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In the 200-mile-per-hour world of championship stock car racing, if you aren't the first man to the flag, all the talent and promise in the world ain't worth a bucket of spit.
"Rocket Rob" Wilder is everything the fans and those inside big-time car racing knew he could be: daring, polished, talented, and a sure threat to win. His meteoric rise to the top of the tough Grand National division, as well as his thrilling, crowd-pleasing showdowns with some of the other young racers, promise even more success. But you ...
In the 200-mile-per-hour world of championship stock car racing, if you aren't the first man to the flag, all the talent and promise in the world ain't worth a bucket of spit.
"Rocket Rob" Wilder is everything the fans and those inside big-time car racing knew he could be: daring, polished, talented, and a sure threat to win. His meteoric rise to the top of the tough Grand National division, as well as his thrilling, crowd-pleasing showdowns with some of the other young racers, promise even more success. But you can't bake a pie with nothing but promise. In order to prove he really is the real deal, Wilder is going to have to make the jump into the big league. And that means racing-and beating-the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon.
Does the Rocket have what it takes?
First to the Flag continues the saga of the men who risk it all to be the first under the checkered flag.
The tall, sandy-haired young man sat slouched in a heap in the private plane's stuffed-leather rear passenger seat. He appeared to be fast asleep, even though he was arranged in what might have been considered to be an awkward position for a catnap. But with his mouth open and his eyes tightly closed, he snored softly anyway. The kid was clearly oblivious to the awkward tilting of the King Air as it circled for its approach to the airport, to the bumpy air it chopped through as it descended, to the casual conversation between the plane's pilot and the other occupant who sat in the copilot's seat.
Rob Wilder had become a master at grabbing sleep wherever, whenever, he could manage it. The cabin of the King Air was downright luxurious compared to some of his more recent accommodations.
The other passenger, the older man who occupied the right seat up front, dropped his chat with the pilot when he got busy on the radio talking and responding to his landing instructions. He turned then to see how the kid was doing and was not at all surprised to see him still dozing peacefully.
Billy Winton smiled. It had been only a short time ago when the young man had been petrified at the very thought of flying, terrified most of takeoffs and landings. Now he was usually fast asleep on the taxi out to the runway and had to eventually be shaken awake when the plane had already been parked.
Then, as he watched the handsome youngster sleep, Winton noticed something else telling. The kid's right foot twitched slightly. So did his right hand, as if he was performing some sort of coordinated maneuver in his sleep.
Billy smiled even more broadly. He's dreaming of driving that race car, he thought. And likely of being first to the checkered flag.
That was a safe guess. That was about all Rob Wilder dreamed about, all he talked about, all he seemingly lived for. Driving Billy Winton's race cars as fast as he could until he could finally win his first big-time stock car race on the Grand National circuit.
Now they were on an approach to a legendary place where he might just do that very thing. It was a shrine to speed where, Billy suspected, young Rob Wilder would feel very much at home, though he had never been there before in his slightly less than twenty years on this planet. At least not while awake. And within an hour, they would not only be there but they would be testing one of the new cars they would soon use to start their first full season of serious racing together.
He hated to wake the kid from his dreams.
The last several days had no doubt been far more tiring for Wilder than driving a five-hundred-mile race in a day at Charlotte would have been. The young man had been pushed and shoved through a three-day series of promotional stops and special appearances on behalf of their team's major new sponsor. Billy had been his constant companion on the trip and he was admittedly sapped, bone-tired as well. But he had merely been along for the ride and had not had to shake hundreds of hands or sign all those autographs or answer all those silly questions with a good-humored smile and pretend it was the first time he had ever heard them.
Even now, this far down the road, Billy sometimes wondered why he had stepped back into the middle of the swirling tornado of serious stock car competition and dragged all these other lives along with him on his obsessive quest. As the chief mechanic of one of the most successful teams in the sport's history, he had gotten more than his fair share of the glamour and glory during the seventies and eighties. And the money, too. Enough of the spoils of victory that, well invested as it was, he could have lived comfortably for the rest of his days without ever having to do any more grueling personal appearances or gritty all-night work sessions, or brutal early morning track tests.
