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Chapter 17

The famous racer, the great one, took the fledgling driver under his wing, he had seen something there, something he might be able to use. Then he taught him everything he needed to know, well, not everything, and then he put him in the best equipment and the understudy won.

Race after race fell to this young driver and it all felt so easy and why shouldn’t it, after all he had something even the great one could see. Soon winning was just what he expected. The young man never considered that he had an unfair advantage. The sprint car he was driving was the best that money could buy, the result of many years of development in competition at the highest level of sprint car racing. The old men that had created this machine had poured much of their lives into its design, but only the very wealthy could afford it.

The engines were lined up in the hauler and each one offered the maximum power, tailored specifically for each particular track and they were fast and yes, they also were very expensive.

The tires were also special. The other racers bought their tires from the tire truck for very high fees. They came out of the back of the truck round, fat and a chalky black color, but not so for the understudy of the great one…his tires were free…well, no, money was paid…and they didn’t even look the same. Uninflated they weren’t even round and they had wrinkles, shriveled up like a prune and their color was a shiny, glossy wet looking black, much darker than the others tires, and they had the great one’s name on the side in crayon.

This combination lit up the track like there was no tomorrow. The other racers were really just in a battle for second place, the first loser, and it felt great to dominate, to be the best. Soon the unfair advantage was just forgotten, at least by the understudy. He won because he was just that much better than the rest.

Although he did grow arrogant, he always tried to be gracious; it’s easy to be gracious in victory. Then one day it happened, the protégé in his arrogance forgot to pay homage to the great one and the great one took it all away, never to be returned.

At first it didn’t seem so bad, who wants to live in a shadow of greatness anyway, so the protégé would just do it on his own without the great one’s advice and money. Without the best chassis, engine, and tires. Without the crew…and the competitors seemed to treat him with disdain…he really hadn’t noticed that before…the fans shouted nasty expletives from the grandstands right here at his home track!

They didn’t understand that his own inherent greatness could never be suppressed…could it? No! He would show them all…even the great one…he didn’t need anyone!

The World of Outlaws were in town and this was going to be his moment to make a comeback to show them once and for all, so he took every cent he had saved and it was a lot. Then he bought the best available and he hired a crew and together they put it all on the line.

Just like before he was fast, well, not as fast, but fast never the less. Now he found himself challenging for the lead, late in the race, blasting out of turn four. The crowd was on its feet, screaming, just like it was before, the energy pouring into him like a powerful drug!

Lap after lap he challenged, the engine screeching, the tires blistering up the dirt, the cushion wearing down, as he slammed the right rear into it brutally, lap after lap.

Finally the leader made his mistake and the protégé was on him, taking his rightful position. He was back! Now they would see, he didn’t need the fans, he didn’t need friends, and he didn’t need anything! He was the best!

Then he noticed that his tires weren’t gripping that well. The smoke from the right rear tire was putting off an overwhelming odor. Just a few laps more, you’ve got to hang on!

Now the engine temperature was climbing and the power was dropping off, he adjusted his line protecting his lead just a few more laps baby and we will be back!

Exiting turn four with competitors all over his ass…he sees the fans standing…holding their fist out…with their thumbs pointing down…jeering him!

The smoke from the engine is filling the cockpit…he lifts the throttle slightly to enter turn three…his engine seizes…one lap to go…his greatest victory at hand…his engine seizes, locking his rear wheels and he slams sideways into the wall between three and four…the yellow flag comes out. Now comes the wrecker, the racer, just another racer now, extricates himself from the broken racecar…he climbs onto the rear of the wrecker that has picked up his car. They drive down the front straight…the cruel spectators are jeering and yelling at the defeated racer as they near the pit entrance one loud mouth shouts, “You ain’t shit now, are you Savage?!”

Joe thinks about that shout many times, that hatred and he remembers how it felt to be so despised…he remembers his reaction most of all…Joe had just hung his head and wept …his dream seemingly over.

Nestled in the forest and hills of northwest Connecticut is a little road racetrack that has been the scene of some big battles.

This quiet, serene setting has seen some brutal fights. No holds barred, savage competition on this fast seven-turn course, with severe elevation changes had given this track a reputation…and it wasn’t good…this place was known as a car killer.

It was only just over one and a half miles long and designed by a…oh, let’s just say a non-professional or you could resort to the term used by most professional racers…an idiot. However, like it or not, this was the scene of Rhoad/Steele’s next challenge and it looked like the competition was planning a devastating assault on the only team to have a victory in Grand-Am this year.

Tongues were wagging, rumors of cheating and flat out accusations of technical improprieties were abounding. The fact was Jake and Steele had the best design, the best implementation, and the best crew.

Joe Savage had brought an aggressive win it all attitude coupled with strategy determined by the best in the business. The other teams had been clearly out matched and now they were embarrassed. The other competitors weren’t the only ones unhappy at the turn of events, the sanctioning body would prefer to have a different winner at each event, so now the scrutineers at technical inspection were looking the cars over with a fine tooth comb, looking for something, hoping to find an infraction that would somehow level the playing field.

