- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Carl Edwards was sharing stories about his offseason trip to Vietnam during last week's NASCAR media tour when he noticed an elderly man wearing a military cap standing across the table.
"You've been there?" Edwards asked, interrupting the interview.
The man nodded and told the Roush Fenway Racing driver he served in the U.S. military in Vietnam in 1967 and '68.
"Those were the worst years," said Edwards, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Oh, yeah!" the man replied.
When it comes to what drivers did to get away from racing during the offseason, Edwards takes home the prize for most unusual.
He and a handful of friends spent 10 days touring a land that sparks nightmares for many who grew up in the 1960s and '70s, a land where more than 58,000 Americans and more than 200,000 Vietnamese lost their lives in one of the most controversial military conflicts in U.S. history.
He toured -- on a bicycle -- a predominantly underdeveloped, poverty-ridden country, where drinking the water is like playing roulette and the language barrier is almost insurmountable.
What was he thinking?
Actually, give Edwards credit for thinking. He wanted to go somewhere as far from his Columbia, Mo., home as possible, to a place where he could not only tour on his bicycle but expand his knowledge of a part of world history that impacted so many -- including both parents of one of the friends who accompanied him.
He did what many of us might talk about doing but never have the time, money or guts to do.
Those who know Edwards -- who also spent part of his offseason portraying Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon for an upcoming HBO miniseries -- shouldn't be surprised.
"Are you kidding me?" said Lonnie Clouse, a former pastor for Motor Racing Outreach now working in orphan care in Mexico. "He loves history. He loves adventure. He's a very intelligent, well-rounded guy.
"He'll go anywhere and do anything."
Unlike Denny Hamlin, who left an offseason trip to the Bahamas with a pocket full of money won in a poker tournament, or Kyle Busch, who left his offseason honeymoon with a tan, Edwards left Vietnam with a new appreciation for everything he's worked so hard to earn.
He left realizing that struggles such as the 70-race losing streak he snapped at Phoenix and conflicts such as the one he had with Brad Keselowski are nothing compared to what he saw and read about during his great escape.
In many ways he got further from the grind of a 36-race season than anybody. It's hard to think of "Have at it, boys" when you're looking at the horrors of a 20-year conflict, when you're visiting orphanages and prison camps that reminded him of Vietnam's past and present.
"All season, all of us are stuck every week at the racetrack and do the same thing every week," Edwards said. "If I'm going to go on vacation I want to see something different. I want to see some different things and learn something.
"I'll tell you, I found the right spot. It's different there, that's for sure."
Edwards has been taking such trips for several years. Clouse became involved in them two years ago when Edwards invited him to a getaway in Bangkok.
Clouse agreed to go to Vietnam as long as Edwards stopped by an orphanage. Edwards did more than stop. He brought medical supplies and money that he later told Clouse made the trip worthwhile.
"He's got so much going on throughout the season with appearances and schedules, just to show up in a country where nobody knows him and wake up and do whatever he wants and however he wants without worrying about phone calls and e-mails and all that mess, it's refreshing," Clouse said.
You can tell Edwards was touched by this experience, that he got much more than he bargained for when the trip was in the planning stages midway through last summer.
"I respect more than ever our veterans that were over there fighting," Edwards said. "I can't imagine fighting a war with that environment, in that culture."
Edwards even developed a new appreciation for the media after discovering how tightly the government regulates the Vietnamese press.
"We're just really fortunate here to have all the information we have and the way we have it, and then to have the access to health care and food and water " Edwards said, pausing in thought. "We kept saying, 'I can't believe it.'"
Listening, you hear and see a depth in Edwards that you don't get during a 15-minute interview session at the track. There is a sincerity about him that is far removed from the "fake as hell" personality Kevin Harvick referred to last season.
"He's got a heart of gold," Clouse said. "Would do anything for anybody."
Edwards even quoted Rudyard Kipling during this media tour interview, in reference to the British author calling disaster and triumph imposters in his famous poem "If." Most drivers can't refer to a specific line by Kipling, much less claim they've read him.
But Edwards isn't your typical driver. He once handed out business cards to teams as he tried to convince somebody to give him a chance in racing. He is arguably the fittest driver in the garage, as evidenced by his shirtless pictures in Men's Health and ESPN The Magazine, as well as by his backflips from the door of his car after wins.
He married a doctor, for goodness' sake.
Yes, Edwards was different from most before his trip to Vietnam.
"He's an outgoing guy who wants to experience everything in the world," team owner Jack Roush said. "If he hasn't seen something, he has to take a look."
For the record, Roush wasn't in favor of the Vietnam trip. He called his driver crazy for doing it, saying, "I'm not sure what they put in the water over there or what they wash their lettuce with."
"To go that far away, away from his family and the race team and the rest of us he's a young man with great curiosity and drive," Roush added. "If he asked me if that would be good for him and his career and what would I think about the risk, I would probably have not recommended it."
If Edwards had asked for Roush's opinion, he likely would have gone anyway. As he jokingly said of Roush, who has survived two airplane crashes, "Have you seen him fly his P-51s?"
Edwards then related how everyone went from being hesitant to eat on the first lunch stop because they were wary of the food to eating "whatever they brought us" because they were so hungry.
He told how the language barrier was so funny, particularly when he noticed a man wearing a Ford Racing T-shirt while unloading a truck on the side of the road and how he stopped to get a picture with him.
"He had no clue why this guy -- and by the way, I'm a foot taller than everybody over there -- stopped on my bicycle and took a picture of him," Edwards said. "Nobody recognized me."
Edwards told of everything he saw on this adventure that began in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) to Phu Quoc Island to Thailand and many places in between. He was particularly struck by the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City that displayed the brutality of the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese.
As he spoke of this, Edwards' attention turned back to the man across the table.
"I appreciate your service," Edwards said. "Going through that museum and seeing the presentation of that war through at least their eyes, I just can't imagine what you went through there."
But he has a better idea than those who spent their offseason vacationing on a beach.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If you think Carl Edwards spent his offseason lying on a beach and sipping umbrella drinks, you don't know Carl Edwards.