Young Guns (Rolling Thunder #5)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613281485
  • Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Pages: 278
  • Product dimensions: 3.92 (w) x 7.18 (h) x 0.93 (d)

First Chapter

Young Guns


By Kent Wright

Sagebrush Education Resources

Copyright © 2000 Kent Wright
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780613281485

TheKid
 
 
It didn’t take much to send the old driver reeling back through the years. A particular sound, a distinctive smell, just the right flutter of a checkered flag at the entrance to some fast food place, and he was instantly swept away again. Caught up in the memories of a time when he was the one who crawled behind the wheel and steered one of those boom-throated machines around a racetrack, intent on leaving the rest of them choking on his exhaust.
He never had to look for the reminders. They came floating at him all the time.
The hard part was to drag himself back to the present.
Or to find the desire to even try.
* * *
Thunder rumbled in the distance like faraway artillery fire, punctuating the periodic sheet lightning that lit up the western night sky. So long as the rain held off, though, those folks who were gathered in the bleachers that ran along the front stretch of the small racetrack welcomed the wonderful cooling breeze that blew in off the storm front. They cheered lustily at every jagged streak of lightning, every answering grumble of thunder. It had been a brutally hot week already, the final few days of an unusually dry spring, and a threat thata stifling summer likely lurked ahead of them. Farmers had already been praying for a drink of water for their emerging corn or soybeans. But now, despite the need, those who had come to watch the Wednesday night feature at the little racetrack prayed it would hold off for just a few more hours.
“Let them get the race in, Lord,” they prayed. “Then send the rain for the crops. If it be Thy will, of course.”
It was an unusually large crowd that had gathered, despite the threat of bad weather and it being midweek. Tags on the cars in the gravel parking lot showed visitors from a variety of counties across Tennessee and Alabama. Sure, they were there for the special card of races mat would go a long way toward deciding the track champion for the year. But many were there, too, to meet in person a special guest who had stopped by for an autograph session before the actual racing began.
The lines had formed early at the rickety old gates that led into the track. Many still wore their dusty overalls, their factory uniforms with their names stitched over their pockets, their short-sleeve dress shirts and out-of-fashion ties they had worn that day to the bank or car dealership. They clearly came straight to the races from work.
And most of them dutifully queued up to see the special guest and get an autograph, take a picture with an arm around him or with him holding one of their kids, or simply share a few words with one of the legends of stock car racing.
They noticed that he still looked like an athlete, especially when he stood and moved around the table to stand next to one of them so someone could snap a picture. He was tall, lean, well-muscled; his handshake was was sure and solid, and he moved with the ease and grace of a football player (which he had once been) or a dancer (which he most certainly had not). Only a mix of gray in what had once been crow-feather-black hair, the lines on his face, and a slight paunch gave him away. It was not hard for any of the fans to imagine him crawling into a racecar again and effortlessly guiding it for five hundred miles on the hottest of summer days.
And more than one of them remarked to another about the man’s eyes. Those deep blue eyes seemed to grab you, capture you, and pull you in with their clear intensity.
The old driver smiled sincerely at every single one of them as they came by, tirelessly posed with them, signed whatever they thrust in- front of him. It still amazed him that they would want such a small piece of him, that his scrawled signature on a trading card could bring such delight to anyone. This was his eighth such event in seven different states in the last three days, despite the fact that he had not driven a car in a half-dozen years, had not actually been behind the wheel of a car that had won a race in better than eight. Yet they still came, still seemed excited to meet him, still talked animatedly of races and wrecks and wins he had been a part of, including many he himself had long since forgotten.
Whirlwind promotional trips such as this brought back memories for him. Memories of those brutal early times when they would race three or four days in a row, usually at tracks that happened to be hundreds of miles apart. Days with practically no sleep and filled with debilitating work, each one of them a blur of racing, fixing, driving, and racing again.
Things were certainly different now, though. Flying in his own plane, sleeping in luxury hotel rooms provided by his sponsors, and eating in nicer restaurants with cloth napkins and real china plates were all a far cry from the days when the old driver had first been getting himself established in racing. Back then, most of his sleeping had been in the backseat of the car in some parking lot or on the side of the road some where. Vienna sausages and soda crackers had been the normal cuisine. The times and the demands of the sport had certainly changed for him. And he would be the first to admit that it had been mostly for the better.
It had been the needs of the sponsors that had made the biggest difference. Back then, a driver simply had to show up at the track where they were going to race, run hard, and win enough money to get to the next race. Nowadays, keeping the sponsor happy was almost as important as winning the races. Maybe more so. That meant endless days on the road, doing the required promotional work, attending the events, shaking the hands of thousands of customers or dealers or brokers or employees while smiling broadly for the money. For many drivers, the race on Sunday was actually their only chance to relax and get away from the pressures of the business side of racing.