But the money and glory were not what had drawn him to the game in the first place. It was the winning. And Billy Winton had missed that one addictive element so badly he had willingly stepped back into the maelstrom. It had been on a limited basis at first, but he had soon realized that halfway didn't quite feed his habit. Then he took the plunge again big time when Rob Wilder had dropped into his world.
No, normally he would have let Rob sleep all the way to the terminal so he would be a few minutes better rested for the job ahead of him this day. But something was coming up he wanted the kid to see. The turboprop engines changed pitch again as the plane made another turn, a course that brought them perpendicular to the shimmering white-sand beaches and put the orange ball that was the morning sun directly behind them.
He touched the boy's sneaker with his own boot.
"Robbie! Wake up, son. You'll want to see this."
The youngster's eyes popped open and it was clear he was disoriented for a moment, maybe still chasing checkered flags in his sleep. Then he blinked in the bright sunlight that filled the cabin, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands much as a child might, and then leaned forward as much as the seat belt would allow to see what Billy was pointing at below.
A green carpet of pine and scrub oak and pasture stretched off into the far distance, while houses and streets and store parking lots claimed the foreground. The towering beachfront resorts and condos seemed to reach up toward them from directly below where they flew. The ocean was a cold slate gray behind them except for the fiery streak painted by the rising sun.
"Hey, kid," Billy shouted over the drone of the engines, and indicated he should be looking down and to the left. "There she is."
It took Rob a moment to see what Billy was pointing at. Then it emerged from beneath the plane's wing. Even then he had to look twice to make sure it was what he thought it was: a perfect replica of a big framed photo that hung on the wall in Billy Winton's office back in Chandler Cove, Tennessee.
And it was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. The gigantic speedway at Daytona Beach! He glanced over at Billy and there was a look on the young man's face that hinted he might think he was still dreaming.
"That's her, all right. Daytona. What you think?"
"Whoa! That is Daytona!"
"The grand old lady herself. The place where legends are born. Built for speed and nothing but speed. Beautiful, don't you think?"
Rob didn't answer as he stared out the plane's window, his nose against the glass, again almost kidlike. The stands were empty, the pits and garage almost deserted, but for an instant he thought he saw movement out there on the track. Petty and Pearson dueling for the checkered flag. Earnhardt nudging someone aside to take the lead. Bobby and Davey Allison, father and son, finishing one-two. Rob could almost see the highlight reels spinning in his mind as he stared at the hook of the tri-oval track down below, its famous tower overlooking the start/finish line.
"It's hard to believe we're looking down on the same place where all those great races were run," he said.
"I've been lucky enough to see a bunch of them from down there close at hand. I watched Richard Petty and Jodell Lee and the others come to the checkers at two hundred miles an hour. And even after five hundred miles of racing, they'd get to the finish and be so close that you still couldn't tell who crossed the line first. Lots of guys who can win races can't win on that track down there, Robbie. It's where they separate the car jockeys from the racers."
Billy left his next thought unsaid. That strip of track that was sliding beneath their airplane would be the next place this young driver would have a chance to prove his own mettle, too. So far, so good, in this young driver's career, but Rob Wilder had not yet faced Daytona.
"It is hard to imagine all that speed from up here," Rob was saying. "It almost looks like an interstate highway with sharper curves."
"Oh, she's plenty fast. Too fast sometimes."
Billy let the words hang as he allowed a whirlpool of memories to claim him. He had spent times both wonderful and tough down there when he had worked with Jodell Lee and his team. Lee had been one of the best the sport had seen, but Daytona had taken a bite out of him more than a time or two as well. Billy Winton and Jodell Lee, along with Jodell's engine builder and first cousin, Joe Banker, and their crew chief, Bubba Baxter, always came to this place fully expecting to win whatever race it was that had brought them here. They had cut their teeth on this track before Billy had joined them. Besides, most of the other teams readily acknowledged that Jodell knew the banks of Daytona even better than he did the mountain roads where he had once run illegal moonshine whiskey for his grandfather. Yessir, this place held special memories for Billy Winton, and now he had high hopes of adding some new ones with his fresh, young crew.
