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Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen

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BOOK: The Outside Groove
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“So...” Big Daddy turned his attention back to Theo, and I could see him holding back a smile. “This is your car.”

“No, it's a bicycle built for two.”

Big Daddy winced and faced me. “Look,” he said, “I just came down to see if you're absolutely sure you want to do this.”

“I'm sure—”

“Because I sure would rather you didn't.”

I didn't say anything.

“It's dangerous,” Big Daddy said, “and it's going to cost you.”

I nodded and thought about how, for so long, our family income had gone up in smoke from Wade's tailpipe. As a cross-country runner, I'd been a real bargain of a daughter. I guess with my Cray College announcement, Big Daddy could see my price going up. It made sense that he'd want me to spend as little of my money as possible before I left for school. Too bad for him I didn't care.

“I'm worried you're going to get hurt,” he added, not sounding all that worried, really.

“Don't be. But thanks.”

“Take it slow.”

“Now, what kind of strategy would that be? A stupid strategy, right?”

Big Daddy scowled fiercely and crossed his arms, a stance I'd seen him take many times in the garage while locked in debate with Wade. I didn't want to debate with my father just then, not that I ever wanted to. All I wanted was some scrap of calm to hold onto as I plunged into whatever chaos I'd signed on for back in Mr. Blodgett's office. The longer Big Daddy stood there, frowning, the jumpier I felt.

The track loudspeakers clicked on, and Bean St. Onge called the Road Warriors onto the track for our practice laps. I kind of brushed my father aside as I reached into the car for my helmet. Big Daddy said nothing as I put it on. Jim walked down, leaned inside Theo, and yanked the steering wheel off its post. I climbed in through the window and strapped in.

“Wish me luck, ” I said as Jim handed me the wheel.

“It's just practice,” he said.

I jammed the steering wheel onto the post and flicked the electric ignition switch.

Big Daddy turned and walked away, shaking his head.

As I put Theo in gear and rolled out to the end of the line of cars filing toward the pit gate, I was glad that I hadn't eaten a big breakfast.

Just as I was about to pull onto the racecourse, Kirby's F
pickup flew in front of me, nearly clipping my right front end. I cranked the wheel to the left and punched the gas to avoid getting tagged. I wondered if someone had forgotten to tell Kirby we were only running practice laps or if maybe he was just a freak. Either way, it struck me that, despite the confidence I had in my racing strategy—tight cornering, good geometry—I'd also have other drivers to contend with. And not one of them did I consider a friend.

It also suddenly hit me that I'd have the track to contend with—an experience for which, I could tell as I ran my first lap, driving around a grassy meadow hadn't prepared me at all. I ran slowly to start, following the outside of the track, discovering that the highest part of each banked turn was on the same elevation as the outside lane. This meant that running on the outside in the straightaways brought me into the high part of the corners, looking down the bank to the inside track. Running the inside in the straightaways led into the corners at the bottom of the banked turns. I wasn't exactly sure what to do with this knowledge, but for the time being I just tried to get used to it. Running slowly, the incline of the banked turns felt like the slope of a huge asphalt wave. As I gained speed, though, trying to build up my cornering speed gradually toward that “threshold” Uncle Harvey had mentioned, the track seemed to flatten out.

Still, the experience was very disorienting. The fact that I was looking out at traffic through a Plexiglas windshield, a plastic helmet facemask, and my glasses didn't help. With no side mirrors, just a rectangular rearview mirror in the car, I felt partially blind. I'd grown accustomed to the rumble of Theo's engine, but being surrounded by other rumbling engines was like being trapped in a car wash, except that, unlike in a car wash, cars leaped out of nowhere and up to my doors, sometimes one on each side of me in the same instant. My seat rode so low that I couldn't see Theo's front end, meaning I was never one hundred percent certain where the front end
Add in the vibrations that seemed to travel from the asphalt, directly up my forearms, and into my neck and head, spreading across my chest along the way, and I found it impossible to hold a single, coherent thought.

Maybe I wasn't supposed to think.

That prospect made my heart race even faster. Thinking was something I was good at. In fact, outsmarting those guys was the cornerstone of my racing strategy.