Racing had become more and more about sponsorship money, and it took lots of it to mount a challenge to the other teams that showed up each week. To be competitive, a team had to have cash. It was as necessary as oil and gas and tires. And to keep the money, it was necessary to keep those sponsors happy. Winning certainly helped in that regard. Leading a race got the maximum television time. The winner’s circle was the best place to flash the sponsors’ logos. But for the driver, there were far more hours spent on stages and platforms, in parking lots and interviews in front of television cameras than he ever passed in the cockpit of the racecar.
Now, as the old racer signed cards and glad-handed the patrons, he occasionally glanced to the west, to where the storm boiled and blustered. He had his plane parked at a strip five miles away and would have to pilot it on to east Tennessee later that night. He didn’t relish having to burrow through thunder heads to get home.
But he could also catch a random glimpse of the dusty garage area outside the first turn wall. He could see row upon row of trucks, trailers, and racecars. From the gleaming Late Model stackers to the beat-up old Limited Sportsman cars to a swarm of mini-stocks, there seemed to be racecars lined up everywhere. And people swarmed all around them.
The old driver knew precisely what types would be milling around down there among all the equipment, too. There were the local hotshots with their own sponsor money to play with, their crewmembers in matching uniforms, their cars shined and ready. Then there would be the dirt-poor part-time racers who scrambled for every dime they could get to try to field a competitive car, the money spent for parts instead of paint jobs or polish or uniforms. And then there would be just about every other kind of driver and team in between. Many of them had traveled a hundred or more miles just to race here on this sultry, stormy night.
Had the old driver been able to see more clearly, he might have noticed a particular red car. A young kid, eighteen or nineteen years old at the most, struggled with three or four of his friends to replace the radiator on the battered car in time to run it in one of the late-model heat races. The car was pockmarked with body damage from some previous wars and the makeshift crew had already tried to bang out anything that might get in the way during the race. The number 7, which had been painted on the side of the car, had been almost obliterated in some type of close encounter with the tire of another racecar; someone had hand-lettered it back, so it was almost legible again. Even though it was obviously a challenge to simply get the car into good enough shape to run, they seemed to be doing so with an abundance of enthusiasm.
The young crew attempting to resurrect the red car would have surely brought back more memories for the old driver if he could have seen them. But Jodell Bob Lee was busier than ever, accepting the praise of those who had lined up to meet him, signing his autograph in his sweeping hand. The crowd was excited about meeting one of their heroes, a man who was now the owner of a team on the Winston Cup circuit and a former star driver there. He was in his fortieth year in the game and he still relished every minute of it. But since he had finally parked his own racecar in the early nineties in favor of someone younger, someone with a young man’s reflexes, it seemed the demands on his time had only increased. In addition to trying to watch the car he owned run in every race he could, he still did appearances for his sponsors whenever they requested. He suspected there would come a day when they would no longer ask.
Now, here he was, on the last lap of this three-day trip, going above and beyond the call of duty for one of his old friends. He didn’t usually stop by small tracks in the middle of nowhere for a Wednesday night feature anymore. Even if he had been so inclined, the pressure of an out-of-control schedule would likely prevent it. But the call had come and he had agreed to do it when he checked his itinerary and saw it was only a quick jag from his preplanned route back home from a luncheon at a manufacturing plant in the Midwest.
He had to laugh when his old friend who had made the request had asked him where he was at the moment.
“Tell you the truth, I don’t remember,” he had said, then reached into the night table next to the hotel bed and looked at the telephone book cover. “Kansas City. Yep, that’s where I am. Kansas City.”
But not only was this stop a favor, it also gave him a chance to see a bit of real small-track racing, a rare treat for him nowadays. He suspected that his appearance allowed the owner/operator to squeeze in an extra night of racing at his track with the chance of drawing a decent crowd. He knew, too, that such an extra race could be the difference in making money this year or not.
Jodell Lee had known Nathan Summers for better than thirty years. And he remembered the night when the track owner had suddenly decided, on the spur of the moment that fifteenth place paid twenty dollars in prize money after all, simply because he knew a particular young driver who had finished fifteenth needed the cash to buy gas to get back home. Or the time they had shown up hungry and Nathan had fed them all free out of the concession stand. “Appearance food,” he had called it, making it up on the spot.
That’s one of the reasons that Jodell had not hesitated when the call came. A quick detour and some autograph time would hardly be too much of an imposition to help repay such a debt.
He owed it to his fans, too. He suspected they might not be thrusting programs at him to sign too much longer either. Many of the kids lining up in front of him weren’t even born the last time he won a race. His friend, Richard Petty, had taught him the value of signing autographs long ago. Many a race, he and Richard would still be sitting on the back of a hauler when most of the other teams had begun pulling out, still jawing with the fans and signing.
