Every dream has a price. Is Jodell willing to pay?
Stock car racing sure has changed since the dirt track days. The speedways are bigger, and the stakes even higher. The country has changed, too. It seems like nothing is as simple as it used to be. Vietnam. Civil rights. Demonstrations in the streets.
But it's been a great ride for Jodell Lee. He is happily married with two great kids, and he's been able to make a pretty good living doing what he loves: racing stock cars. Jodell is on the verge of breaking into the ranks of the racing elite. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Buddy Baker. Only one thing stands in his way: the new superspeedway at Talladega.
With its high banks and broad straightaways, Talladega will be the fastest racing facility in the world. It will take speeds of almost 200 mph just to qualify!
Jodell has to decide. Is the dream of being the best worth the risk?
About the Author
Don Keith is an Alabama native and attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where he received his degree in broadcast and film. He has won numerous awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for news writing and reporting, as well as Billboard Magazine's "Radio Personality of the Year" during his more than twenty years in broadcasting. His first novel, "The Forever Season," won the Alabama Library Association's "Fiction of the Year" award.
Keith lives in Indian Springs Village, Alabama, with his wife, Charlene, and a black cat named Hershey.
Read an Excerpt
Rolling Thunder Stock Car Racing: On To Talladega
By Kent Wright, Don Keith
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 Kent Wright & Don Keith
All rights reserved.
By a Nose or by a Mile ...
A steady, distant rumble threatened the approach of a mighty storm, but strangely, the sky was a deep, clear blue. There was not a thunderhead in sight.
A stampede maybe? The drumming could have easily been the roar of the hooves of a hundred breakaway horses, maybe spooked by lightning or a sudden gust of hot wind. That could be the reason the ground trembled and that the birds had long since flown away.
But no, this was not horse country. Dairy cows, maybe, or beef cattle, but not horses.
Whatever the thundering noise was, thousands of people had apparently abandoned their cars to check it out. They had made their way inside an endless chain-link fence and to the other side of some towering mounds of dirt to investigate the din, to solve the mystery. And now those very same people contributed their own share to the commotion. Their screams and yells only added to the continual barrage of noise, like a hundred-thousand-voice choir all singing a different song.
There were bleachers that climbed up long red-clay banks several stories high, forming an almost oval corral. Few of the people actually sat on the benches, though, as they mostly stood to better witness the harnessed storm that raged down there before them. But the only lightning was the flash of brilliant sunshine off the windshields of better than three dozen galloping race cars, and the only horses down there on the track were captured beneath the hoods of those swiftly circling automobiles.
The cars ran in packs, each clump of them mostly side by side, clearly racing hard for position whether they were near the lead or back there among the also-rans. The spectators were a loud swirl of color all the way down the front stretch as the cars flew past them on their way to the track's first hard, sweeping left turn.
In the middle of the oval, the infield was a shifting sea of humanity, of partying fans of all types, some with long hair and some with short, some with shirts on and some not, but uniformly white-skinned beneath their sunburns. Many of them were only marginally paying any attention to the hard-fought battles being waged out there on the track that encircled them. To most of them, after several days of drinking, the hurtling race cars weren't the only things that seemed to blur and swim before their eyes. Dozens of Confederate flags blew lazily in the hot breeze, suspended from makeshift poles, CB radio antennas, or the tailgates of pickup trucks. The atmosphere was like that of a state fair, a noisy carnival, and the spectators in the infield seemed especially carefree, happy, mostly oblivious to the inherently dangerous struggle that was going on out there on the track.
That was certainly not the case, though, along the sliver of asphalt in the infield that was known as "pit road." Those who stood tensely on top of or behind the low wall, among the toolboxes, equipment, and discarded tires, were not even close to being carefree. Everything was on the line now. There were only thirty laps left to go. Crunch time. There was prize money up for grabs for practically every position and the next few minutes would determine who would claim what portion of it.