Jake had left his all-new cars at home in Texas…no one knew about them…they were legal and they were on a different plateau. Just think the competition were mad about these cars…well, that’s not my problem Jake grimaced to himself, thinking about the whining from all the other teams…if they would put as much energy into their racecars as they put into their boozing and whoring, maybe they could win…someday.

The weeks since the ball had been busy ones for Jake and he had poured himself into his work, micro managing every detail of his new racecar, prepping the current cars, managing the race team and his restaurant…filling his days and nights, so he wouldn’t have anytime left to think about her. Jake winced as she crossed his mind, now he would just have to try to get through this weekend without seeing her…let Steele handle her…he would take care of everything else.

As the haulers pulled into the track, Jake could see lots of new teams…new efforts all intent on taking Rhoad/Steele down.

Jake could see that the three wins in a row were having an affect on their team also. The guys were getting cocky, somewhat complacent and sloppy, as the brake pad incident had shown. Now it was his job to see that they maintained their position as the team that everyone expected to win and that was not going to be easy. The truth was, he did not want to be here. What was wrong with him? Jake remembered times like this before, always when he was tired and when events had turned out drastically different from his plans…the remedy was easy, hard work would usually bring him back, but this time it had only made him tired.

A whoop from outside in the paddock brought Jake to the lounge window of his old bus. Spreading the slats he could see one of his crewmen…Bob dancing in some rhythmatic ritual, darting to and fro as the crew gathered laughing at his antics…joining in clapping and calling out, people walking by were pausing, watching the Rhoad/Steele gang…they were close…that’s why they were the best.

Joe Savage had everything he had ever dreamed of now. A career making lots of money doing what he loved, driving fast cars, beautiful girls…two of them…as he had never said goodbye, lavishing him with more love than he could, quite frankly, handle. A team that supported him, the camaraderie meaning more to him now than anyone could ever imagine, respect from his peers for an ability that Joe himself had sometimes doubted.

Now setting in his own new motor home, Joe took council of who he was and what, with Jake and Steele’s help, he had made of himself. This was a very satisfying thought until he scared himself with the realization that he had nowhere to go but down!

Joe had won three times in a row at the highest level of this profession and the only thing he could do without failing was to win a fourth time. At this level winning back to back was rare, three in a row unheard of, so the odds were just stacking up against him and the pressure…the self-induced pressure…was building to a level that was uncomfortable.

Joe fiddled with his gear…that’s what he always did when his fears of physical danger…those Joe never considered in a sport that death was a constant companion. Joe considered it, his only homage to death was an insurance policy with Lloyd's of London that paid huge dividends to his beneficiaries, if he should crash and be injured or die, no Joe’s fears were intrinsically a part of his psyche…the fear of being a failure. That fear, scared the hell out of Joe and it always would…ever since that day.

Joe got up and went out into the paddock; he walked up the hill towards the back straight, past the infield chalet. There were already lots of RVs parked along the back straight. Over to Joe’s right is where John Morton’s Mazda did the back flip that was a fixture on motorsports television for so many years. The air had gotten under his GTP car with such volume and force that it defied gravity and flew the car over backwards in a devastating spectacular crash.

Jake’s team had won many races here, back years ago, and one of his favorite stories was the time Sam Posey, famous racing champion and auto racing television personality, had complimented Jake on his excellent strategy, Joe grinned at that thought, yes, that would have been a moment to remember. Joe personally had no memories of this place, this was his first race here, now he wanted to create a moment to remember…and feel good about.

Jake and Steele hadn’t discussed the race strategy, so now they were talking it over…Steele wanted to start Joe, let him put it into the front and then Reese would come in and cruise to victory…Jake thought about it and this had worked before, but he had his doubts. This place was nasty, fast and tricky, the level of energy required was high and physical stamina was necessary. Both drivers had this, but also in the waning laps they would need a mental toughness, a refusal to lose, and Jake felt that now, at this point, Joe held an advantage. Jake wanted a change of strategy…let Reese start and stay in to the fuel stop, then unleash Joe with a mandate for victory.

Talking it over Steele liked it—they called the drivers in and told them how it would be, “Reese, you drive, fast of course, but aim for a finish, lead if you can, but don’t abuse it…then, Joe, I believe, all the teams want us out of the picture at the end. They will go out of the way to see that happen, so we need to pass where they won’t expect it and we need to work on that in practice…here.” Jake points to a map of the track, “This is zig, that’s zag, and you should be able to take that at wide open throttle.” Jake looks at his drivers to see the effect of his tutorial, they both seemed studious and serious, and these guys both want to win as much as he and Steele did.

Steele interjects, “Here, yes, wide open, there and we have a second mode switch that gives you more ump…for only when you need it…it’s new, it’s harder on the engine, it’s legal…but only use it if the win is in question. I’ll show you where it’s located on the wheel.”

Jake added, “Don’t practice with that mode.” Both Reese and Joe nodded affirmative.

The job of qualifying was to be Reese’s, as the qualifier must start the race. Steele was also discussing the fuel stop strategy. The sanctioning body required two fuel stops where as the time period of six hours and the fuel cell capacity of twenty-four gallons gave the team more fuel than actually needed, so Steele had done some calculation and felt that the team could start the race with less fuel. Gasoline weighs 6.042 pounds per gallon, so if they started the race with less fuel then they should have an advantage over the rest of the field. The sanctioning group had a minimum weight of 2225 pounds for the less than 4.0-liter engine class, which Rhoad/Steele fell into, this being measured—minus fuel and driver.