“I seen you and old Bill Elliott get together that time at Charlotte.”
“I was there the night you and Waltrip had that race to the finish at Nashville. I was pulling for you, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”
“I was watching you on TV when you hit that wall at Daytona. My, that was a hard lick!”
Every one of them seemed to have a particular Jodell Lee memory. He acknowledged them all, though most of it was a blur to him now. It went on for over two hours; ultimately, it was the thunder of the mini-stock engines cranking up that caused the line to thin, the crowd finally finding their seats for the beginning of the racing for that evening. With a quick glance at the weather, Jodell tried to rush the last few fans through so he could get back to the plane and head once again for home.
One of the track workers ushered Jodell up to the promoters’ box where Nathan Summers stood, happily surveying the big crowd in the stands, the bountiful harvest of racecars down on the track, and the thunderstorm that had so far cooperated by holding back. Jodell shook his hand and examined the catered spread that covered a big table by the side.
“You may as well have a sandwich, Jodell,” he offered. “Momma ain’t gonna have supper waitin’ this late nohow.”
If Hollywood had been casting a racetrack owner and promoter, they would have made sure the actor looked exactly like Nate Summers. He was short, dumpy, smoked a cheap cigar, and wore out-of-style polyester slacks, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, a wide tie that ended six inches above his belt buckle, and a fedora with a small green feather stuck in the band.
“You don’t have any turnip greens and cornbread, do you?” Lee asked with a grin, already wondering how he could gracefully make an exit and be on his way.
“Naw, but I got some ham and cheese and stuff. Besides, you may want to stay and watch some of these boys run. We got some good cars and drivers for being so far out in the sticks and it being the middle of the week and all.”
Jodell was bone-tired and ready to spend a night in his own bed for a change. But just then, a pack of cars pulled out onto the track with a roar, and the crowd stood to show their appreciation of the racing that was about to begin.
Jodell couldn’t help it. He pulled a soda from a bucket of ice and stepped to the front of the box to watch the start of the first heat race.
The exhaust smell that rose on the moist wind to the booth was as intoxicating as any liquor. The old driver was quickly drunk with the aroma of it. He could imagine the tickling vibration of the gearshift as he cupped it in his hand, the way the gas pedal throbbed beneath his foot, the hot breeze that spilled through the window with its load of vapors, dust, and tire grit.
And as the green flag fell, it all came rushing back in full force. How stimulating it was to feel the power in the motor when he stomped it and made a beeline for the corner. How the vigor of it shoved him hard back into the seat until he could barely reach the wheel and he had to pull himself forward to grab for the next gear so he could pick off the old boy who lollygagged along in front of him. And how his heart raced as he guided the car to the front, for the lead.
Always straining for the front, for the lead.
* * *
As the mini-stock cars circled the track to start the second heat race he finally turned from the spectacle of it all and walked to the buffet. He filled a plate, and then as he ate he chatted with others in the box who were also enjoying the night at the track. Jodell knew that this was racing at its basic level: where those with a dream of moving up to the highest level of the sport honed their skills and waited impatiently for their big break; where those who had long since abandoned that dream still lived out their primal desire to run and to win, never mind the venue. But whether driving careers started or ended here, it was at tracks just like this one all over the country where the purest racing still took place, just as it had when Jodell Lee had been running for gas and parts money and a small, pewter trophy.
He missed it sometimes. It had been his roots, his apprenticeship. But time and too many encounters with track walls had taken their toll. Still, deep down in his belly, the competitive fires burned as hotly as ever. Even as he munched his sandwich and watched the mini-stocks roar out of the corner to take the checkered flag for the end of the first heat race, he could feel the hairs on his arms stand up, his heart beat a bit faster.
For Jodell Lee, winning had always been everything. Second place was the same as dead last. As those wins became harder and harder to come by, he had finally been forced to admit that it took more than desire to get it done. The edge was gone and it was time to move on, to stop denying another young gun his own shot at the big time. Standing here, though, watching those little cars dart and dive for the lead, the old desire came bubbling back to the surface just as it always did. Just as it always would until he had run his last lap in life.
“Bet I can read your mind,” Nathan Summers said as he walked up and put an arm around Jodell’s shoulder. “Say the word and I bet one of them would give up his seat and let you drive.”
The promoter’s cigar made Jodell’s eyes water.
“Shoot, Nate, these boys could drive circles around me these days.”
“Hell if that’s so! I still say you was the best driver I ever seen. And I don’t just say it when you’re standing here neither.”
Down on the track, the crowd was cheering as the first of the three late-model heat races was about to start. The clouds still spat sparks out beyond the third turn and despite the show, Jodell was wondering how he could graciously break away and get started for home.