But it wasn't just the money. These teams, the drivers, the crews, all had come here to get the victory. To prove who was the best at building and preparing a car, and then who among them was superior at driving one of those machines the fastest he possibly could for whatever the duration of the race might be. Money made it possible to afford to race and it was a convenient way of keeping score. And it made it worthwhile to come and run the race, even for all those who wouldn't hold the point when the checkered flag ultimately waved. But it was the will to win, to finish first, which actually drove them.
And that's what drew most of the assembled crowd, too. To see for themselves which of the competitors would be the first to finish and what he would do in the process to try to get there ahead of the others.
Right now, the race's leader was almost two seconds ahead of the three-car pack that fought amongst themselves for second place. That trio was in a furious battle, swapping positions back and forth with each lap, and the crowd was watching the give and take with great interest. As with most tracks, the majority of the spectators here were knowledgeable, as appreciative of the subtle nuances as they were of the broader, more obvious moves.
As the race played out, the crewmembers standing along the pit wall were, to a man, bathed in sweat, as much from the tension of the competition as from the all-consuming heat of the day. It was clear that the outcome of the race would be in doubt until the bitter end, that success or failure could ride on one small bobble, one minor move.
Joe Banker was sweating right along with the rest of them as he stood there on the narrow cement wall, spinning around like an ice skater doing a slow-motion pirouette, one eye on his driver, the other on the stopwatches in his hand. He was a tall, athletic man, with dark eyes and hair and an air of almost childlike mischief about him. But at that moment, he was all business, timing Jodell Bob Lee's car. Lee happened to be his first cousin as well as the race-car jockey who was driving the Ford that was currently fender to fender with Richard Petty and Buddy Baker in the tight skirmish for second place.
And there was renewed hope now for something even better than second spot for Lee's car.
The tires on the leader's race car were beginning to wear away, to make him finally vulnerable. But that advantage would be lost if the three of them who were trailing didn't quit racing each other as if it was the last lap already. The smart thing to do would be to catch up to the leader and his gimpy tires. Then, with him passed, they could settle this thing amongst themselves. But so far, there was no agreement among the three competitive drivers on this point, or on much of anything else at all.
As long as they stayed back there, though, kissing fenders and swapping side-panel paint, David Pearson was going to lead this race all the way to the checkerboard-floored Victory Lane. And Petty, Baker, and Lee would have to divide up what money was left over for second through fourth places while they watched Pearson take the trophy and the kiss from the beauty queen and the truly big payday.
Under his breath, Joe Banker kept urging his driver to break clear of the other two race cars and make a run for the lead. Petty and Baker had the same intentions, though, and the cars to back them up. Joe could only keep clicking the buttons on his stopwatches, comparing the times of his cousin's Ford and those of the other Ford, the one that Pearson drove and that was leading the race. The interval between them had been shrinking for a while, but lately it had been holding steady as the three racers behind Pearson chicken-fought among themselves.
And the laps continued to wind down steadily as they always seemed to do.
"Come on. Come on!" Joe half whispered, wishing his car onward as if it was somehow deliberately holding back.
The huge man standing on the wall next to Joe Banker read his lips and nodded. Bubba Baxter looked every bit as broad of beam as any one of the cars out there on the track, and nearly as powerful, but now he danced nimbly along the narrow wall as the three cars rumbled past, stepping like a surprisingly graceful but highly inflated ballerina. Like Joe, he spun around deftly as he studied with a practiced eye the line their car took as it roared around the track, whether it went high or low, the path it took through the corners, and how it held its position with the other cars.
Bubba Baxter had been going racing with Joe Banker and Jodell Lee since the very beginning. He'd been a key cog in the team since the hot, dusty Sunday afternoon they had first spun their wheels on a rough track scraped out of a converted cow pasture on the Meyers farm not far from Chandler Cove, Tennessee, the place they all still called home. Called home even though they spent far more time in motels, in garages and racing pits, or in the cab of the tow truck headed in the general direction of a racetrack somewhere.
"Take the high line, Jodell," the big man said out loud, throwing in some serious body English as he tried to drive the car around the track for Jodell. He was certain that the other two drivers were holding up their car, that they had enough left in the Ford to run down the leader if Jodell didn't heat the tires up too much while he scuffled with those other two cars.