The King Air glided in low over turn three, making its final descent down along the track's long backstretch. For an instant Rob thought the pilot was going to set the plane right down in the racing groove itself, but then he remembered another detail from the picture on Billy's wall. The Daytona Beach airport was right next to the track.
The kid could not take his eyes off the place. That is, until it disappeared out of view as the plane's wheels finally touched down on the runway with a screech and a puff of blue smoke. And even as they taxied over to the flight service hangar, Rob replayed in his head the majestic view he had just commanded.
So this was it! He had finally seen the speedway he had every intention of conquering when they came back here to race in just a bit over a month. Today was to be only a test.
This was Daytona!
From the ground, as he hopped down from the plane's steps, he got a much better perspective of the actual size of the place. It was massive! There was no other way to describe it.
Will Hughes, their crew chief, was waiting for them at the door of the flight service building. He showed them his usual dour expression as he watched them walk his way across the tarmac.
"Billy Winton, you look like you just pitched a five-day drunk," he observed matter-of-factly when they were within earshot.
Winton tried to smooth his rumpled clothes and ran a hand through his long, thinning, red-mixed-with-gray hair.
"Well, Mr. Hughes, we've been on one airplane or another most of the night while y'all were down here taking it easy," Billy said with a grin. He knew the crew had driven all day the day before and had probably been working on the car most of the night. And he knew, too, that they were already at work again early this morning.
"And you…" Hughes gave Rob's tousled hair, swollen eyes, and pale white countenance the once-over. "You look like you might have just seen a ghost."
But Rob was paying him no attention. He was already striding toward the car, looking in the direction of the track, ready to go take her on. He was quiet on the short ride over, too, letting Billy and Will compare notes on the car. They were quickly at the tunnel that ran beneath the "short chute," a brief stretch of linear track coming out of turn four on the front stretch. He watched as the monumental piles of sand and dirt that made up the outline of the track slid past, towering over nearby
Once through the tunnel and inside the speedway, he found it difficult to actually see from one end of the facility to the other. If the banks had not been so tall, it would be impossible to see where the turns made their graceful arc toward the front and back straightaways. And though he knew to expect it from all the races from here he had watched on television, he was still shocked to see an actual lake in the middle of the speedway. Lake Lloyd was formed when the construction crews had dug up all the sand and dirt for the banking. He knew some of the drivers and crew actually fished its waters when they took breaks from practicing or preparing their cars.
Once again the realization of what he was about to do struck him, and the anticipation continued to build as they bounced across the flat of the infield over to where their tractor-trailer transporter sat waiting for them in the garage area. It had brought down from Tennessee two brand-new race cars, the products of many shop hours and hard work over the last few months. Will and his crew had carefully crafted the engines and the actual shapes of the cars so they could have the necessary power and the aerodynamics required to be able to cut through the wind while still staying earthbound at almost two hundred miles per hour. That would be faster man the takeoff speed of the King Air they had just flown into the airport.
As he walked around one of the cars, the one he was about to climb into and take for a spin on this storied track, he stopped, cocked his head, and listened. For a moment there he thought he had heard his name being called from a distance, but there was only the whistle of the cold January wind. He smiled. Maybe it was the track, beckoning him, challenging him to tame her. Or the voices of those who had driven here before but had gone on, men like Fireball Roberts and Neil Bonnet and Davey Allison. Maybe they were urging him out there, encouraging him to make that car go fast, real fast, the way she was supposed to.
"I'm ready," he murmured to no one in particular.
"What you saying?"
It was Donnie Kline, the tire man and one of the key crew members. But if Rob had confessed to the big man with the shaved head that he was answering ghost voices, he would never hear the end of it.
"I said I was ready to take her out," he said.
"Danged good thing. Hate to think we drove all the way down here to watch the seagulls."
Then Donnie was back at work, helping the crew get the primary car rolled out and ready for a spin. Around them several other teams were busy, working on their own race cars. Despite the chill in the air and the early hour, they all seemed as excited to be back at it as Rob and his crew were. It was finally about time to go racing. All would soon be right with the world.