“Nathan, as always I have enjoyed your hospitality, but it’s been a long week already. I think it’s time for me to head on to the house.”
“Jodell, you don’t know how much your visits help,” Nathan said sincerely, swinging his arm over the crowded grandstand. “I don’t know any way I could ever repay you for all the help you’ve given me over the last couple of years.”
“Now, Nathan, it’s like I tell you every time. You paid me up front a long, long time ago.”
“Jodell, that was so long ago that I can’t even remember what it was.”
“It was June of 1961 and that money let us get back home and fix the car to make the next three races. And we were in the top five in all three of ’em.”
Down below, the late-models had lined up at the start/finish line, getting set for a heat race. Jodell bent slightly at the waist and leaned to catch the smell of the gas fumes again, to feel the rumble of their powerful motors against his chest when they cranked up. The bigger cars had clearly recaptured the old driver’s attention. He had forgotten the sandwich now and was intently watching the drivers climb in and buckle up.
“Okay, Jodell, I sure ain’t gonna try to talk you out of coming over to see us anytime you want to. But long as you’re here, do me one more favor. I want you to watch these two drivers gettin’ ready to run this heat. Both these guys are hot and I think they could have a shot at moving up to Grand National. Just look them over real quick in the heat race and then I’ll have somebody run you back out to the airport.”
Jodell had that look in his eye, that set to his jaw. A sudden streak of lightning unzipped the sky over the far side of the track but he hardly seemed to notice. The rolling thunder blended perfectly with the roar of the engines as they came to life.
“Okay. Fair enough.”
“Good,” Summers said with a grin.
With the competitive situation on the Grand National and Cup circuits these days, car owners were always on the lookout for fresh young driving talent. Jodell was no exception. While he was satisfied with the current driver in his car, an owner never knew when he might need a replacement, or when he might be pressured into fielding a second team. “Which ones?” he asked, as he studied the nine cars that had lined up for the heat.
“That orange number 27. That’s Slick Wilson. He won more than half the races I had last year and he’s won a bunch this year already. That black 18 in the row behind him is the other guy, Stewart Asbee. He won four races last year and has split up the wins with Slick about equal this year.”
“Slick, huh? Now that is a racer’s name,” Jodell said. Nathan Summers couldn’t tell by the tone of his voice if he was serious or not.
Jodell carefully studied the two drivers Nathan had pointed out. Each had perfectly polished racecars, the lettering and numbering professionally done, with each toting rows of sponsor decals down their sides and on their gleaming hoods and rear decks. No doubt about it. They had money behind their efforts. He promised himself he would keep an open mind but it certainly appeared that their success could easily be the result of better equipment, not necessarily the talent of their drivers. He would find out once they got to racing.
Then, at the last instant, a group of kids pushed up the battered red Pontiac with the number seven painted on its sides. A kid with a mop of blond hair wearing a dirty old driving suit ran alongside the car, pushing and steering, while the other boys helped shove it from behind into the last position on the track.
* * *
The old driver grinned. That sight looked eerily familiar to him. Except for the blond hair, that could easily have been him down there in the oil-and grease-stained driver’s suit, scrambling to get in and strapped down for the start. And the other guys could have been his cousin Joe Banker, his friend Bubba Baxter, and the rest of their ragtag crew from a good forty years before. And the Pontiac could have been their own old Ford, noir necessarily the prettiest car to take the flag, but often the fastest.
What would she have tonight? How about the others? Could sheer want and intuition take the win if the car wasn’t right? Or would somebody else’s silly mistake cost them a payday when they needed it so badly? So very badly?
* * *
“Jodell? Did you hear what I was telling you about those boys?”
“Sorry, Nate. I was looking at those kids with that red Pontiac. Who is he?”
“Aw, Jodell. Darn it, I can’t even remember his name. Real nice kid, though. They showed up about a month ago with that old clunker of a car. They do okay for a little while but the car usually blows up on ’em before they can finish. If hard work paid anything, they would win every time. Somebody said they were from somewhere up close to the Tennessee line. You got to hand it to them for still trying.”
Jodell had borrowed a pair of binoculars from someone and was studying the Pontiac’s crew. Something familiar about them fascinated him.
“They do look like a hard-working bunch. Can’t any of them be older than eighteen or nineteen,” Jodell observed.
While they talked, the string of cars rolled off the line and began to circle the three-eighths-mile track behind the convertible pace car. The two hotshot drivers Nathan had pointed out kept gunning their cars’ engines, swaying from side to side as if they really needed to warm their tires for a quick heat race. One of them suddenly zoomed up and threatened to pass the pace car, then the other guy darted up and gave the first one a hard butt in the rear end.
Was it really eagerness to get started or simple stupidity? Jodell held judgement until he could see them run. With the dollars behind them, they certainly didn’t seem to have any worries about tearing up the equipment.
