern Kansas, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in human resources development. He came home on weekends to work on cars. He also started racing in the SCCA.
"When I was working for other people, I was making money," Chick says. "When I was racing for myself, I was losing money."
A big man for most of his life, Chick weighed nearly 300 pounds. Before races, cars were weighed with drivers inside them, meaning he'd had to build ultralight cars to compensate. "My size affected everything we did," he says. At top levels, cars weren't weighed with their drivers, but drivers were encouraged to be as light as possible to minimize drag.
Chick met Daniel when Daniel was exhibiting his asphalt-modified at Bartle Hall's World of Wheels custom-car show in 1992. Chick bought one of his cars, and the two forged a friendship. In 1997, Chick loaned Daniel an engine to help him earn a record six consecutive wins in the asphalt late-model division at the I-70 Speedway. When a 100-lap, $3,000 bounty race came to Lakeside in the late '90s, Chick asked Daniel to drive his car because the racer stood a better chance winning. Daniel ran hard, pushing to the top of the pack, before getting blocked by another racer and finishing out of money contention.
After graduating college, Chick worked building cars, then wrote for an automotive trade publication. Eventually, he helped develop a human resources division at a janitorial and real estate development firm. On weekends, he ran asphalt-modified races at I-70, logging sixth-, eighth- and tenth-place finishes in a field sometimes twenty deep.
He was, at best, a middle-of-the-pack driver. His future role in the sport was uncertain. At 300 pounds, there were unspoken questions as to whether the safety crew could pull him from the car if he crashed.
Then, the arrival of a NASCAR speedway in Kansas City, Kansas, seduced everyone.
But Kansas City is no Race City, U.S.A. At Lakeside, ticket takers operated out of a shedlike booth next to a rutted dirt parking lot. Fans paid in cash; there was no ATM for miles.
"When we first came, it became evident from talking to people that they weren't too familiar with racing," says Randy Conner, a spokesman for the Kansas Speedway. "They didn't know the terminology. They didn't know drivers."
The local tracks had their heroes, but so far, no high-dollar hometown sponsor -- no Hallmark, no H&R Block, not even a Sprint -- had stepped forward to endorse them. Like Daniel, most Kansas City racers were essentially amateurs who worked on their cars in home garages.
When it was finished in May 2001, the giant, D-shaped Kansas Speedway was the first venue to bring Winston Cup racing to the Midwest. With a capacity of 100,000 spectators, it would give the Truck Series, which had been running at I-70, a new venue in front of a larger audience -- for big prizes. Heats at the small-time tracks thickened as the complex opened just a few blocks north of where Daniel had grown up racing BMX.
Daniel had come back from North Carolina before the Speedway's inaugural truck race. Back in Race City, the team owners, mechanics and manufacturers who made up a loose-knit social network had heard that a Kansas City kid wanted a shot in front of his hometown crowd. North Carolina truck owners Gene Christensen and Bobby Dotter offered Daniel a spare racing truck. The race was in two weeks. The purse was nearly $40,000, with each finisher guaranteed at least $8,000. Through short-track racing and his NASCAR touring series, Daniel had enough experience to qualify for the event. Christensen said he'd deliver the car to the track. Cost: $17,000.
Daniel called Chick.
On July 7, 2001, Daniel climbed into Christensen's yellow No. 7. It was 7 inches longer and 1,000 pounds heavier than his late-model asphalt car. Used to 40-lap sprints, Daniel steadied himself for a 167-lap marathon. He wore a red-and-blue helmet decorated with his daughters' painted handprints. Finally, he had a high-quality vehicle with a good engine. When the light went green, he knew the drill: He pushed the truck to its limit.
Late models at I-70 topped out at 115 miles an hour. This car could easily do 150 miles an hour, and catching the draft behind another car caused it to slingshot forward, propelling it to around 170 miles an hour. But the truck felt loose. Its steering was slow to respond, causing Daniel to oversteer and overcorrect into turns. When another truck came up behind him, Daniel could feel his steering loosen further as the other driver caught Daniel's own draft.
The race made his sprint car feel like driving a go-cart. Power, speed, potential for destruction -- everything was amplified.
They ain't that much better than me, Daniel thought of the other drivers. I can do this.
Working the pit crew, Chick watched Daniel motor past the competition.
That's when it occurred to him: I can keep racing for fun, or I can race for a living. If I race for a living, it won't be behind the steering wheel.
