The breezes off the Gulf of Mexico had died to a heavy calm that felt like a blanket trying to smother you, stifling your very breath.
The night was so black and still, as though nothing existed beyond the illumination from the track. The mosquitoes were swarming around the track lights that were mounted high on wooden poles, ringing the track, driving back the darkness. The stillness was shattered by the malevolent harsh rasping of a racing engine on the other side of the pits.
A young man toiled under his racecar, his driver suit stained by the grease, oil, and mud. His wrench slips off the rounded head of a cheap bolt, cutting the young man’s knuckle, a knuckle already showing scars from his mechanical training at the School of Hard Knocks. No curse comes from the boy’s lips. He’s tired, he’s hurting, but he’s not thinking of quitting. There is no quit in this young man.
The job finished, he crawls out to tackle another area needing his attention. Other drivers around him have friends and family supporting them, acting as crew. Some even have paid help, but not this kid, he’s all alone, but then he’s always been alone and he prefers it that way…most of the time alone may be lonely, but you never have to worry about being let down. He is strongest that stands alone.
Two guys walking through the pits see the old number 09 car and snicker at it, then one of them says, “You ain’t planning on racing this here old rust bucket are you?”
Slowly the tall kid stands up to full height from bending under the hood, wiping the grease off his wrench, holding it in front of him. He then glares at the two guys. They turn quickly away and although in the dark pits they couldn’t see them, the kids green eyes were twinkling with amusement and more than a little disdain at their behavior.
The “A” main is given the green flag, the people in the stands jump to their feet, shouting for their favorites as the field of thirty six cars roar into the first turn. Door to door, wheel-to-wheel, spewing sparks and dirt clots in every direction. The number 09 car has the announcer on the PA talking, as it works its way through the field, sometimes low, his right rear fender resting against the competitor. He’s passing the car behind him, pushing against his rear bumper trying to make him spin.
Now he’s on the outside, his right rear slamming into the quickly deteriorating cushion of dirt against the bottom of the wall. Now he’s fifth, as he dives below making a pass, as the laps wind down.
The kid’s driving suit is soaking wet from his exertions, twenty-five laps at this place is a brutal training ground. The third place car, number one, dives down cutting off the kid’s low line, chopping into the 09 cars right front with his left rear, spinning out. As a result the 09 driving through on the right, the number one folding down like the hinge of a door.
“That will teach him,” he thinks out loud, as he smiles in anticipation of his next pass. Number one rejoined without a yellow.
“Car number 09 has just moved into the third position…man that kid can drive, that’s Jake Rhoad at the wheel of that smoking hot beast and he doesn’t look like he’s ready to settle for that position folks, as he is pressing hard!” The announcer is working the crowd into a frenzy, as Jake passes two lapped cars hanging his tail against the wall, his bumper inches from the second place car’s rear.
The white flag is displayed along with the blue with yellow stripe for some other lapped cars. Jake mashes the accelerator to the floor, the engine is screaming, as Jake turns left, then counter steers right, sliding up next to the second place car. The driver glares to his left at Jake who puts forth a blood curdling rebel yell.
“This is living!” Jake thinks, as he yells with excitement of the moment.
“That kid is nuts!” Thinks the old veteran of a hundred races like this… “Well, not quite like this,” he says to himself.
Out of turn two, they flash. Jake now beside the second place machine on his outside with the leader low to his left slightly ahead of both the others. A lap car is ahead entering turn three, as the three lead cars roar down the back straight, every engine revved to the maximum. Into the turn they go, the inside car pulls ahead slightly, all three cars sideways in unison, the outside dragging the wall as no cushion exists.
Out of turn four they glide, smooth, Jake’s screeching engine has nothing left to give. His momentum carrying him past both the other cars…Jake sees it now! The checkered flag is waving, but the wild smile is gone, replaced with grim determination and loneliness for a thought just crossed Jake’s mind, as he sped into the lead, the checkered flag waving furiously. The crowd jumping to their feet as they witness this spectacular drive!
Jake blurts out his thoughts, “Who Jake? Who is there to share this with?” Jake lies alone in his hotel room remembering that moment when he was just a kid and still feeling the thrill and the loneliness.
The cool dry night air felt wonderful on Steele’s face as he emerged from his rental car. Steele looked off to the west at the last tinge of red vanishing under the onslaught of darkness. Walking to the hotel, Steele contemplated the team’s effort so far this year and was extremely pleased. Everything had gone exceedingly well, their racecar was the best in a field of very good cars. The crew had performed outstanding and the drivers were showing championship-winning talent that he had never seen displayed from first season professional drivers. As Steele reviewed all of this he found a common denominator that had bonded this team together and guided them expertly to the point, the very enviable position they now occupied and that was Jake. What a partner he was and what a force to reckon with, how had he ever beaten this man in the past? Tenacity was how, the same characteristics that made Jake great in whatever he chose to do were intrinsically a part of Steele also. That is what made this alliance so formidable.