The green flag fell, and with a roar the cars dashed to the line as the crowd rose and cheered them past. The 27, Wilson, and the 18 of Asbee quickly jumped out in front of the others by a dozen car lengths. Jodell watched them for a moment before the red 7 caught his eye. On the very first lap, the kid piloting the car passed three other racers, putting himself in seventh place. The next time by, he executed a perfect pass to the inside going down into turn one and picked himself off another spot.
The two at the front were showboating, pushing and rubbing all over each other in their fight for the lead. They were so intent on smashing into each other that the driver of the 18 car, running second, missed several obvious opportunities to pass and take the lead. Jodell could only stand there and shake his head. These guys Weren’t especially good drivers at all, at least not from what he had seen so far. They were simply a Couple of hotheads, more interested in running over the competition than in actually out-driving anybody for a win.
The kid in the Pontiac was a different story. Even on the tight three-eighths-mile track, he seemed to be concentrating on the car directly in front of him, and he was obviously picking his spots to make his moves. He would run hard up onto the back end of a car, then fade high or dive down low, forcing the driver to run a shade deeper into the turn than he wanted to. That would cause the car in front of him to kick up just enough for the kid to squeeze by cleanly on either side.
By the time the checkered flag fell after ten laps, the kid was parked right up on the back bumpers of the 18 and the 27, solidly in third place. He had come from last in the field to claim a nice starting spot in the feature. And the old driver, Jodell Lee, was duly impressed.
“What you think?” Nathan asked proudly.
“Nathan, that was some pretty good racing. The kid in the 7 car worked the field over beautifully.”
“The 7? What about the other two?”
“Oh, those guys? Well, they run hard enough for sure. I’m just not sure they run smart.” He checked the lingering clouds, glanced at his watch, and winked at Summers. “I tell you what. Let me call the wife, and I think I’ll hang around and watch your guys in the feature. How about that?”
“Sure thing. That was just a heat race. You’ll see how good them boys are then.”
Jodell found a quiet corner and placed a quick call on his cell phone. Catherine was still awake, waiting to hear from him. He knew better than to lie to her. She guessed from the excitement in his voice anyway that he had decided to watch the race at the track where he had only intended to sign some autographs and be on his way.
“Let me guess. You’re going to stay for the feature.”
Even through the slight hiss of the phone line, he could tell there was more amusement than anger in her voice.
“Yeah, there’s a kid out here that I want to see some more of.”
“Let me guess again. He drives like a young Jodell Bob Lee.”
“I don’t know that anybody will ever be that good, Cath.…“.
She laughed then at the sincere tone in his words. She still had the most beautiful laugh he had ever heard.
As he folded up the phone, he almost motioned for Nate to send over the driver to take him on to the airport after all. He missed her terribly. He wanted to be with her. But then he heard the engines starting up again and there was the old feeling in his gut. He stepped back to the window and watched the cars pull away.
As they circled for the last time before the green flag waved, the public address announcer told the crowd that Jodell was staying around to watch the feature. Jodell acknowledged their ovation with a wave out the open window.
As he watched the cars get ready for the start, he glanced at his watch, then at the black clouds that still piled up toward the west, strobing lightning. He hoped that the stay would be worth it. Was what he had seen in the heat race for real or had he simply witnessed a lucky piece of driving? He had to find out. And the only way to do that was to sit patiently and watch.
Twenty-six cars had made the field. Two or three more had not been able to get repaired in time after wrecks in their heats. The kid in the red number 7 Pontiac was lined up in the seventh position as a result of his finish in the heat race, and that was directly behind the two guys Nate had pointed out. The officials elected not to invert the field. That meant that the starting order was based on the finishes from the heats.
Jodell studied the starting field carefully, sizing up the competition. He knew the two hotshots from the first race would likely beat and bang their way to the front, and he fully expected they would wreck several other cars in the process. The winner of the third heat looked as if he might be tough to beat as well. The green flag flew over the field, sending the horde of cars off into the first turn with a deafening roar. From the start, there was the inevitable small-track give and take going on throughout the field as everyone jockeyed for position going through turns one and two. The leader, Slick Wilson in the 27 car, had clearly jumped the start and now pointed the rest of the field down the backstretch. The 18 had already pushed his way into third by rudely drop-kicking the car in front of him out of the way.
That old boy likely needs a bodyguard after a race, Jodell thought. Wonder if he drives a bulldozer when he’s not racing?
But as he picked up the kid in the number 7, he was pleased to see that he was sitting there, waiting patiently in line, trying to stay out of trouble. Jodell smiled. There would be plenty of time in the fifty-lap feature to make a move. He seemed to be savvy enough to know that it was best to wait for the field to settle down for a lap or two, to let them get the bumping and paint-swapping out of their systems, and then he could start making his way up to the front. There was no need to be the cause of a wreck while trying to win the race on the first couple of laps.
