Ceegar was fighting brake fluid gremlins. Kanuck decided at the very last minute to show up and only after Excalibur beat on him a little. The motor in Cowboy’s new, spectacular-almost-a-Corvette was flatter than cola left out in the sun for the day.
Speaking of that sun? Seattle isn’t supposed to be this hot, so close to the ocean. It isn’t just the air temperature, either. Asphalt absorbs, then reradiates the heat. Montana Mustang measured temperatures of the pavement at 140 degrees, I was told.
The only shade was beneath trees near the restrooms, where it was at least 20 degrees cooler than in the paddock where years ago they cut down all the majestic and shading firs. They did it so we’d have more room for the race cars, they say, and not for the value of the timber.
As usual, when I get to the track, fewer than half the folks coming up want to say “Hi,” and more than half ask “Where’s Jakester?” Some ask in a voice that demands an answer, as if Jakester not being there is my fault. It’s a good thing my 14-year-old Crew Chief is coming up on Friday with his dad.
Kanuck decided to bring his red Camaro, “Roxanne,” because his Corvette wasn’t finished. I understood the disappointment when he said he wasn’t going to come, but after Excalibur got done with him, he showed up. Excalibur can be pretty persistent. Still, it takes more than three days to prepare a race car, even one as well prepared as Roxanne.
Stays Late, Excalibur’s mechanic, walked up and handed me four disks he’d made in his shop for my car to protect aluminum wheel spacers from steel wheels I now use because I liked them on Excalibur’s car. Stays Late had experience I didn’t have: “If the steel bites deep enough into aluminum, the lug nuts can come loose. Not a good thing,” he said.
Despite the competition, we take care of each other out there. Thank you.
Excalibur was ready. I was ready. We’d raced against each other at the Spring Sprints, where he spanked me bad. He turned in times in the ’29s’, consistently. That’s one minute, 29 plus seconds. Less than a 1:30. I’d done that once, years ago. He did it every race.
Yellow Jacket had resisted being pushed hard in the spring, and it’s a good thing. There were things wrong that could have been catastrophic if they’d let go at 150 miles an hour.
Since then, I’d had a little help from my friends, especially Merlin and Mule. Merlin conjured a new heart for my machine. I looked at the power curves, and decided how I needed to drive her. I came up a couple of days early to practice, and asked the local track guru for some advice.
Hey, if you’re going to do this, you might as well commit, right?
Cowboy told me on Wednesday he wasn’t coming. His mom had fallen and broken some bones that might not heal. He was staying close to home for the phone call. But then on Thursday, he said to maybe save him a place to park. His son, and then his sister, pointed out that Seattle wasn’t much farther away from mom than home in Middleofnowhere, Oregon.
So, with family blessing and support, he came up. His son, who isn’t so interested in these machines, even came up with him, along with his right hand, Cowgirl. Family, ya know?
After qualifying, I was third. Kanuck was first, Excaliber second. Falcon was right beside me. Ceegar had brake problems, and did not get a time. Cowboy was in the middle of the pack. There was a Porsche in there somewhere.
Smallblock, who kicked butt in Indianapolis last month, was solid right behind the leaders. He gives up a lot of cubic inches and runs an iron motor instead of the aluminum mill others of us have. His builder Kiwi is quick to share that information. Smallblock has also gotten into NASCAR style cars, and he’s become quite a driver, regardless of what he drives.
I was lined up behind leader Kanuck for the two-by-two start, and when the green flag fell, I tried to squeeze so close to him that Excaliber couldn’t get to the line. But Excaliber came down on me anyway and squeezed me back.
The rules are a little gray there. Does he have right of way because he’s ahead and wants his line, or do I have right of way because I’m already there where he wants to be?
I didn’t feel like having that discussion, or speaking through fenders of fiberglass. For the time being, I figured if I could stay close enough, Kanuck and Excaliber might push each other out. I stuck my nose in a couple of times, but backed out again before it got bloodied.
Then the Porsche dropped either his engine or exhaust on the track, the pace car came out, and we followed its yellow lights around and around, five hundred horsepower of grumbling. Around and around.
They didn’t just push the Porsche back behind the barrier, and a tow strap wouldn’t suffice. They had to bring out a wrecker.
Around and around. In the heat. I started to sweat, which got into my eyes. Around and around. The two one-gallon bags of ice I put into my driving suit were mostly liquid by now.
Around and around.
Finally we came around and I saw the Porsche was gone. Workers at the kink right in front of us had the yellow flags up, but the tower right behind did not. I figured we were about to go racing.
Kanuck later said he’d thought the race was over. Excaliber doesn’t say much in these kinds of situations, but he was either sleeping or pinned behind Kanuck for just long enough after the starter raised his arm and I saw green. My foot was already halfway to the floor. I went by both in full song, grabbed another gear, went through the right hand Turn 1, the left hand sweeper Turn 2, down the hill into the sharp right and left turns 3A and 3B.
They weren’t gaining on me.
I let Merlin’s magic do its work under the hood, while I tried to concentrate on my job: smooth line, smooth throttle, firm braking, fast exit. Over and over, for about 24 more turns.
I just had to avoid being stupid, not always easy for me.
Sometimes, just not being stupid is good enough. Leading the parade lap was sweet.