Buddy Baker rode along in front of Jodell, sliding lower to the inside, hugging the bottom of the track. Richard Petty's Ford was running side by side with Baker, looking to get past him on the high side.
Inside his own car, Jodell Lee had a wide grin on his handsome face, his features a confirmation that he and Joe Banker were, indeed, blood kin. Right now, he was hot, dirty, sweating, aching all over, his mouth full of tire grit, his eyes stinging from the perspiration that seeped in around his racing goggles, and his head throbbing from the continual tension and noise.
But he was happy as a man could be.
Jodell Bob Lee dearly loved being in this position, challenging good drivers in strong cars, but with a strong car under him as well. He kept sticking his car's snout right up on the back bumper of Baker's racer, hoping to be able to give him enough of a push that they could clear Petty and finally make it a two-car fight. One on one, Jodell was certain he could get a good run on the Cotton Owens–owned Dodge, make it past him, and then go looking for David Pearson and his Ford with the worn-out tires.
Jodell got a glimpse of the signboard Bubba Baxter was holding up for him in the pits. "20," it said. Twenty laps to go. He would have to do it soon if he was going to try to move up. There would be no glory, no money, in passing anybody on the cool-down lap!
Baker drove deeply into turn three, nosing his car past Petty. It was clear the veteran driver had decided that he too needed to make his own move quickly. But by steering so aggressively into the corner, his car pushed upward ever so slightly, opening a sliver of racetrack near the bottom for Jodell to try to scoot into. There had been a time when Lee might not have recognized the opportunity that had just been presented to him. But a combination of experience and instinct made the hole look a hundred feet wide when it finally opened up.
He pounced like a leopard on a gazelle.
Even then, the fenders on the two cars rubbed briefly as they made contact before Jodell was able to safely get through and past the other two racers. Petty had seen the same bobble as Baker's Dodge pushed up the track in front of him. He tried to jump downward to the inside, to follow Jodell past. Coming out of the fourth turn, Baker and Petty still ran side by side but Jodell had moved away from them, already setting his sights on the lead car.
Joe Banker breathed a sigh of relief and studied his stopwatches intently. Jodell was picking up a tenth of a second per lap. Pearson's tires were fading fast. There was no doubt that Jodell was quickly catching the leader. Getting by him, he knew, would be a different story yet.
"How are the times?" Bubba yelled over the roar of the cars' engines as they passed the pits down the front stretch.
"A tenth or more a lap. We'll catch him for sure," Joe replied with certainty.
"Catching him and getting by him are two different things. Pearson's as smart as an old fox. He'll have saved enough of those tires to give us a run to the end," Bubba observed, but he never took his eyes off Jodell Lee and the blue Ford as he talked.
"Our boy's smart, too. He knows how to take care of the tires."
Bubba nodded his agreement, wiped the sweat from his face with an oily rag, and watched their driver dive into the first turn.
Jodell was flying like the wind. He had already managed to put a dozen car lengths between himself and Petty and Baker, that two-car duel now nothing more than a moderately interesting vision in his mirror. Jodell wouldn't try to watch any of that, though.
The next battle was in front of his windshield, and it was coming up quickly. He would surely catch Pearson within the next ten laps or so. And that would leave him ten or less to somehow get past him and into the lead.
Out of the turn, he gave the gauges a quick glance, saw the needles were where they should be, then jammed his foot to the floor one more time as the car built speed down the long, straight backstretch. Then, in seconds, he was near the third turn. With another quick glance in the mirror, he was out of the gas at his mark, a scuff on the outside wall where someone had popped the spot in practice sometime in the last couple of days. He allowed the car to drift into the turn and then was back on the gas as he powered through the center of the corner.
It was all a matter of concentration and maintaining his rhythm, doing the exact same thing he had done hundreds of times already this race, scores of times in practice the last couple of days, once during qualifying. But now there was no one to get in his way, and the rear end of the lead car was coming closer and closer to him with each lap. When he had finally closed right up on Pearson's Holman-Moody Ford's rear bumper, when he could clearly see Pearson's eyes watching him in his own mirror, Jodell caught a glimpse of Bubba's sign indicating ten laps to go.