Before the race was ten laps old, the 18 of Asbee was sitting in second place trying to run down the leader, who had pulled out to a four-car-length lead. The kid in the 7 had gotten around a couple of cars by then and now sat in fifth place. The field was finally starting to string out all the way around the track and that gave room for some serious racing. Jodell felt his own pulse quicken.
The start and the finish were usually exciting, but this was where the race got interesting!
The leaders were beginning to catch up to the back of the field, to those cars who had been lucky to even make the feature. As he blundered past one of the slower cars, the 27 punched the poor racer hard in the rear, spinning him out and bringing out the yellow caution flag. Jodell shook his head. There had been no cause for such a move. The guy could have skirted the slower car and put him down without resorting to a bump that could get anyone behind tangled up. And that could ruin the night for some folks who might not be as able to afford such bad luck as Wilson was.
Just then, though, Jodell caught his breath as the kid in the 7 barely slipped by the whirling car, making a nifty adjustment as he darted to the inside. He steered his Pontiac to a spot just below where he seemed to know the other car would be by the time he got there. The driver that was directly behind the 7 wasn’t so lucky. He tagged the spinning car hard in the side and the crowd stood and groaned in unison at the viciousness of the impact.
The caution allowed the kid to pull up on the rear bumper of the fourth-place car as the track crew came out to drag the wrecked hulks off the course and shovel compound onto the spilled oil and gas. Jodell imagined he could see the grin on the kid’s face. And when he picked up the binoculars, it was confirmed. Inside the car, the boy was smiling broadly, pounding the dashboard with his fist, and clearly having the time of his life.
He was a driver. The car seemed to be set up well. If she held together, it could get interesting out there before this race was over!
The caution allowed all the cars to catch up in a tight bunch, with the half-dozen or so slower lapped cars lined up on the inside of those that were still on the lead lap. Over the next twenty laps, those slower cars would keep getting snarled up with the ones that were leading.
Jodell stood up straight, stretching his tired back as he watched the cars flash past the start/finish line to take the green flag once again. The 27 jumped the re-start once again and took a three-car lead going into the first turn. None of the officials seemed to notice and the crowd cheered lustily as one of their local favorites had the lead, no matter how he had done it. The next four cars were lined up in single file as they tried to clear the lapped cars that chugged along on the inside.
Diving down into the third turn, the Chevrolet that was running in front of the red Pontiac tried to drive a little deeper into the corner, angling to get a run on the third place driver. The car obviously didn’t maintain traction as it hit the turn and it slid upward on the track, barely missing the back bumper of the car in front of it. Jodell held his breath, then watched approvingly as the kid in the Pontiac anticipated the move and pounced.
Had the young driver been watching the Chevy already? Did he know from having followed it around the track that it would tend to lose its grip in a move like that? Was the kid that sharp or was it simply a lucky guess?
The 7 ran the same steady lap he had been running all along and pushed the nose of his car into the spot just as the Chevy pushed up and out of his way. It appeared as if the Chevy’s driver was kindly moving over and letting him past, but Jodell knew better. The Pontiac muscled on past the Chevy through the center of the turn and easily claimed the spot.
Jodell watched the move carefully, amazed that such a young kid could show so much patience. Most drivers, including some in Grand National and Winston Cup, could benefit from such composure. The more he watched the kid drive, the more impressed he was. He grabbed a stopwatch from the desk in front of him, lined up the Pontiac with the flagpole, and clicked the start button. If what he suspected was true, the times for each lap would be remarkably consistent.
The next lap past, the kid pulled his Pontiac right up on the back of the Ford that was riding in third place. Coming off the fourth turn, the blond youngster pulled to the inside and outraced the Ford down the stretch and into turn one. The Ford’s driver would have none of it, though. He tried to ease down the track and cut him off, bluffing that he would rather, slam into him than give up the position. But the kid held his line like a pro and slid on by to take over the spot. Now all that stood between him and the lead were the two nuts in the 27 and the 18.
“Say, Nathan. Can’t somebody find out that kid’s name?” Jodell asked. The lap count showed there were ten more circuits to go. The watch confirmed that he was driving an amazingly consistent race.
“Hey, Steve!” Nathan yelled to someone else in the box. “What’s that kid in die 7 car’s name?”
“Let’s see.” The man shuffled some papers. “Wilder. Rob Wilder.”
“That’s it, Jodell. Rob Wilder. I don’t know why you’re so worried about him, though. He won’t get past them other two boys if we run ’til Monday.”
Jodell merely smiled.
“We’ll see.”
