Legends and the Fall
Q&A with Lance Cooper
By Rick Stevenson, Sports Editor
There are certain names in motor sports that are, in some people's eyes at least, nearly as sacred as certain Popes. Names like Earnhardt, Petty, and Johnson. Men like the late Davey Allison and Fireball Roberts.
It used to be people spoke about Lance Cooper in such hushed tones, but not so much anymore. I caught up with Lance Cooper at the start of this year's racing season when he was testing at Daytona. I asked some hardhitting questions that for the most part Lance was kind enough to answer.
RS: Lance, you used to be the man everybody talked about, but now some people have written you off as a "has-been." Can you fill us in on why they think your days as one of racing's brightest stars are over?
LC: A has-been? Come on, man. That's what you call those older guys. I'm not even thirty yet I've got a lot of years ahead of me, as many of my longtime fans will tell you.
RS: Yes, but you've got to admit, it's been awhile since you've won a race. Care to tell us why you think that is?
LC: Heck, Rick, I wish I knew what it was, but the truth is I can't say it's any one thing. Certainly our engine program needs a bit of work. A few of these teams have an engine program that puts them at the top of the field week after week. Also, we've got some new people going over the wall and so that's a factor. And, too, part of it's my fault. I need to focus better. Keep my mind in the game. Avoid distractions.
RS: And you think you can fix all that this year?
LC: Without a doubt.
It was the worst day of her life, and that was saying a lot.
Sunshine dappled the blacktop that Sarah Tingle walked upon, causing heat to radiate up through the soles of her sandals. It was late June, so walking on a narrow, two-lane road in North Carolina wasn't a good idea. But thanks to her continuing streak of rotten luck, her car had broken down a half mile back, and in the latest episode of "Sarah Tingle's Life Goes to Hell," said road appeared to be deserted. She'd stood by the side of her car for almost an hour and nobody, absolutely nobody had come by.
No cars. No trucks. Not even a cyclist.
That was probably a good thing because right about now she'd tackle a four-year-old for his tricycle. Instead she pulled her red tank top away from her body (the hue no doubt matching the color of her flushed, sunburnt face), using her other hand to clutch her ankle-length skirt as she fanned the material in an attempt to get some air flowing to her lower regions. Didn't help.
How had it happened? she asked herself, dropping her skirt when all she'd managed to do was entice more gnats into dive-bombing her body. How had her life spiraled so out of control? A week ago she'd been on top of the world dating a good guy, enjoying a great teaching job, a nice apartment, and now . . . nothing.
She closed her eyes, ostensibly against the sunspots, but in reality against the sting in her eyes.
No time to cry, she told herself, resolutely prying her lids open. She had to deal with the fact that her car, everything she owned stuffed into the back of it, had died a splendid and dramatic death involving a loud clank, lots of noise, and clouds and clouds of smelly black smoke. Right now what she needed to do was find the address she'd been looking for. Too bad she couldn't seem to locate it, which meant she might have been better off walking back toward the main road instead of hoping for her new boss's house to appear between the tall pines, Lake Norman sparkling in the distance.
Her new boss's house.
Sarah Tingle, bus driver. She still couldn't believe she wouldn't be walking into her kindergarten classroom next week. And as she recalled the twenty precious little faces she used to teach every day, Sarah felt like closing her eyes all over again. Instead she pushed on, shoving her curly auburn hair over one shoulder as determination set in.
A half-hour later she was determined to throw herself into the lake. She'd even made a deal with herself that if there wasn't a house around the next bend she'd do exactly that.
God must have finished torturing her for the moment because right at the sharpest edge of the turn stood a mailbox, sunlight spotlighting the thing like a biblical tablet. She ground to a halt, feeling almost giddy upon recognizing the address. Two brick pillars stood to the right, an elaborate wrought iron gate between them.
A gate with the cutout of a black race car in the middle of it.
She'd arrived. Finally.
She walked forward a few more steps well, limped, actually; her big toe had a blister on it so excited that she didn't look left or right as she stepped into the road, just blithely assumed no one was coming (because, really, no one had in the forty-five minutes she'd been walking).
Tires cried out in protest, their screech loud and long. Sarah looked left just in time to see the front end of a silver car coming toward her. She leapt. The car kept coming. She went airborne, then landed, rolling up the hood of a car.
It took a moment to realize she'd come to a stop.
She opened her eyes. Her head still attached to her body, miraculously had come to rest against something hard and cool. A windshield, she realized. Her cheek and the front of her body pressed against the glass.
She was now a human bug. How appropriate.
Lance Cooper saw cleavage and that was all a large valley of flesh where moments before there had only been open road.
What the . . .?
He jerked on the door, knowing full well what had happened. He'd hit somebody.
"Am I alive?" he heard the woman mumble.