Just as the Billy Winton Racing team had done, the rest of them had passed the last few months building or modifying cars, getting them ready for this day, their first crack at the speedway where the season would truly begin as it always did, with Speed Weeks in February. It was their first true opportunity to see what kind of fruit would be borne from the frantic couple of months of work they had done back in the shops. A successful test here would go a long way toward building confidence and it would generate valuable knowledge that could be put to use when the teams came back for Speed Weeks. A sour day today, though, and it was back to work with a vengeance to try to fix whatever seemed to be the matter. And it would be another long, cold, bitter month before they would know for certain if they had done so.
The Winton Racing team was especially apprehensive about the approaching Speed Weeks. This would be their first trip to Daytona with their young driver. It had been the legendary Jodell Lee himself who had discovered Rob Wilder at a small, out-of-the-way track the year before. Knowing exactly where Wilder's talents were most needed, Lee made a quick telephone call to his old "chief wrench," Billy Winton, and a test had been set up for the kid at the Nashville Fairgrounds track in Tennessee. He had easily passed the coming-out exam, then he had gone on to drive the balance of the Grand National season for the Wilder team. He had been spectacular in the contests he had run the last third of the year, showing an almost uncanny ability to put the car exactly where it needed to be. Though he still had not won a race, it was clearly only a matter of time. And though no one had said it out loud, everyone on the team, from Billy and Will on down, was pointing to the Grand National season-opening Daytona 300-lapper as the race. Today's run would go a long way in either boosting or deflating that feeling, and everyone knew that, too.
So far, the pressure didn't seem to be bothering Rob Wilder at all. And that was another reason Billy and Will felt they had the right driver. The kid was supremely confident without being cocky.
That had been one of the traits their new sponsor liked about the young driver, too. Liked so well that they had chosen to back the team this year with very large checks and a massive public relations commitment. Ensoft, a huge computer software company, had come aboard for the last couple of races the year before and they were now full bore into their relationship with Rob, Billy, and the bright red Fords they would run in 2000. They, too, had high expectations. And they, too, planned to stay with Winton Racing as they made the next transition, likely at the end of the season, depending on how they did, to the sport's big league, Winston Cup.
Rob seemed unfazed by that pressure, too. Though the promotional schedule he had been keeping for Ensoft the last few months had been brutal, he seemed to have quickly grown into the role of spokesperson. He had even bought himself a laptop computer and learned as much as he could about the company's products between airports and hotels and the shop.
Will Hughes took one more sip from the paper cup of coffee he had set within reach on the car's frame. Cold already. He was especially anxious to get rolling. He had been in the game long enough to know when his cars were close to right, that a little work after some hot laps would likely get them totally race-ready. But today he wanted to see how the kid would take to the high banks and the blistering speed this place could generate. Would the youngster be up to it? Will had seen other drivers who weren't, good ones with wins under their belts who couldn't master the old lady by the beach. They had taken to the track and, for some reason, had not been able to get the speeds out of their cars that they had been perfectly capable of running. Something always seemed to keep them slower than they could have been. And many of them had not even come back to try. Or they had settled for a finish somewhere back in the pack but still in the money arid had gone on to somewhere less challenging to try for the all-out wins. A special breed of driver was required to be able to run a race car right out there on the ragged edge around Daytona's high banks.
Today they could find out if they had such a special driver behind the wheel of their car. Totally distracted by the effort, Will took another sip of the coffee, and this time he didn't even notice how bitter and icy it had become. It could have been raw gasoline and he likely would not have taken note.
Inside the hauler, Rob was shucking his Ensoft Racing windbreaker and golf shirt and khaki slacks and pulling on his racing suit. His mind was already on the high banks that awaited him out there. He had spent many hours over the last couple of months walking the woods of East Tennessee with Jodell Lee, or sitting around Lee's fireplace in the home he had inherited from his moonshining granddaddy. Most of the talk had been about this track. And the old driver had been perfectly willing to share what he knew with his protégé.