After their 17th-place finish out of 36 trucks, Chick got serious about racing. He quit his desk job and sold his modified race car. In December of that year, he bought three trucks built for North Carolina racer Kevin Harvick, spending, he estimates, "about the price of an average family home."
Chick, Daniel and a crew drove southeast a few days before Christmas to load the vehicles onto a set of trailers and drive back to Kansas City. At the beginning of 2002, Chick picked up another one of Harvick's trucks at an auction, bringing his total to four. Good teams have six to eight trucks, enough for a starting and second-string car for each type of NASCAR track.
"The difference between us and teams we're competing with is budget -- budget and a little bit of experience," Chick says. "Experience, by the way, can be bought."
He's been trying to buy it for the past two years. The continuous search for sponsors to bankroll more races has led him to the July 19 race at Gateway International Raceway in St. Louis.
Daniel and fellow driver Randy Briggs are sitting in the hauler, talking shop while pit crews pull barbecue grills from the back of corporate-emblazoned semi trailers. In the garage area, hundreds of mechanics, most smoking cigarettes, circle more than thirty trucks raised on jack stands as NASCAR officials, looking like highway patrol officers, check their work.
Daniel has bad memories of this track. Last year, he ran six races, finishing near the bottom third of the field each time -- a season foreshadowed by his opening race here. The track is an oval with long straightaways punctuated by high, banking corners that require downshifting into turns. Daniel blew his engine in a prerace run and had to drop to a lower-compression, 100-fewer-horsepower engine. Heading into a turn, one of the front-runners flipped him off for driving too slowly.
Before the beginning of this season, Chick's family had moved, transferring team operations from a two-and-a-half-car garage in Wyandotte County to another two-car garage adjoining a country-style ranch house in Olathe. But before he'd finished moving everything, thieves broke into the Wyandotte shop, stealing more than $20,000 worth of tools and racing equipment. Team Chick had to borrow headsets from a father-son truck team in Iowa to race in St. Louis.
On the way to the track, Chick's brother took a wrong turn off the freeway and wound up in East St. Louis. The hauler was surrounded by hecklers along a poorly lighted street near a collection of smut shops and neon-sign strip clubs housed in double-wide trailers. They were finally stopped by a police officer, who offered an escort back to the freeway. By then, they'd missed the check-in time to drop gear.
On Friday, the racers rose early. They spent all day working on the car, only to have the qualifying rounds canceled because of rain. That hurt, too, because it meant that starting positions would be established according to points earned in the season's earlier races. Looking for sponsorship, Briggs had made every race this season and would start in the middle of the 36-car pack. As a part-time driver with fewer appearances, Daniel would start in the back of the field, second to last.
For Daniel, the entire weekend was moving slowly: the engine work, the tech line, the rain delays, the hours spent sleeping in the hauler. He didn't linger around the pits. He didn't smoke cigarettes with the crew. He spoke little, and when he did, his voice was high and sounded almost adolescent. In fact, he didn't seem like he belonged anywhere near the greasy-fingered, blue-collar world. With a boyish face and spiked, blond hair, he looked more like a clubgoer than a high-speed daredevil -- at least until just after 8 p.m., when he pulled on the handprint-covered helmet and slid expertly into the cockpit of the race car.
Engine vibrations rattled the change in pit-crew members' pockets. The Team Chick crew pulled on headsets wired to Daniel's radio. One by one, sleek cars pulled from their spaces and started to accelerate, building speed around the track. In the middle of the pack, Daniel rocketed past the concrete retaining wall at the base of the grandstand.
Atop a tower by the grandstand, a spotter watched the flow of metal, issuing commands ("Go high. Go low") to help Daniel pick up more speed, avoid possible crashes and figure out when to pass. For Daniel the strategy remained the same: Keep distances relative, and press the pedal to the floor.
Over his microphone, Daniel relayed that his steering felt loose -- he was losing control in the turns. As he rounded Turn 2, his truck came out almost sideways until it wobbled back in line with traffic, straightening out.
When Daniel hit a pit stop, the crew broke in front of the car, filling the gas tank from a huge canister of fuel, jacking the right side of the truck so high that Daniel's head bobbed behind the wheel, unfastening bolts and replacing tires. The stop took Team Chick about 25 seconds. The best truck teams did the same work in about twenty seconds, about six seconds longer than top teams in the Winston Cup.