So were the kids I got to put in the driver’s seat after we got back to the paddock. After a race, there are often a lot of kids coming by. Their eyes get big when I ask if they’d like to sit in the car, their folks always have a camera. Making memories, a friend used to say.
Hey, that’s how I met Jakester and his dad at the big race in Portland, so it’s a safe bet I get more out all that than I put in. Five minutes from me and they have something else to talk about when they get home and look at the pictures. Easy trade-off.
It was a nice start to the weekend, but Kanuck made it clear before he left the track that race was only the first race, and that there were four more to come.
“I would have caught you if I’d had ten laps,” he said.
“Maybe,” I replied. He’s a better driver, we all know that, and maybe Excaliber is better than me now, too. But not this afternoon, at least not for as long as it took me to jam the throttle to the floor.
Excalibur didn’t say much of anything at all, except to point out in a discussion we had before the races, he’d said I’d be first or second. That was all. He’s like that at the track. He prefers to let his black car do the talking.
I wandered around our paddock for a little while, my hand out. Roxie Hearts, one of the key volunteers, she lines us up at the beginning of the races, is walking 12 miles next weekend for a cancer fundraiser. She’s a three-time survivor herself, we were told. I figured we “big bore boys” would all like to pitch in, and everybody was willing. More than willing.
One of the other volunteers, not a regular on the track but one in an orange shirt keeping spectators safe as we drove around them in race cars, heard my pitch.
“Would this help?” he asked, and gave me two quarters.
“You bet,” I said.
That smallest donation was my favorite. When I stuffed the wad of cash and two quarters through the fence to her station, I made sure Roxie Hearts knew where it came from. Like putting kids in race cars and one becomes Jakester, or finding one loose bolt that could put us into the wall at 160 mph, or one extra stroke honing an intake runner that wins the race, we never know which quarters will make the difference. Right?
Saturday, the heat didn’t let up. When the green flag came up, my foot went down. I got to Turn 2 first, and didn’t look back. At some point, Kanuck dropped out, his engine sputtering. Excalibur got smaller in my mirror. Yellow Jacket turned a lap of 1:28:906, a best ever for us.
The same thing happened in the afternoon. While Kanuck was fighting up through the pack because of his DNF (Did Not Finish) in the morning, and Falcon was trying to dice it up with Ceegar, Excalibur couldn’t quite catch me. Toward the end we backed off, but not before Yellow Jacket turned another lap just a hair under 1:29. Another 1:28.
Two personal bests on a hot day, with lousy traction. That felt pretty damn good. The bags of ice JD (Jakester’s Dad) made up for me to jam into my driving suit were bags of cool water. Excalibur had called me a machine, and it was a compliment.
But what was nicest was when fans came up to say we made it look effortless.
Effortless. They don’t see Merlin sweating the tiniest details of air flow, invisible to most people, even to most engine builders. That’s why what he does is magic. They don’t see Mule under the car, discovering small cracks, or polishing the inside of fenders where tires once rubbed, deciding to open the rear end to discover loose bolts, stubbornly squeezing out every flaw. They don’t see me researching the length of drive shaft yokes for four hours, or sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed in the hotel room at night, my feet stabbing an invisible clutch and accelerator, hands moving an invisible shifter and turning an invisible wheel, practicing each turn in my mind’s eye.
Like a lot of things, the more effort you put in, the more effortless it looks.
On Sunday morning, Excalibur jumps the start, it isn’t even close. He’s six cars in front of me before the green flag. I point at him as we approach the starter station, but they wave the green flag anyway. Later they say that waving off a start is to invite a wreck. It’s happened, but I think not enforcing that a race starts when the green flag flies also encourages wrecks.
Whatever. Excalibur gets loose in Turn 3b, I stick my nose in but he hooks it up and gets away from me. He gets loose again in Turn 6. This time I catch him as we come up the hill, through Turn 7, and I’m by him at Turn 8.
We only run a couple of laps before double yellow flags flower all over the course. I’m in the lead, and nobody can pass me, and I throttle down to a crawl. Safety crews don’t like to be out there when we’re doing a hundred. On the back side of the track, Kanuck’s Roxanne is sitting backwards, front end mashed, in the blackberries. But he’s okay, I see him standing outside his car.
Sometimes, squeezing out just a little more is just a little bit too much.
The pace car comes out and I wave him past so he can lead us around. They won’t get this one cleaned up in time and this race is over. So is the weekend. It’s a long drive from Seattle back to Middleofnowhere, Oregon through the traffic of a July 4th weekend. It will be good to hit the road early.
As I’m walking into the trailer to get get changed, Jakester, still 14-years-old and Crew Chief, hands me a time sheet, grinning. Somewhere in those first laps, we turned a 1:28:49 something. I have Excalibur to thank for that. I’m always best when running someone down.
“You know what’s next, right?” he asks.
“You think that was easy out there?” I ask, incredulous, drenched in sweat, still vibrating from speed, from hanging it out on the edge of traction with tires shuddering, feeling Yellow Jacket’s insane urgency as she leaps to redline again and again.
“Just sayin’…” he tosses back, turning around to put the time sheet on our clip board. It’s Jakester, after all. He’s got high expectations.
I grumble something back, but he’s already got me thinking about a couple of turns where I can maybe carry a little more speed, an angle of exit that might add a mile per hour, a place where I just might pick up a half second in a lap more than two minutes long.
It’s never enough.