Coming into the final straightaway after an indeterminate number of laps, I noticed the lap clock, a large board standing roughly ten yards back from turn three. The clock indicated less than a minute left in practice, so I hammered into the turn-three/turn-four bank to get one last sense of where that threshold of control was. I straightened out in the main straightaway, which ran along the infamous “Widowmaker” wall separating the track from the grandstands, and slowed way down to slide into the line of cars filing into the pits ahead of me. “Thundermaker Sportsmen,” Bean announced over the more-subdued din of our idling four-cylinder engines, “please take to the racecourse for practice.” I was drenched with sweat. I felt like I'd just run ten miles.

As I pulled into my slot, Jim walked to my door, crowbar resting on one shoulder like some British gentleman's umbrella. I yanked the steering wheel off its post and handed it to him. “How's it feel?” he said.

I pulled off my helmet and set it aside, unhitched my harness, and climbed out the window. “Pretty good,” I said. “Good pickup in the straightaways. Handles well in the turns.” I paused, struck by an image, viewed out my bedroom window, of Wade and Big Daddy having the same kind of post-race conversation in our driveway. I kicked one of Theo's front tires. “What would we do if my rig wasn't driving well?”

Jim shrugged. “I'm just the crowbar guy.”

While the Thundermakers were running their practice laps, I tried to calm my nerves by flipping through Jim's GED booklet. I let my eye drift to the little ovals on a practice quiz and imagined myself zipping around and around. I also tried to ignore Bean as he welcomed spectators to the season opener and yammered about the Thundermaker drivers. Naturally, he didn't say a word about the Road Warriors.

Bean‘s disdain for our division was pretty much reflected in a race day's program. There was only one Road Warrior race but an entire
of Thundermaker races—qualifying heats leading up to the main event, known as the “feature.” The Road Warrior “feature”—with no preceding qualifying heats—was usually wedged in between the last Thundermaker heat and the intermission event, which was whatever goofy halftime-type show Blodgett's staff had concocted for that day. In one popular intermission show I remembered from back when Wade started racing, the local Shriners Club—old men who organized charity events—staged a mock race in miniature cars that they also drove in town parades. They wore fezzes on their heads, the Shriners. I never figured out why. Or sometimes the intermission event found the winning Thundermaker drivers from the previous week's race crammed onto tricycles and running a sprint against kids picked from the grandstands. The intermission show was always followed by the ticket-stub raffle, in which a few thousand bucks went to whoever held the other half of the ticket Bean had some local celebrity pick out of a bucket down on the infield. Junior Miss Fliverton, whoever she was that year, picked the ticket once or twice over the course of a season, and a big-league baseball player from Fliverton named Kip Rochford made an appearance every so often.

I'd almost tuned Bean out completely, but when the words “Wade ‘the Blade' LaPlante” pierced the high-pitched roar of the eight-cylinder cars, I reflexively looked up. Car 02 drifted off the track and slithered into the pits, a line of Thundermaker cars forming behind him. I watched Wade pass. His rig looked brand-new, his sponsors' names—V
& T
and G
—popping out in gold letters against the royal blue.

“And with the Thundermakers back in the pits,” Bean said, “all drivers are to report directly to the turn-one bleachers for a drivers' meeting.”

Down the row of pits, drivers started walking toward the set of bleachers inside the pit area roughly behind turn one and the gate leading onto the racecourse. I handed Jim the GED booklet and, pretending to know what I was doing, followed the other drivers.

When I approached the bleachers, Mr. Blodgett saw me and checked something on his clipboard. I came around to the front of the bleachers and, seeing the stands two-thirds full of drivers, some of them sneering at me, some laughing openly, took a seat in the front row, my back to them.

Wade must've been one of the last drivers to arrive, because Mr. Blodgett glowered at him as he checked his clipboard. “Nice of you to join us, Wade,” he said.

Wade wagged his thumb at me. “I figured I'd get the notes from my sister.”

Everybody laughed.

Blood scorched my face.

