ATLANTA - The only turkey Elliott Sadler hopes to see this Thanksgiving is a live one. And if he does, he plans to shoot it.
The driver who certainly added his share of fodder to one of the most-unusual seasons of racing in NASCAR Winston Cup Series history plans to celebrate the holiday in the woods with a rifle.
If all works out, he won't return to civilization until he's needed by car owner Robert Yates at the Daytona 500 in February.
Jimmie Johnson, an unmarried rookie, and Jeff Gordon, a veteran who's in the middle of a divorce, left the country. They will represent the Red, White and Blue in the Race of Champions Nations Cup in Spain.
Jeff Burton and his family will be at the Bahamas soaking up sun. To him, the opportunity to get away from the fast lane and all the attention it brings is better than a pan of his mother's cornbread dressing and the Detroit Lions on television.
"When I'm not driving a race car, my favorite thing to do is deer hunt," Sadler said. "I will spend almost every day from November to January hunting. I don't even really come out of the woods for Thanksgiving, but I will probably eat dinner after I'm finished hunting for the day. That way, I can spend time with my family, too."
Sadler's season epitomized the craziness of the year. He signed a deal to race for Yates months before Yates gave Ricky Rudd his pink slip. It created a public relations nightmare for Yates that only got worse later in the season when crew chief Michael McSwaim, who convinced Yates to hire Sadler, suddenly resigned. The media was thankful for juicy stories like that.
Johnson and Gordon are part of the United States' three-man racing team that also includes motorcycle rider Travis Pastrana. They will compete in several forms of racing, including motocross, off-road racing and stadium courses in motorsports' version of the Ryder Cup.
"I love the format of the event," Gordon said. "Pitting the best drivers in the world from all forms of motorsports against each other in a head-to-head elimination contest will be exciting."
Whether they spend Thanksgiving in the woods or in Spain or in the surf, the people of racing have plenty of reasons to show thanks.
Most important is the fact no driver or crewman from the Winston Cup, Busch or Craftsman Truck series will spend the holiday in the hospital - or in the cemetery - as the result of a racing accident.
A year ago, the sport was consumed with safety issues. Dale Earnhardt's greatest legacy may someday be the focus on safety that came with his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The sanctioning body and race teams followed with head-and-neck-restraint systems, new seats and seatbelt designs, data recorders, energy-absorbing aluminum foam, a rule that requires a full-time spotter during practice and helmets and fireproof uniforms for everyone going over the wall during a pit stop.
Derrike Cope probably best represents the fruition of that work. His crash in a Busch Series race last September at Richmond, Va., was hard enough to kill him. The data recorders showed the impact was every bit as severe as Earnhardt's, but he came away with a concussion and a broken shoulder and ankle. He was back at work less than two months later.
Another reason to give thanks is the completion of a long season. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day are the only holidays that aren't consumed by the 10-month-long racing schedule.
Valentine's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July, Veteran's Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day are all celebrated at full throttle.
Tony Stewart, the newly-crowned Winston Cup Series champion, will spend Thanksgiving racing at Irwindale, Calif., at the Turkey Night race for the USAC series. He is thankful for the opportunity to relax the only way he knows how: behind a steering wheel.
Photographers will be thankful if they stay at least an arm's length away from Stewart in the garage area.
General Motors is thankful it will have a new Monte Carlo and Grand Prix for the 2003 racing season. NASCAR is thankful it has moved even closer to its ultimate goal of common templates for all four manufacturers. Nineteen of the 34 templates that measure the body shapes next year will be the same.
Race fans are thankful for race tracks at Bristol, Tenn., Darlington, S.C., Atlanta, Talladega, Ala., and Brooklyn, Mich., for main events that remain compelling.
The sport is thankful for yet another infusion of young talent and fresh personalities in drivers like Johnson and Ryan Newman. Larry Foyt, son of racing legend A.J. Foyt, hopes to continue the success of first-year drivers on the Winston Cup Series when he runs for rookie of the year in 2003. He will spend Thanksgiving helping a friend move.
"Does McDonald's have turkey?" young Foyt asked.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.