"Son, that old hunk of asphalt is really deceptively easy to drive if you pay attention," he had told Rob. "The banking is so high and the corners so wide it makes the car seem to sail right on through them. You got to stay alert, though. You make the slightest bobble anywhere and you end up like I did a couple of times. Lose the air off the spoiler and around and around she'll go. Get just the wrong gust of that tricky old wind out there at the wrong time. Or try to force a line the car don't want to run, then look out. And when you lose it, you'll either hit the wall real hard or somebody's gonna tag you and send you into the middle of next week. That's the voice of experience talking, son. I know. There's not much room for error out there on that thing."
The race car itself even looked chilled this morning. Instead of its racing paint, it was a dull gray color, wearing only a coat of primer. The Winton crew had rolled her off the hauler and now stood, hunched over and shivering in the cold, and waited for Rob to climb in and take to the track for the first time. As he stepped from the hauler, Wilder smiled. Paint job or not, the car looked absolutely beautiful to him in the dull sunlight. As beautiful as if she were all decked out in her brilliant red war plumage, her shimmering gold numbers and trim, and her blue Ensoft logo.
He quickly swung his long, lanky legs in the open window of the race car, then bent his frame to slide into the cockpit. As he settled in and began strapping himself to the car, he allowed the words of Jodell Lee to flow through his head.
"Patience…let the car find its own groove…stay alert…don't panic if she wiggles…patience."
The seat in this race car felt wonderfully comfortable, almost as if he were climbing into the big recliner in Billy Winton's living room, ready to watch a football game or the replay of any of the races Billy kept in his own exhaustive tape library. The comfort of the car's seat was, of course, by design. The driver's compartment of a race car is his "office." His and nobody else's. It should be contoured to his body, his frame, so he can concentrate on the car, the competition, winning the race, not how badly his back or his butt hurts.
It was a far cry from the car Rob had been piloting less than a year before when Jodell found him. The old Pontiac the kid drove to victory the fortuitous night Lee dropped by the out-of-the-way track was merely an old bucket seat tightly bolted to the frame rail. That old seat tended to numb his backside, requiring constant mid-contest shuffling. With the belts holding him in tightly, that was tough to do in a long race with few caution periods.
Rob buckled himself in while Will and the crew busied themselves with several last-minute checks. Rob methodically hooked up the belts and went through the rest of his usual checklist as he prepared to take the car out onto the track. By now he had completely replaced any apprehension about his first tour of Daytona with the thoughts of how he would attack the track. How he would handle any situations that might arise. What he would be looking and feeling and listening for from the car itself so he could report them back to Will and the crew.
He idly listened to the chatter on the radio as Will finished the last bit of preparation for this very first run of the brand-new season. The season that was being birthed with so much optimism, so many grand plans.
"Okay, cowboy, talk to me."
Rob pushed the radio button on the steering wheel with his thumb.
"Got you loud and clear, Will. Ready when you are."
"Well, let's fire her up and see if she'll crank. Time to see what this baby can do," the crew chief said.
Rob flipped the starter switch and immediately felt and heard the mighty engine grumble to life without even a cough or hiccup. With a deep, throaty rumble, the engine idled happily beneath Rob's feet, seemingly as excited to get this season under way as its helmsman was. Soon the heat off the headers coming up through the floorboard had begun to warm the interior of the car. The men who huddled around outside the vehicle still shivered, but Rob was comfortably warm.
He didn't even wait for Will's order. Rob shifted up into gear as the crew backed away from the car.
"Let's see what kind of jalopy we got here, Rob."
"I'm ready. The motor sure feels good, though."
"Sure ought to. Nobody builds a better restrictor-plate motor than Joe Banker. He was building them while you were still teething."
Joe Banker had made a name for himself building fine racing engines for the Lee Racing team, and these days for anyone else willing to pay the price. Of course, the price might vary depending on who the customer happened to be. He was especially adept at the unique racing engines required for the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. The sport's governing body required a special part be installed between the carburetors and the intake manifold to restrict the amount of the fuel-and-air mixture that could be sucked in. This robbed the cars of speed and power, but according to the rule-makers, the plates helped keep the cars on the tracks, not letting them be as fast and dangerous as the tracks would otherwise allow.