"Ten laps. Please be enough," he whispered, and it sounded so much like a prayer that he almost added, "Amen."
He had caught Pearson. Now the truly tough part began.
Jodell followed directly in the tracks of the car in front of him as they circled, content to ride there for a lap or two as he tried to cool his tires. He knew there would likely be only one shot to make the pass and the car would have to stick to the track in the turn when he did.
Ahead of him, Pearson was hugging the inside line of the track, leaving no room to get by him the most direct way, the most obvious way, on the inside. As each lap ticked off though, Jodell kept taking a peek, trying to find an opening. But each time he even thought about trying to dive underneath, Pearson would seem to anticipate the move and slam the door shut before it was ever actually opened.
Jodell could only stay tied to his bumper, all the while looking through Pearson's windshield to see if there was any traffic ahead he might could use as a pick. But the track ahead was clear. Where the heck was everybody else? There might as well have been no one else in the race now but Lee and Pearson.
Okay, so there would be no help from slower cars. Jodell would have to find a way around the leader all by himself.
"All right, Mr. Pearson. I'll just have to out-drive you, I guess."
He started working on the car in front of him in the corners. Pearson would pinch the car down tight, taking the inside line away. Jodell would have to get out of the throttle or risk running right up his tailpipe. He tapped Pearson's rear bumper with the nose of the Ford several times, as gently as anybody could at a hundred and sixty miles per hour.
Back on the pit wall, Joe Banker was beginning to wonder whether Jodell had enough power to get by Pearson. As they crossed the line with five laps to go in the race, the two cars were still running close enough that Jodell seemed to be hitching a tow from Pearson.
Joe had let his stopwatch drop and hang from the shoestring around his neck, its gradation not nearly fine enough to figure the time difference between the two cars any longer.
"Take him high! Take him high!" Bubba screamed over the roar of the cars as he held up his board with the large "5" chalked on it. He waved the sign board as far out toward the track as his giant arms would reach.
"Come on! Take him! Take him!" Joe pleaded, waving the clipboard where he'd been writing down the cars' times, as if that slight a wind would be enough to shove Jodell on past the leader.
"He ain't gonna let go of the bottom. Jodell needs to take him on the outside." Bubba said, punching Joe on the shoulder and pointing as the cars raced through the first turn.
"We're running out of laps. Whichever way he goes, he's got to do it right quick. That Pearson's tough as whit-leather when the race is on the line."
Bubba suddenly stopped dancing and stuck out his jaw.
"He'll take him." The big man narrowed his eyes and smiled. "Joe Dee's just cooling the tires down and settin' him up. That's what our boy is doing."
Bubba went to work with the chalk and scribbled a big four on the signboard. He wanted to count every lap down to the end just in case Jodell had missed the previous signboards. He did not want to risk him miscounting the laps and making his move too late.
Like Jodell, Bubba and Joe relished being in this position. Aw, being out front was better, but competition like this was what they actually raced for. There were few other things in life as invigorating as being in position to use skill and a fine-tuned machine to claim a win even as the laps were winding down to the instant of truth. Victory Lane was within sight. And they knew they had the car and the driver to get them there.
Excerpted from Rolling Thunder Stock Car Racing: On To Talladega by Kent Wright, Don Keith. Copyright © 1999 Kent Wright & Don Keith. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.
Table of Contents
By a Nose or by a Mile ...,
Racing Music City,
Worshiping at "The Mother Church",
Trying to Catch Petty,
The Talladega Car,
Red Clay and High Banks,
The Talladega Shoulder,
Watching from the Pits,
Preview: Young Guns,
Rolling Thunder series,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the second book in this series that I've read and this one is even better. I really like the way the history of NASCAR is tied in to the story. I've been a racing fan for a long time and I learned things I didn't know. I feel like I know the characters by now and will be reading the other books.