If Mr. Blodgett was at all excited to get the season under way, he contained it well. Speaking in a gruff voice laced with exasperated inflections, he basically repeated some of the rules encoded in his ten-pound driver's manual. He issued a litany of threats to would-be cheaters, placing emphasis on two vehicle-related infractions—something called “boring out your cam lobes” and “clipped or heated springs”—and two driving-related infractions, the “bump-and-run,” and “chopping.” Uncle Harvey had told me about the bump-and-run, and Blodgett's discourse on chopping I remembered from the manual:


If the trailing car's front end is at least equal to your rear tire, you may not turn toward the trailing car. That is “chopping,” and it will send you to the back of the line. If an accident results, you may be disqualified. Frequent choppers will face points deductions and monetary penalties or be barred from racing at Demon's Run Raceway.


In general, the scolding tone of Blodgett's speech seemed unfair, more like something one might expect to hear
a cheating-filled race day. But, then, he was known for running a tight ship, and that apparently started on day one of the season. I just tried to look like I understood what he was talking about.

Mr. Blodgett looked right at me at one point, toward the end of his talk, and said, “If you can't run a clean, fast race, then you can't run here. Stay home.”

The other drivers ignored me as we walked back to our cars, which was a relief. They clearly spoke their own language back there, one that I'd never learned.

Bean's voice crackled over the scattered noise of engines and clanging metal tools. “I've just received word that the drivers' meeting is over,” he said. “So, what do you say we get the season officially under way? And that means, Road Warriors, it's time to run what you brung. To the course for our first feature—twenty-five laps. Road Warriors. Folks, let's welcome the Crunch Bunch.”

Scattered clapping and cheering kicked up in the stands.

“Show time,” I said and eyed the GED booklet in Jim's hands. I was tempted to bring it into my car for good luck. Maybe I could sit on it and actually see where I was going. The booklet contained questions I could answer. The racetrack—it was a mathematical problem I was still working out.

Jim tossed the booklet onto the flatbed and handed me my helmet.

I followed him to Theo, conscious of being watched by other drivers, crewmembers, drivers' buddies, drivers' dads, drivers' girlfriends in T-shirts bearing their racecar driving boyfriends' names. I tried to ignore them, focusing on my Chuck Taylors crossing the pits until I reached my door. I climbed in, strapped into my harness, jammed the steering wheel on the post, and fired up. The engine rumble freed a bead of sweat that trickled down my temple.

Jim banged his fist on the roof and stepped back, giving me a thumbs-up. We still weren't best friends, but I was grateful for even the small show of support.

Entering the track, I steered high onto the outside of the first banked turn, letting cars drift by on the inside as I waited to slide into my position. Being a brand-new driver, I was thirteenth in line out of fourteen cars. Kirby Mungeon must've registered after me, because he was dead last. Thus it was written in Blodgett's racing bible:
Newcomers start at the back. Learning to reach the front of the field through skillful driving is fundamental to the competitive racing practiced at Demon's Run.
This was fine with me, since starting near the back would, I figured, only make my performance more impressive—and expose this whole racing “sport” for what it was: testosterone-crazed idiots driving around and around in circles.

After we'd driven a couple of laps behind the pace car—a gleaming red station wagon with a flashing yellow light on the roof—a headphone-wearing track official standing in the backstretch made an X sign with what looked like two relay batons, signaling that we were to “cross over,” or pair up, for the start. I took a few deep breaths as I rounded turn one and saw Kirby slide up beside me on the outside. I was already burning up inside my firesuit. I gripped and regripped the wheel, hands swelling inside my gloves. I just caught a very small bit of glare off my glasses as the sun peeked through the clouds.

We rolled around the track one more time, becoming a long column of pairs. Coming out of turn two and heading into the backstretch again, the pace car suddenly veered to the left and off the track, darting down a single asphalt lane cutting into the infield. The column of cars automatically compressed, like a squeezed accordion. We were running bumper-to-bumper into turn three. I looked across the infield and saw the flagman leaning over the track from his roost above the Widowmaker midway down the main straightaway. I turned back to the bumper of the car ahead of me, a white Mustang with a light-blue hood and number 25, his rear end bearing the words M
& D
. I glanced at the flagman again, and he was already flapping the green. A clean start. An explosion of sound rocked my car and I instinctively punched the gas. Theo lurched.

BOOK: The Outside Groove
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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