Relief made his shoulders slump. "You are." For now, he silently added, because if she turned out to be okay, he was going to kill her.
The woman shifted, rolling away from the window like a mummy unfurled from bindings. Damn crazy race fans, he thought, trying not to panic. What'd she been doing in the middle of the road like that?
"I think I broke a rib."
She deserved a broken rib. He'd had women do some strange things to get his attention, but this took the cake.
"Don't move," he ordered, figuring he better get her to a doctor before he had a lawsuit on his hands.
"No," he thought he heard her murmur. "No doctor."
Lance reached for his cell phone before remembering service was spotty this far off the beaten path. Sure enough, no bars. "Damn," he murmured.
"No, that would be damned," she groaned. "As in I'm damned. I can't believe you just hit me."
He bit back a sarcastic retort. "Let me go call an ambulance."
"Because why should I get off with just my car breaking down?" she continued. "Why not add getting struck by a car to the list?"
"Look, don't move. I'll go call 911"
"No," she said, sitting up and groaning.
"Hey," he cried in irritation. "I told you not to move." And wasn't it ironic to be the one saying that when most of the time it was him getting yelled at by rescue crews.
"Don't call 911," she said, ignoring him, which made Lance instantly angry all over again another irony given the fact that he always tried to refuse infield care, too.
"Lady, I just hit you with my car. I'd be an idiot not to call 911."
"I'm fine," she said, swiveling on her butt ever so slowly so that their gazes met.
She'd managed to shock him.
Not a speck of makeup covered her face. Usually fans were a little more overt in their attention getting techniques bared midriff, strategically located body piercings, even a tattoo or two. This woman didn't have any of that. Zero. Zip. Zilch.
She slid off his fender, wincing as she did so.
"Look, I'd appreciate it if you'd hold still for a moment."
"I'm fine," she said, swiping reddish-brown hair out of her face.
"You don't look fine," he said, steadying her with his hand, a hand that landed in a mass of abundant curls too soft to be fake, or permed, or heated into submission.
"I am," she reassured him, straightening. "Believe me, this doesn't feel any worse than the time Peter Pritchert ran me down."
"You've been hit before?"
"No, not like that," she said, wincing again, her flat vowels proclaiming she was from out of state, probably California. "Peter is was one of my students." And he could have sworn her brown eyes dimmed for a moment, something he wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been observing her so closely. "He had the stomach flu," she added, "and I didn't get out of his way fast enough."
"You're a teacher?" And as her words penetrated, something else she'd said earlier also sank in: broken car. Lord, that was her hunk of junk he'd passed a mile or two back. She wasn't some crazy out-of-state fan.
"I was," she said, rolling her shoulder a bit. "I recently underwent a change of career." She straightened, giving him a brave, everything's-all-right smile. "You're looking at Lance Cooper's newest bus driver well, motor coach driver. I'm supposed to bring his fancy new RV to Daytona for him."
For the second time that day, she managed to shock him. She was his new driver. And she didn't know who he was.
"I was supposed to have a meeting with him, actually, which means I should probably get going before a meteor lands atop my head."
"Sure, why not?" she asked. "I mean, everything else has gone wrong today. Why not a meteor, or a swarm of locusts or a plague?"
He almost smiled. Obviously, she was hanging on by a thread. "Look," he said, deciding to hold off telling her who he was for the moment. "I think you should see a doctor. I have a friend"
"No doctor," she said impatiently.
"Because I don't have health insurance."
And there it was again, that look. Disgust. Disappointment. Dismay. Lord, but the woman was an open book.
It fascinated him.
He didn't know why, but suddenly he found himself studying her face. It wasn't a particularly beautiful face. He would venture to say she was even plain with her reddish brown hair and brown eyes. But there was something pleasantly endearing about it. She was cute in a sweet-faced kind of way. And maybe that was what fascinated him. That sweet face didn't go at all with her hot, hot body, one perfectly outlined by her red tank top and pretty floral skirt.
"Don't worry about the health insurance," he said. "I'm sure my car insurance will cover it."
"No, thanks. Mr. Cooper's waiting for me."
He opened his mouth to tell her he was Mr. Cooper, only something stopped him. He had a feeling if he told her he was Lance Cooper it might just be enough to push her over the edge.
"C'mon," he said. "I'll give you a ride. That's a long drive."
"Is it?" she asked, looking puzzled, as well she should because you couldn't see his house from the road and so there was no way to know that, unless . . . "I've been there before," he said.
"Lots of times."
"You're friends with Lance Cooper?"
Okay, time to confess who he was. "I'm his pool boy."
Now what the heck did you go and say that for?
"You're his pool boy."
Because he had a feeling when she realized who he was, humiliation just might make her do something crazy like run off shrieking, hands flailing. He almost smiled at the image.