We can't confirm it, but we feel it's a fairly safe assumption that Sterling Marlin is the only NASCAR driver in history to accidentally set a cow on fire.
Here's how it happened: Several years ago Sterling was helping his dad, Coo Coo (yes, we know what you're thinking, and no, the nickname is not related to the story in any way) with some branding and delousing, when all of a sudden ... well, let Sterling explain it:
"Me and Daddy had herded a bunch of cattle into the chutes, and I was pouring some stuff on them to kill lice while Daddy branded them," Sterling says. "Me and him are pretty bad about reading directions, and we didn't know the stuff was real flammable. I'd poured a bunch of the medicine on the back of one old cow, and when Daddy stuck her with that hot branding iron--poof! She burst into flames. We started throwin' dirt on her to put her out."
"Aw, she was OK. Just singed her a little bit," Sterling continued.
Just another day on the farm for Sterling, the only child of Coo Coo and Eula Faye, who spent his boyhood doing backbreaking chores while daring to dream about racing at such magical meccas as Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, and Charlotte. Someday he would leave Carter's Creek behind and see the world. Someday fans would cheer his name. Someday ... Today the dream has come true for Marlin. At age 45 he is an established NASCAR star, champion of two Daytona 500s, and the winner of $25 million in purses. He was the front-runner for the coveted Winston Cup Championship for most of the 2002 season before being sidelined by injury.
The gold and glory have not turned Sterling's head. He remains as down-to-earth--"as country as cornbread" as one buddy put it--as he was growing up on the family farm near Columbia, Tennessee. He also remains one of NASCAR's last links to its rural past, when Southern boys dominated the sport, and when racing oozed with colorful personalities.
Marlin has managed to stay on top through simple hard work. It's the only life he knows. "We had a working farm," Marlin says. "We raised the usual stuff--hay and cattle, corn, and tobacco. We worked hard, but we also had fun."
Fun, as in the time Sterling caught a "big old blacksnake" in the hayfield and playfully slung it at one of his hay-hauling pals. "It wrapped around his neck and like to have scared him to death," says Sterling, chuckling at the memory. "He was afraid of snakes, and we thought he was gonna die before he could get that thing off of him. "
There's also the time Sterling, about 15, and a buddy named Spook were speeding down a country back road, goofing around, when Sterling missed a turn. They sailed off the road and over a cliff. "Lucky for us it wasn't too steep and we landed in some treetops," Sterling says. "We weren't hurt, but Daddy wasn't too happy when we towed the car back home."
Sterling's high school football coach, Brud Spickard, dropped by one summer to check on his star quarterback. "Sterling was out in the barn, shoveling manure," Spickard recalls. "Unless you've shoveled manure inside a barn on a hot summer day you can't appreciate how rank it is. But there was Sterling, shoveling and sweating and never complaining. He wasn't afraid of hard, dirty work."
Good thing, because hard work was part of daily life for the Marlin family. A faded snapshot from the family album shows a shirtless, bareheaded young Sterling sweltering in a field of tobacco--"'backer," as it's known locally--looking almost dazed from fatigue.
"Man, working that 'backer will kill a mule," says Marlin. "You've gotta plant it and chop it and pull the suckers off it and dust it and strip it and hang it in the barn to cure. They call it a 13-month crop. 'Backer is a backbreaker."
As a teenager, Sterling raised a plot of tobacco of his own and sank his profits into his first race car. He followed his father to Nashville Speedway, where Coo Coo was a track terror in the '60s. Coo Coo, who acquired his nickname not from his driving style but from his attempted pronouncement of his real name, Clifton, as a toddler, won a record four track championships at Nashville. Sterling won three titles before graduating to NASCAR's big leagues.
Sterling's first test on a superspeedway came at Talladega in an ARCA race. He and Coo Coo had built a car, but both lacked the nerve to break the news to Eula Faye that her child was going to tackle the biggest, most daunting track in racing.
