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Shuttle astronaut and NASCAR fan is out of this world

April 08, 2011, Andrew Giangola, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Marine Corps colonel and shuttle astronaut keeps close tabs, even from space

It's not unusual for NASCAR fans unable to tune to a race -- maybe they're on the job or waiting to get a root canal -- to sneak a quick online update. One fan, Doug Hurley, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, got his NASCAR fix at work on a laptop computer in a unique place -- 250 miles above the earth moving at 17,500 mph in zero gravity.

"Now that's the definition of a hot lap," Hurley wrote to me in an e-mail from the International Space Station.

Greg Zipadelli with Col. Doug Hurley at Texas.

"From the moment I heard the first engine roar to life, I was unequivocally, unbelievably, completely and totally hooked on the sport."

--COL. DOUG HURLEY

Hurley, the pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavor, which completed its 16-day mission on July 31, 2009, hadn't missed a race in eight years since being introduced to NASCAR at Watkins Glen and feeling a rush of excitement he could only call "indescribable." He wasn't going to let a small thing like manning the controls of the most complex machine ever built get in the way of finding out how Joey Logano did at Chicagoland.

"It's not a very well-kept secret at NASA that I'm a pretty big NASCAR fan," Hurley says. The second line of his official NASA biography states, "Recreational interests include hunting, cycling and attending as many NASCAR races as possible." While training in Star City, Russia, with cosmonauts preparing to work on the International Space Station, the Marine Corps lieutenant colonel (he was later elevated to colonel) watched Cup Series races on the Armed Forces television network deep into the night. On board the Endeavor, he took DVD copies of some the most notable races in the history of stock-car racing -- the 1979 and '98 Daytona 500s. He's lobbying to have these classic races included in the permanent library on board the International Space Station.

Hurley, who will again be in the pits at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for the Samsung Mobile 500, will be making more history soon. He'll next be piloting the four-astronaut crew of the Atlantis, which will launch June 28 from Kennedy Space Center. It will be the final flight of NASA's Space Shuttle program. You can be sure he'll be checking from the Atlantis the leaderboards for races he'll miss at Daytona and the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky.

Space Shuttle Mission STS-135 will blast into the sky a long way from where Hurley grew up. Apalachin, N.Y., was a town so small it had no stoplight. On cloudless nights, Doug would gaze at the wide sky, densely speckled with the twinkling lights of stars from galaxies billions of miles away. He was only 2 years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon but remembers news clips of Sky Lab missions sandwiched between the Saturday morning cartoons.

"As a young boy, you think, 'Wow, that would be pretty neat to go there and do that,' " he said.

He liked what the military stood for and to help pay for college enrolled in the Navy ROTC program at Tulane University. During college, he spent a week at a Navy jet base in Jacksonville, Fla., and got to ride in a fighter plane.

"That was the defining moment. I knew what I wanted to do," he says.

Hurley excelled as a naval aviator and a test pilot. He was the first Marine pilot to fly the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. Despite his fondness for speed, Hurley never paid much attention to NASCAR, even though he'd lived 45 minutes south of the road course at Watkins Glen.

That changed when his cousin Nanette began dating Greg Zipadelli, then Tony Stewart's crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing. Nan and Doug had spent many holidays and summers together as kids and remained close as adults. He jumped at her invitation to watch the race from Zippy's pit stall at The Glen.

"From the moment I heard the first engine roar to life, I was unequivocally, unbelievably, completely and totally hooked on the sport," Hurley said. Since then, he's attended more than 20 races and holds season tickets at Texas.

Nanette and Zipadelli are now married with three kids, but Tony and the crew chief he called "the big brother I never had" have parted ways. After a stellar decade with the No. 20 car, including two Cup Series championships, Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2008 season to form his own team, becoming the most successful owner/driver in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the title in 1992. The separation was a tough, emotional time for Zippy.

"Loyalty is a big thing with Zippy, and he decided to stay with Joe Gibbs, who gave him a huge opportunity. That's where his heart was," Hurley said.

Most No. 20 fans also guided by their loyalty simply followed Stewart to this new No. 14 ride. Hurley stuck with Zippy and his new driver, teenage phenom Joey Logano, nicknamed "Sliced Bread," as in "the greatest thing since ..."