Asbee in the 18 was glued to the rear bumper of the 27, giving him a hard bump in the rear as they entered each corner. Neither driver seemed to be concerned about the car that had claimed third place behind them. They were more interested in their own private battle for the first spot. The kid appeared to have sensed it and took his time, looking high and then low, testing the line he would eventually need to follow to get by.
Jodell watched him laying back, testing different routes around the track each time through.
Is he doing what I think he’s doing? he asked himself. Is he looking for the best line?
With six laps to go, the 18 ran hard into the back of the 27 once more as they drove off into turn one. The fans seemed to be enjoying the tussle between these two familiar drivers. It was one that was probably repeated often at this track, as either one or the other would eventually claim the race. With the bump, the driver of the 27 was forced to ease off on the gas to keep his car beneath him and under control. The kid seemed to intuitively see the opportunity as it presented itself. He took the outside line through turns one and two. That allowed him to pull even with the 18 as he ran in second place. But the other driver was more preoccupied with shoving the 27 out of his way. However, since he was holding the preferred line coming off the corner, the line he had already scouted out, the kid was able to nose ahead of him. Slick Wilson in the 27 pushed out to the wall as he recovered from Asbee’s shove, but he kept the lead. It was clear, too, that the 18 was a good racecar and would not give up so easily.
The kid stood his ground when the 18 tried to bump him out of the way as they went into turn three. Wilson tucked his car down low, blocking Asbee and the inside. Wilder held his line in the 7 car, though, running deeply into the turn. Then the kid got a fender on the outside of Wilson, the leader. Wilson was so worried about Asbee in the 18 behind him that he never noticed the kid coming up on his outside. And he certainly wasn’t expecting anyone there. The inside was the quickest way around this track, wasn’t it?
The swirling mass of fans in the stands had changed their allegiance in a flash. They were on their feet, cheering on the kid in the old red Pontiac. For once, the two bullies who had been dominating the track for so long were in an actual race for the win. Wilder was somehow able to pull even with Wilson’s number 27 on the outside as they crossed the start/finish line and they raced off side by side into the first turn. The track announcer was virtually screaming into the microphone, describing the struggle to those who could see it perfectly well for themselves.
Jodell stood there, smiling broadly. The Wilder kid was outfoxing the two hotshots as surely as some cagey veteran might. It was doubtful that his equipment was anywhere near what the other two drivers were chauffeuring. He was doing it with ability, intuition, and smarts, and nothing more.
The two cars, the 27 and the 7, rubbed fenders going down into turn one, kicking up puffs of smoke from where the tires rubbed against sheet metal. Then, as they exited the turn, the 27 tried to run the kid up and into the outside wall. Wilder held his line, even as the two cars slammed together hard. The 18 was still back there, too, and he bumped the 27 in the back end, getting him even more loose. That caused the 27 and the 7 to slam together again, even harder this time, as Wilson tried to gather the car back up and keep it from careening away.
Wilder sawed back and forth at the wheel, trying to hold his own car straight and keep it off the wall. He drove a little deeper into the corner than Wilson and pulled ahead by half a car length in the center of ” the turn. Wilson, though, was desperately trying to hang on as Asbee’s 18 popped him again in the rear bumper. The kid used their dirty driving to his advantage as he pulled ahead finally for the lead.
But it was only by half a car length as they crossed the stripe with three laps to go. Except for a few lapped cars, the track ahead of the kid was clear. He would have to push his concentration level even higher now, show some wisdom, let his own instincts take over, and quell the urge to do something foolish.
* * *
Jodell Lee could clearly imagine what the youngster was feeling, as surely as if he was wired in; as if he had crawled into the kid’s skin and taken hold of the wheel himself.
Don’t push her too hard. How does the handling feel?
Lord, don’t let the motor give out now!
What was that noise?
Think. Shove aside the tingling thrill that only comes to the one who is leading. Time for that in a minute.
Is that tire going down on the right front?
Concentrate now. Do what you know you have to do. What your gut tells you to do.
Do I want this win bad enough to step out and claim it now? Yes!
Think, dadgummit! And be smooth. Drive smooth!
It’s our race now to win or lose.
And we are going to win it.
* * *
As if he could read Jodell’s mind, the kid maintained the same smooth, steady rhythm he had run throughout the race. How rare to see someone so young and so obviously hungry for a win showing the patience to do the very thing he had to do to get the victory.
This kid Rob Wilder was a natural!
The side-by-side battle finally fell by the wayside and the kid pulled away to lead all by himself as he followed the line around the track that he knew was best for his car. The people in the grandstands were still out of their seats, urging the red Pontiac on en masse. They seemed to sense that they had seen something new and exciting this stormy night, some kind of special driver, not another fender cruncher with more bluster than racing ability.