"We knew Mama would pitch a fit, so we kept puttin' it off," Sterling says. "Finally, one evening a few days before we had to leave for the race, we were sitting around the dinner table, and Daddy said something like, 'Uh, pass the potatoes, Sterling's racing at Talladega.' It took a minute for it to sink in, and when Mama realized what he'd said, sure enough, she hit the ceiling. She knew what kind of speeds they run there, and she didn't want me on that track. She eventually calmed down and gave in, but she wasn't any too happy about it."
Bridge To Bubba
Marlin would go on to great success, and in recent years, evolve into something of a vanishing species: a countryfied NASCAR driver. Somehow it's hard to imagine, say, Jeff Gordon accidentally setting a cow on fire while sloshing delousing goo on her, or any other young NASCAR hottie shoveling manure, cracking a blacksnake around a buddy's neck, or crushing 'backer worms between a dark-stained thumbnail and forefinger.
Gordon, a four-time champion, grew up in California and honed his racing skills in Indiana. Cool, urban, and thoroughly cosmopolitan, Gordon is the prototype of the modern racer. They prefer Game Boys to John Deeres.
Check the backgrounds of some of the talented young drivers who want to illuminate NASCAR's future galaxy: Tony Stewart (Indiana); Jimmie Johnson (California); Kevin Harvick (California); Kurt Busch (Las Vegas); Ryan Newman (Indiana); Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin); and Greg Biffle (Washington). There currently is no driver in Winston Cup from the once racing-rich state of Alabama.
Even among NASCAR's surviving Sons of the South there is a dwindling country connection. Budding superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, has a North Carolina address but a decidedly Hollywood lifestyle.
Remember the story about the day the venerable Junior Johnson ran his first stock car race? He was plowing barefoot behind a mule when his moonshine-running brother screeched up and asked Junior if he wanted to run his "licker car" in a local race. "I told him to let me tie up the mule and put on my shoes," Junior drawled.
Nowadays, playboys have replaced plowboys. Where have all the Bubbas gone?
"NASCAR is losing that connection," says three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Kentucky and migrated to Nashville to pursue his racing career. "This started out as a grassroots sport with mostly grassroots drivers, but it's changed over the years. We've traded in some of the old rural tracks, like North Wilkesboro, and we're seeing a flood of talented young guys coming in who didn't grow up on farms or in mill towns. I'm glad to see drivers like Sterling hanging on. He represents the bridge between the sport's past and present, and I think it's important to maintain that link. I hate to see our sport lose its soul."
"Sterling is like me--just a plain old country boy," says Marlin's crew chief, Lee McCall. "You walk into his hauler and he'll fix you a bologna sandwich. How many other drivers eat bologna sandwiches in their haulers?"
"With Sterling, what you see is what you get," says Team Manager Tony Glover. "I've known Sterling since me and him were kids, and he hasn't changed one bit. He don't put on airs."
NASCAR may have gone rock 'n' roll, but Marlin remains steadfastly country. He counts some of country music's biggest stars among his close friends and once sang (briefly, thankfully) on stage with the legendary George Jones.
"George said he'd promise to never drive a race car if I'd promise never to sing again," Sterling laughs. A Big Win
To understand Sterling you must understand Coo Coo. The son inherited the father's work ethic, tenacity, and determination. Coo Coo never won a Winston Cup point race. He made 165 starts between 1966 and 1980, and his best finishes were a pair of thirds. He was an "independent" driver, without major sponsorship or backing. That's the way he wanted it.
"I like to be my own boss," Coo Coo says. "I never thought the hot dogs (big-bucks drivers) out-raced me. They just out-spent me. I ran them as hard as I could with what I had."
For years, Sterling seemed destined to share his father's legacy. He ran 278 Winston Cup races over 17 seasons before finally winning. In 1994, he tasted triumph for the first time when he won the Daytona 500. He brought Coo Coo to the Winner's Circle with him. He said the win was for both of them.
"Daddy ran all those races over the years with inferior equipment, and even though he didn't win, he didn't quit," Sterling says. "He used to work in the field all day, come in and eat supper so tired he could hardly sit up, then go out and work on his old race car for half the night. Maybe that's where I got my determination or stubbornness or whatever you want to call it. Daddy sure had it."