Their drivers were small; this gave them somewhat of an advantage. The small 4.0-liter engine also gave better mileage now. So, if they started this race with twelve gallons instead of a full tank, then they would have an additional seventy-two and one half pound advantage along with the twenty pounds or so for having a small driver or almost a one hundred pound weight advantage. Any handling change when filling up full…at the first stop…would be adjusted out with the driver adjustable anti-roll bar.

Jake liked the strategy and saw once again the brilliance that Steele so often displayed…no wonder he was so hard to beat. After the driver’s meeting Steele and Jake met with Irving and Bob. The first three races had all been on Brembo brakes, now they had picked up a brake sponsorship from Wilwood, a USA based company that had a brand new line of endurance road racing calipers and rotors that had some impressive innovations. Team Rhoad/Steele had demonstrated their prowess winning three for three, so sponsorship for products were pouring in. The brakes had been tested back to back against the Italian Brembo’s and they had less unsprung weight and better stopping power. Resulting in faster lap times immediately, now the team would see if they would last in competition and Jake felt sure they would.

Steele talked about pit strategy and solved any of the issues concerning the team about the new brakes. Shock valving was discussed with changes planned, based on practice with original valves being determined back at their shop from their seven post shaker rig and their shock dyno, which Jake had designed and built himself.

After these meetings Jake and Steele went to lunch over at the Lime Rock Chalet where Steele ordered a club sandwich and Jake ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich. Steele and Jake would normally eat with the crew, which they had caterers providing for, however Steele had asked Jake to lunch to talk over some things in private.

“Jake, your personal life is really none of my business, but as a friend I want to help, anyway I can…I know something has been upsetting you and if you need me I’m here for you,” Steele sipped his ice tea casting his eye upon the best friend he had ever had.

“Steele, you’re something else. Here you are recovering from that horrible assault, dealing with all that plus working for our new sponsorship, helping to handle the team and you’re worried about me!” Jake felt very close to this man…the brother he had always wanted. They set silent for a while absorbing the atmosphere, the dark hardwood furnishing and bar created an old world feel to the place. Polished brass handles and fixtures exuded quality.

Jake turned his attention back to Steele, “I know you settled the civil case against Johanson, but you still have the criminal case…Steele you have enough problems to deal with…than trying to help me…I mean.”

Steele cocked his head and took on a very serious demeanor. Someone in the chalet turned on the Jukebox, a beautiful retro looking unit over by the bar. It began playing, ‘Human’, by the Killers…the music, combined with Steele, Jake’s mood and the chalet’s atmosphere created a moment. A very profound moment that Jake, a man who never had many that he counted as true friends…although unknown to him he had made many…would carry with him the rest of his years.

Steele’s green eye was burning with intensity. A little watery, his tanned, leathery, skin looked sculpted, wrinkles showing…not age, but wisdom, experience. Steele then said in a low voice, “Jake…I went into this…this partnership for purely personal reasons. Reasons that, now, I’m not proud of…it was lust Jake…pure and simple lust, lust for victory—lust for power. I wanted back on top and I would have done anything to get there…even use people.” Steele looked off through a bay window with a look that was sadness, then he breathed in deeply, “These months have changed me Jake…you have changed me…my life, this sport, it was always competitive…and it still is, but it’s different now…before I wanted to win, yes, win at any cost, but I wanted to beat my competitors. Grind ’em into the track, taking away everything…I relished it—I was damn mean!”

Jake started to speak, but Steele held up his hand, “Please, Jake hear me out.” Steele looked pleading, “Now it’s different, I’m different. Now you, Jake, your kindness, your generosity, who you are…let’s just say you inspired me to be a better person and the team…well, you all became my family. Then there was the attack and I had lots of time to think…prioritize…my goals and what I found…I was thinking about what you want. How can I help you, Irving, Sandy, Suzanne…you know our team, our family…that, believe it or not, is now my top priority…that’s what I’m about now.” Steele now looked relieved…it was off his chest.

Jake set for a long moment, thinking about his partner, thinking about where he was in his life and how come it took so long to get here to this special place that some people never find.

“Well, ain’t you gonna say something?” Steele looked back and forth quickly. “I mean I just…”

Jake cut him off, “Hey man, I love you too!”

Steele’s mouth fell open, he looked back and forth again, then urgently whispered, “Not so loud, Jake! People will think we’re queer.”

Jake threw back his head and laughed the hardest laugh he had had in years and it was contagious, soon Steele was laughing just as hard, along with a few people at the bar who didn’t even know what the hell was so damn funny.

Laughing into tears Steele then looked at Jake and made another confession, “Jake you know that lust I told you about? Well, I’ve still got it worse than ever now, but now it’s a lust for life…Jake…a burning lust to live life to the max!”

Jake felt better than ever now, “Let’s do it Steele! Let’s take that lust and set this world on fire!”
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