In the box on the top of the grandstand, Jodell Lee could only smile and shake his head as he watched the 7 car take the white flag. One lap to go. Had he actually seen what he thought he had, or was even that last move merely a lucky pass for the lead? Was he so desperate to find new driving talent that he was seeing more than was there?
But then he watched Wilson drive up on the kid’s rear and give him one last hard bump to try and break him loose. It was a hard enough jolt to shake most drivers, to cause them to over-correct or tap the brake to keep control. But Wilder held on as if it was nothing at all, kept his wits like a veteran, and drove on. He outran the 27 down the backstretch and then steered hard through three and four, never giving an inch to the trailing cars, using up the entire track to keep the other two from sneaking up beside him.
As he dashed under the wildly waving checkered flag the kid’s left arm was already pumping outside the window. He had won! Jodell knew exactly how that felt. And he almost did a jig himself in his own elation at seeing such a race, such apparent talent.
Jodell grabbed Nathan’s arm as soon as the checkered flag fell.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Summers said with a grin.
“Come on, take me down to the infield. I want to meet this kid.”
“Sure, Jodell,” Nathan answered, a puzzled look on his face as they headed out the door before the boy had even finished his victory lap.
“Man, Nathan! That was something else. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed that kid before. He put your two hotshots to shame.”
“Well, obviously he ain’t run like that before. Like I say, he has usually blowed up. But I will say, that was as good a racing as we have had around here in a long, long time.”
The celebration had already begun in the pits when Wilder pulled the car up to the start-finish line. A throng of well-wishers, most of them female and clearly glad to see a fresh new face in victory lane, immediately rushed him. As the excited youngster climbed from his car, the two young men who had helped prepare the car tackled him. The fans in the stands howled with delight at the scene, sharing in the unbridled joy the winners were showing.
With the help of several security guards, Jodell was able to navigate the grandstands and make it to the crossover gate. As a policeman unlocked it to let him through, the kid emerged from the pile like a halfback who had just made it over the goal line. He climbed up on the roof of the car, still pumping his arms in glorious triumph.
Jodell stood for a moment at the edge of the scene, remembering his own feelings when he had won his first race. It was a feeling the uninitiated would never be able to know. The marvelous satisfaction of knowing you had beaten both man and machine in a contest in which there could only be a single winner, only one who would finish first, while everyone else were doomed to be losers.
He remained outside die circle of celebrants, allowing the kid to savor the moment and all it entailed. Then, once it had settled down somewhat, Jodell made his way through die thinning crowd and held out his hand as he introduced himself.
“Hey, son. That was a fine piece of driving,” Jodell said.
Wilder had a shocked look in his eyes. He tried to speak but nothing came out. He had heard that Jodell Lee was at the track signing autographs but he had assumed that he would never have the chance to meet him, that he would have skedaddled much earlier to something far more important than this little old small-track race.
He finally seemed to find air enough to be able to speak.
“Thanks, Mr. Lee,” he squeaked.
He was a handsome young man, maybe a little thin, and with a face that appeared to hardly need shaving, but his hand when Jodell shook it was rough and callused, likely from hard work, and his grip was strong and confident. And there was something else about the kid Jodell couldn’t quite discern.
“I saw you make some moves out there that I haven’t seen in a while…and especially from somebody as young as you are.”
“Aw, Mr. Lee,” Wilder said, modestly checking the toes of his tennis shoes. “Those weren’t anything special. I just point the car and she seems to go to the right place.”
“The name is Jodell, not Mr. Lee,” he corrected.
“I’m Rob Wilder, sir.” But now, he looked the old driver straight in the eye as he spoke. “I’m honored to meet you.”
That was it. The eyes. They were clear, intense, and didn’t back down when Jodell’s own unwavering gaze met his.
“Well, Rob, it was a good race anyhow. How long you been driving?”
“A couple of years, I guess. Mainly just hobby cars though. This is our first year to try and run the late-models. We got a good deal on the car and the boys here work real hard on it. We’re still learning.…”
“How’d you get the set up so right? I noticed…”
And then they were talking in a language known only to those who raced; about details only those who had sat behind the big engines and guided them into sharp turns could know. Even the first raindrops stirring little dust clouds around them didn’t slow down their exchange, nor the flurry of activity as the other two young men politely asked them to move as they began pushing the Pontiac up onto the rusty trailer with the bald, patched tires; getting it ready to tow back to wherever they came from.
* * *
As they talked, the old driver couldn’t shake an almost overwhelming feeling that seized him first in the gut and then spread quickly all over him.
The feeling that he was looking squarely into a mirror.
A mirror that had somehow given him a blond head of hair and had erased a good forty years from his face.
Copyright © 2000 by Kent Wright & Don Keith



Continues...

Excerpted from Young Guns by Kent Wright Copyright © 2000 by Kent Wright. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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