Many begged to differ, but rules were rules. And that meant that someone needed to be able to build engines that could do the most possible with the built-in hobble. That someone was Joe Banker. When the Ensoft sponsorship had been signed, the money at last a certainty, that had been one of Billy Winton's first telephone calls, and the new, powerful motors were being crafted within the week.
"Well, I'm tired of waiting." Rob spoke into the microphone. "I want to see what this bad girl can do."
"What are you waiting for?"
Rob didn't answer him. Instead he punched the gas and felt the car leap forward as if it had suddenly been cut loose from its moorings. He steered the racer out of the garage area and carefully pulled out toward pit road, the strip of asphalt leading out onto the track.
Still being admirably deliberate, Rob fed her more gas as he cleared the opening in the pit wall that allowed entrance to the track. As he rolled along pit road, Rob took a second to glance over at the famed tower over looking the bend in the tri-oval. For a moment he allowed his mind to wander. He imagined himself flashing across the start/finish line there, leading a giant pack of cars beneath the flag stand, the grandstands filled, with cheering fans as the rest of the field desperately chased him as he thundered first to the checkered flag.
He shook his head and tried to regain concentration on the job at hand. He would have to wait to win the race in a month, but his work this day would go a long way toward realizing that fantasy.
But it was good to dream. Lord, it was good to dream!
The car exited pit road and pulled out onto the wide, sweeping track. There were already several other cars out testing, making their first runs of the new racing season. The steady drone of the motors was carried on the stiff breeze across the speedway, and the noise firmly announced the impending season as surely as the blaring of trumpets. It was like the smell of freshly mown grass for a new baseball team or the squeak of sneakers on a gym floor at the initial basketball practice of the year. And the air inside the cold, empty speedway was still electric with the anticipation.
The pitch of his engine picked up as Rob jammed the accelerator to the floor. But the car seemed sluggish to him, only slowly picking up speed as they headed off toward the first turn no matter how urgently he spurred her on. For an instant, Rob was concerned. Then he remembered the restrictor plate, sitting between the carburetor and the intake manifold, cutting the fuel and air mixture that was flowing into the cylinders. The effect on the motor was immediately noticeable to Rob and he determined to talk more with Jodell Lee about how he had overcome the sudden loss of power back when the restrictor plates had first been mandated.
Now Rob took notice of the towering banks as the car rolled into turn one for the first time. The banking was so steep that it appeared it would be difficult for a man to even walk up it from the bottom to the top. The car, which was sitting down low on her back springs; bottomed out several times as she hit the small bumps that dotted the track's surface through the corner. He wondered what it would be like when he hit them at speed.
The ride was rougher than he had anticipated. Rob could feel it each time the car struck bottom, as the wheel seemed to want to jump out of his hands, and as the force of the big bump resonated up through the floorboard of the car, shaking car, driver, and everything inside them. But the engine continued to build RPMs as the car shot out of turn two and onto the long back-stretch, and the ride seemed to smooth out some as he gained momentum.
Rob immediately noticed one more thing about driving with the restrictor plate. There would be no need to lift his foot off the throttle in the turns. He could keep the gas pedal pegged to the floor all the way through the corners. Running wide open around the big track would be no trouble at all. Rob had never run a car flat out through a corner before, and he had to fight the urge to lift off the gas as the car set its line into the turn.
The car was beginning to get up a good head of steam now as Rob sailed into turn three, his right foot still firmly shoved to the floor. He began to revel in the tremendous velocity as the car rocketed out of turn four and on to the tri-oval. Coming down to the start/finish line at a speed approaching 195 miles an hour, the grandstands were nothing but a blur out his right side window. It would have been hard for Rob Wilder to describe to anyone else the sheer exhilaration that coursed through his body as he crossed that start/finish line for the first time.
He'd made his first lap around the famed Daytona Speedway and he could already tell that he loved the place!
With the first lap completed, it was now time to see what both he and the car could do to find more speed. Would he be up to the task? Could he expect to step right in and conquer the track that made legends out of Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, and Baker? Those questions might not be answered this chilly January morning, but he was about to learn all he could as he zoomed down toward turn one again, the Ford now approaching maximum speed.