The day after his dazzling Daytona victory, Sterling flew home, landing at a regional airport near Columbia. Hundreds of fans were waiting, waving banners, and cheering. A mile-long caravan of cars snaked its way to the courthouse, horns honking and sirens blaring, where city officials were waiting with a "Sterling Marlin Day" proclamation. The town square was packed with friends, neighbors and out-of-town fans.
A visiting media member, impressed by the huge, boisterous turnout, asked Sterling's wife, Paula, what she thought about it. "It's the biggest thing since Mule Day," Paula replied.
Mule Day was a 100-year-old Columbia tradition, in which area farmers went to town to trade and sell mules. In modern days the event has evolved into a festival-type event. Paula's remark was carried nationwide. It would become a buzz-phrase for Sterling; whenever anything important happened, it would be described as "the biggest thing since Mule Day."
Suffering A Setback
After a brief slump, Marlin came back strong in 2001, and in 2002 set his sights on the championship. He led the standings for 25 consecutive races before slipping to fifth, and was then sidelined by a neck injury with seven races to go. Marlin fractured a neck vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway on September 29. Suddenly, a season of promise was over.
Marlin was out in the field driving a Bush Hog (a heavy-duty mower) when he received news about the grim medical report that would terminate his season. He took the stunning news stoically.
"I'm lucky," he says. "With that type of injury I could have been paralyzed for life. It's a tough deal, and I really hate it for our team because all the boys had worked so hard. But we'll be back. I've got several good years left. There'll be other races and other seasons."
Some were surprised at how well Marlin accepted perhaps the toughest blow of his racing career. Maybe growing up on a farm helped. Farm life, like racing, tends to callous the heart as well as the hands. Crops fail. Livestock dies. Blights strike. Prices plunge. Months of toil can wither away during a drought.
"You pick up and go on," Sterling says. "What's the alternative, quitting? To me, that's not an alternative." Sterling lost his mother to cancer several years ago. Coo Coo, age 70 and slowed by a stroke, no longer puts in 18-hour days on the farm that has been in the family since the 1800s. But, he still lives in the same farmhouse and likes to "tinker around" in the fields. Sterling built a spacious new home just down the road from his boyhood home. The location could be symbolic. You can take Sterling from the farm but not the farm from Sterling.
"I still like to work outside," Sterling says. "You know, it's kinda funny; when I was growing up as a kid, I couldn't wait to get away from the farm, and now that I'm older I look forward to gettin' back to it when I'm on the road. They say you don't ever really get away from your roots. I reckon that's true."
Roots Of Racing
Hometowns For Top
Winston Cup Drivers
Driver / Hometown
Jeff Burton / South Boston, VA
Kurt Busch / Las Vegas, NV
Dale Earnhardt Jr. / Kannapolis, NC
Bill Elliott / Dawsonville, GA
Jeff Gordon / Vallejo, CA
Kevin Harvick / Bakersfield, CA
Dale Jarrett / Hickory, NC
Jimmie Johnson / El Cajon, CA
Matt Kenseth / Cambridge, WI
Bobby Labonte / Corpus Christi, TX
Mark Martin / Batesville, AR
Ryan Newman / South Bend, IN
Ricky Rudd / Chesapeake, VA
Tony Stewart / Rushville, IN
Rusty Wallace / Fenton, MO
Marlin, a soil-tested son...
Marlin, a soil-tested son of the South, provides an enduring link to stock car racing's rural roots. Here, he stands on the family's land in Tennessee, with his childhood home in the background.
Marlin poses outside the barn...
Marlin poses outside the barn in which he worked many hours as a youngster. "He wasn't afraid of hard, dirty work," his former high school football coach says.
Marlin has found the success...
Marlin has found the success in Winston Cup racing that escaped his father, Coo Coo (bottom), including this early 2002 win at Las Vegas.
A crash at Kansas (top) crumpled...
A crash at Kansas (top) crumpled Marlin's Dodge and left the driver with a neck injury that sidelined him for the rest of the 2002 season.
The times may have changed...
The times may have changed since Marlin's introduction to Winston Cup racing in the late '70s, but those who know the driver say he's stayed the same throughout his career.