Steele approached the corner of the hotel through a wrought iron gate and into a shadowed area, when suddenly a board swings violently out of the darkness smashing into Steele’s face violently.
Steele fell backward from the impact seeing only flashing light inside his head trying to hold onto consciousness, grabbing out his hand feels the coarse brick of a wall when a massive blow comes to his groin followed by pummeling blows to his rib cage and head.
Blackness is sweeping over him as he hears a voice say, “Old man, I think it’s time for you to retire from racing.”
That whispering voice, where had he heard it? Steele tries to recall, tries to see as his senses fail him. All that is left is the taste of his own blood, a wave of nausea, then blackness.
Jake stands in the stark white hospital room, his hand holding the hand of his once mighty adversary and his now best friend in the world. This energetic, robust man now appeared weak and frail. What he could see of him that is, as his body was covered in bandages. Steele’s head was wrapped almost completely with only a slit for his mouth and one eye exposed. The doctors say he is lucky to be still alive. Steele had a concussion to the brain, he had lost his left eye, his jaw was broken, some teeth knocked out. He had four broken ribs, one of which punctured a lung, a severely bruised groin area, a bruised kidney, and three broken fingers. The heart monitor was making a tone every time Steele’s heart beat. He was hooked to an IV and his breathing was erratic and sounded raspy with a pinkish froth staining the area of bandage around his nose openings and mouth area.
Jake clasped the bed rail, steadying himself…thinking how much this old guy had come to mean to him. The police said this was a robbery plain and simple, but Jake didn’t think so. The viciousness of the attack spelled out something much more personal.
“Sir, you’re going to have to leave.” The nurse spoke from the door. Jake went out to the hall and walked down to the waiting room, now filled with the crew and Steele’s friends.
“How is he boss?” Bob ask the question on everyone’s mind.
“Steele is going to be fine. The doctor assures me he will recover, but it will take some time.”
Everyone seemed relieved and started talking all at once, except one. Irving stood to one side with no expression on his face. Seeing Jake staring at Irving, the room fell silent.
“What did the police say,” Irving’s tone was flat, as emotionless as his face.
“Well, they seem to think it was a robbery.” Many opinions were voiced simultaneously in support and opposition to the police conclusion.
Irving asked, “What do you think?”
Jake looked about to each of them thinking first before he answered, then looking direct into Irving’s eyes he said, “I think this is big business, I think some people don’t play fair, and I think some son of a bitch is trying to take us, our group, out of the picture, before it’s too late.”
Eddie smashed his fist into the side table beside his chair, “Who?” He shouted.
A murmur comes from the team. “I just don’t know, who could do such a thing?” Jake says, more to himself that anyone else.
“It’s the same people that attacked Reese,” Joe speaks up voicing his opinion.
“I’ll find out who put them up to it.” Irving turns to leave, walking over to the hall.
“Where are you going?” Jake asked, worried about Irving’s anger at this outrage.
Irving looks back and cocks his head to one side with a wry expression, “Me? Well, Jake…Boss, I’m going to the track and fuck them up for this, the best way I know how.”
“But Irving, I’m not sure and I don’t know who,” Jake’s tone is pleading, as he didn’t think physical violence was enough and was going to say something to this effect.
When Irving added, “It doesn’t matter who, now, we’ll find that out later, right now we just have to do one thing and that is make sure we win!”
The crew, as one, affirmed Irving’s philosophy and they all headed off to the track to do what they did best, focusing their energy in a positive direction. Positive for the team, positive for Steele, and devastating for whoever it was that had done this.
As the sun’s rays peeked into the paddock, it found team Rhoad/Steele working steadily making the best car, a little bit better, giving their drivers the best chance possible for a third victory in a row. Jake was directing their efforts, missing Steele, but determined to not let his attackers benefit, and when all the work was done; they would know they had done their best.
Joe and Reese readied their gear, feeling closer than either had ever thought possible.
Jake came into the old bus and smiled at them, “I know you guys have done your best, no matter what happens, I know you two are the best and just go out and…”
Joe looks up with his eyes, his head bent working on his gear. His eyes showing a fiery determination, as he completes Jake’s thoughts with, “Let destiny play its hand.”
Reese looks to his side staring at Jake, “Destiny? Yeah, that’s one fast fucking ride Boss.”
Jake’s face shows a warmth and hope for these two great young men and for an instance he worries for them, in such a dangerous sport. The he says, “Stand on it boys, stand on destiny!”