"Joey is amazingly grounded for a person his age facing tremendous challenges and responsibility," Hurley said. "If you compare him to Zippy or me, we were selected for our jobs -- Greg as crew chief and me into the astronaut program -- in our early 30s. Joey is 19 and handling the pressure of big-time auto racing very well. At the outset, there was skepticism about his abilities in a Cup ride, but his true talent quickly became apparent. NASCAR banned testing for 2009, which was the right move to save costs, but it hurt newer guys like Joey. And then you have him going into a new car much different than the NASCAR Nationwide Series cars he was driving. Considering all that, he's figuring out a lot of things pretty quickly. Joey's been blessed with tremendous talent and the help of a core group of guys who have been with Zippy from the beginning. He and Zippy have been a great team, which they proved when Joey became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire in 2009. Joey battled hard all day and Zippy made a great call to win the race. I'm predicting Joey is going to do very well in the years to come. Plus, he is just a super nice guy. He's got solid support from his parents, and it shows."

Hurley, who is 43 and favors the flat-top hair style reminiscent of the flight directors and fly boys chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, sees many parallels between the sport he loves to watch from the pit stall and his own job strapped into a rocket soaring toward the wide blue yonder.

"My background is as a fighter pilot, so the speed, the adrenaline rush, the eye-hand coordination is somewhat similar. A big part of the excitement for me is getting so close to the action. Fans can feel a bit of that, sitting off the turn with the cars coming right at you. They can get some of that speed adrenaline rush a fighter pilot feels."

In some ways, NASCAR drivers face tougher challenges than astronauts, Hurley says. It's a surprising perspective from a decorated Navy test pilot snapped up by the astronaut development program as soon as he was eligible, a four-time recipient of the NASA Superior Accomplishment Award who helped orchestrate the mind-boggling tasks of an upside-down rendezvous with the International Space station, five space walks, the replacement of a half-dozen 250-pound batteries in the unforgiving blackness of space, and the transfer home of a Japanese astronaut.

"The biggest difference is NASCAR is much more in the public eye than what we do as astronauts and what I did as a fighter pilot," he said. "When we launch shuttles into space, of course that's highly publicized, but months of training are largely done without constant scrutiny. NASCAR drivers live in the limelight virtually year-round. Being in a dangerous, high-pressure environment, it's not easy to manage outside eyes prying in."

There are obviously many differences between astronauts and race car drivers. Flirting with danger -- the lurking, unpredictable set of unseen circumstances that can snuff a life out in a blink -- is not one of them.

Hurley was avidly following NASCAR when drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt were killed in a nine-month period from 2000 to '01. He personally strapped the STS 107 crew into the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry over the southwestern United States in 2003.

"Nothing prepares you for losing seven friends in an instant on a national scale," he said. "NASA had a tough decision after the loss of the Columbia just as NASCAR had a tough decision after losing its most famous and maybe greatest driver. Where do you go? What do you do? The right answer is you fly again, and you race next week. You just make sure you've learned from the previous events so it won't happen again.

"The danger of what we do is always in the back of my mind. But I think human space flight is better from the Columbia accident, despite losing seven people who can never be replaced. It's the same with NASCAR. We lost Dale Earnhardt Sr., and will never get him back. But some very positive things came from that tragedy. The sport made significant improvements to the cars and tracks and has never been safer.

"What happened with Dale and the Columbia are eerily similar. We'd seen foam fall off the shuttle for years. We tolerated it. NASCAR had some bad accidents that seemed like freak occurrences. It took a huge event in both cases to bring about productive change -- losing the most famous driver in what looked like an innocuous crash and the shuttle burning up over Texas after a piece of foam dislodged. But some pretty smart people worked hard to fix the problems. And we're much safer as a result."

Just as NASCAR is seeking expansion opportunities, so is NASA. A rocket just orbited Mercury and took amazing pictures of its blazing hot surface. Missions may be planned for the U.S. to return to the moon and possibly beyond to Mars. Perhaps one of our own remarkable fans will be at the controls. Whatever is next for Col. Doug Hurley, including his 12-day mission to the International Space Station beginning on June 28, all of NASCAR Nation wishes him Godspeed.

For more stories like Col. Hurley's, check out the NASCAR Library Collection book, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans, by Andrew Giangola. Click here to order.