Teams always want to pit on a yellow flag, while traffic moves more slowly. If they pit on a green flag, the competition blasts by at full speed, and even a pit stop of a few seconds means a certain loss of laps.
In the last sixty laps of the race, Chick took a gamble. After an accident, officials flew a yellow flag, slowing traffic. Betting that the rest of the race would be run at full speed, Chick called Daniel to the pit four times to refill his gas tank. Dressed in a fire suit, the Bakewoods Coffee executive rolled a trolley of gas cans back and forth to a tanker on the infield. With each stop, the team slipped a few more seconds behind.
"Jesus, guys," Daniel griped over his headset.
"Aaron, you're losing nothing and gaining everything."
Entering Lap 123, though, Randy Briggs broke a crankshaft and had to quit the race. In Lap 143, a truck exiting Turn 3 ramped up the back of another truck, showering sparks across the track. Officials threw another yellow flag -- which gutted Chick's strategy because it allowed other drivers a chance to refuel without severe loss of position. Daniel finished eighteenth, picking up two places because both trucks in the crash were demolished. Coming off the track, he was quiet.
"Shit," Chick said. "I'll take eighteenth, I'll tell you what."
On the way back to the hotel, the team stopped at a gas station to buy a couple of cases of Coors Light. More than ten people would sit in the parking lot, rehashing the past hour until nearly five in the morning.
NASCAR racers dub the second half of the NASCAR schedule "silly season," a time when short-of-cash teams have been known to change drivers, sponsors or crew members as they look for ways to make more money and keep their crews afloat. For Team Chick, making the October 11 race at the Texas Motor Speedway will bring the season full circle. It will be the team's second appearance in Ft. Worth this season. At a time when Randy Briggs has been missing races and changing drivers, Team Chick's presence will show that the hometown boys' conservative approach to racing is solvent.
The weekend after the St. Louis trip, Team Chick sent a skeleton crew to Michigan to start-and-park. The team earned $9,090, recouping some of the season's expenses. In August, the owner of Chick's Olathe house pulled his lease and resold the property, forcing the team to move unexpectedly. He decided to buy a farmhouse in DeSoto and establish the permanent Team Chick headquarters there.
Parked up the street at a neighbor's house is an immaculate new trailer. Just outside the front door, there's a metal-sheeted barn hemmed by gravel and piles of dirt. Over the next few months, Chick plans to convert the shed into a 45-foot-by-54-foot mechanics shop, with a garage, an office and separate rooms for building parts and cleaning cars.
Between now and December, most teams will be settling next season's finances. But Chick is still trying to put some company's million-dollar logo on the hood. Bakewoods Coffee signed on as an associate or secondary sponsor.
The team's midseason move has made the October 11 race in Texas a long shot.
"I want to race again, but I want to be smart about it," Chick says. "Every race now works against sponsor signing because it takes away from time on the phones."
A week after winning his bet with friends at the Lakeside Points Championship, Daniel sets off for the California Speedway, a 2-mile track about 50 miles outside Los Angeles, to pull his start-and-park. On September 19, driving for a team from Race City, he slides into his usual thick fire suit and hand-printed helmet and takes off at breakneck speed for a practice run around the track.
By his fourth or fifth lap, Daniel sees the speedometer reach 160 miles an hour. He enters Turn 1 and steers slightly left to glide though Turn 2. Then the right front wheel explodes. He presses the brake and yanks the steering wheel hard left, pulling against centrifugal force as the truck slams head-on into the outside retaining wall.
The truck bounces off the wall, ricochets back across the track, lands along the backstretch of the infield and bursts into flame. Daniel's left leg is broken. Doctors say the impact was like jumping off a ten-story building -- it slammed his fibia into his tibia, grinding a hollow U-shape into the top of the lower bone, chipping and cracking his lower leg.
Daniel knows that, once he hears about the injury, Chick will cancel the Texas race, ending the season.
That afternoon, Daniel leaves the infield hospital. He knows he'll need surgery when he gets back to Missouri. He'll be unable to work. Now more than ever, he needs money. Wearing an Ace bandage and his fire suit, balancing on a pair of crutches, he limps back toward the pits.
There, he strikes a deal with another team that needs a driver. The crew helps him back into a race truck to try to qualify for the race. He starts his engine.