The crew stood tensely outside the garage, watching their car run those first few laps out on the track. While they had gained plenty of respect for their new, young driver already, they also knew that the first few laps in a new car on an. unfamiliar track could be shaky. A loose bolt or fitting on the car at these speeds could send the thing into the wall in an instant. A miscalculation by their driver could do the same.
Will watched stone-faced as the car slowly came up to speed on that first lap. He squinted into the sun as Rob brought her around to the line for the first time. He could well imagine the thrill the kid must be feeling inside the cockpit of that machine out there, but he also hoped he would temper his excitement and go on about the business at hand.
He clicked the button on his stopwatch as Rob flashed by their position, then he paced back and forth as he watched the car push higher up on the banking of turns one and two. Rob was clearly trying to use every inch of the track to keep from losing any of the precious speed he had built up over that first lap. The driver had likely already sensed how hard it was to gain impetus with the restricted carburetor and he didn't want to lose a bit of it.
The car disappeared from Will's view then, rumbling on down the backstretch while he fiddled with the stop-watch, his ears keyed to the roar of the motor of his car as opposed to the others circling out there. He turned to pick Rob up high in turn three and then watched the car ride all the way through the corner. He sneaked one quick peek at the watch, trying to get a feel for the lap Rob was turning as he waited for him to roar back past their position.
The car flashed by in front of them and Will clicked the watch. When he took a look at the time, he couldn't hold back a broad grin no matter how hard he tried. Only then did he realize the entire crew was watching him for his reaction.
"A tick over one hundred and eighty-five miles an hour."
He had done the math in his head, converting the seconds on the watch into miles per hour. Everyone else seemed to breathe for the first time in the last couple of minutes. The primary concern they had, in addition to their green driver, was for the bodywork that they had done during the winter, getting the car's aerodynamics just right. The kid had just proved he could get the car around the place quickly. Now, over the next day and a half, they needed to tweak some to get the car itself more capable. The watch had confirmed that they were about as close as they expected to be. When they had worked a little magic on the machine, everyone else had best look lout!
Everybody was still smiling the next day when the team loaded everything back up on the hauler. Will was relieved to see that all the work they had put into the car over the winter had taken her in exactly the right direction, that it had been effort well spent. Some of the other teams had tested cars and had discovered they had been on the wrong road all along and had a tough month ahead of them.
Billy Winton was smiling because he knew how difficult it would be for his young team to win a good starting spot in the field for the Grand National race, the one they would run the day before the Daytona 500. Or to even make the field at all, for that matter. These last two days showed the team had taken a huge step in the right direction to make that a possibility. If so, there would be a confident excitement in the Winton Racing shop the next few weeks.
Rob Wilder was floating a foot off the ground. He had immediately liked the big, fast speedways, the ones like Charlotte and Michigan that he had run on already, but they were nothing like what he had experienced over the last couple of days. He knew now that this was where he belonged. He had discovered what other drivers before him had learned, the appeal of this track which had drawn generations of racers before him to come to the beach and challenge its towering high banks and lofty, speeds. Rob told everyone who would listen how he wished he could drive this track every day, that the middle of February could not come soon enough for him.
As the King Air lifted off the runway and turned out toward the ocean the next afternoon, Rob twisted around and watched the speedway until it slipped out of view in the dusky winter haze. Then he leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes, but not to sleep this time. He was imagining that the throb of the airplane's engines was that of his race car, and the wind whistling past and over the wings outside was the sea breeze buffeting the car as he steered it out of the second turn at Daytona at nearly two hundred miles per hour. The kid's throttle foot twitched, his shifting hand tugged at air, and his left-hand fingers clenched an invisible steering wheel.
With his eyes closed, he couldn't see Billy Winton watching him from the copilot's seat up front. Or see the pleased smile on the man's face. The old mechanic knew exactly what the kid was thinking. And he, too, couldn't wait to get his driver and his car back out on the track they were quickly leaving behind.
It had been many years since Daytona had first grabbed hold of Billy Winton, captured him so completely, and she still had not loosened her grip on him. It was good to see the boy-faced young driver he had chosen to shepherd his own car could be so completely seduced by her curves, too.
Copyright © 2000 by Kent Wright & Don Keith