SPEEDLUST

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Chapter 19

“Forget your line Reese, this is a different race,” Joe was imparting his wisdom on road racing to his friend, while they prepared for their run. “Switch on the qualifying mode for the start…at least until you can get away from the challengers…let me tell you, if you can shut ‘em down early…I mean beat them up bad…then you will own them…they will be defeated, baby!”

Joe was showing remarkable enthusiasm, his eyes looked luminescent, as he gave Reese secrets he had earned only after years of competition. His instructions were lucid and he held back nothing. Reese and Joe were partners. Success for one was success for both.

Jake had added some instruction about the anti-roll bar, which was driver adjustable. Steele had reset the wing to create more down force.

“Now it’s up to me,” Reese thought, ”let’s try not to screw this up.”

Dallas, Amelia, Suzanne, and Sandy all joined together to watch the event. They had spent sometime together and had hit it off splendidly, their partnership in this racing team marketing was, they both felt, going to be mutually beneficial with the three entities, that is, Madison Avenue, Stoudenmire Investments, and Rhoad/Steele was an unusual, but perfect match.

Steele had a special pit cart just for his partners that was identical to his score keeper cart right down to the computer monitors, so they could keep track of their car’s position on the track and in relationship to their overall position in the race.

When they had arrived, Steele had noticed certain tentativeness on Jake’s part to greet them, however he had done so, and the first encounter with Sandy since the New York fashion gala. Sandy, Steele noticed, was warm and friendly, Jake cool and reserved. Amelia gave Jake a big hug and kissed him on the cheek referring to Jake as her hero.

The car sported mainly Madison Avenue Livery, however with Suzanne and Sandy’s permission the quarter panels did acknowledge Stoudenmire Investments Limited, which very much pleased Dallas and Amelia.

Since qualifying Rhoad/Steele’s website had been inundated with notes of congratulations for Reese in particular and generally well wishing for the team. Flowers and letters had been arriving at the track and the Interlaken Inn, mostly addressed to Reese, who was truly stunned at this outpouring of support from around the world.

Race day found the track overflowing with spectators. Moving through the paddock was extremely difficult due to the crowd, packed in like cattle.

The sounds of teams doing last minute tuning, revving their engines created a sense of excitement, the rasping roar reverberating off of the dense forest cloaked hills.

Steele was setting in a chair just outside their bus, rubbing his injured eye socket under his patch. Jake saw this and addressed the injury, “Steele have you thought about a transplant?”

“Too late Jake,” Steele responded, almost too quickly, “I believe you have to get them immediately.”

Jake knew better, as he had discussed this in great detail with the foremost expert in the field of eye replacement. “I know it’s not too late, I’ve talked about it with a doctor…now what’s the problem?”

“Let’s drop it…for now, OK?” Steele was adamant, so Jake dropped it.

The crews adorned in their brightly colored race day special outfits were busy hauling all of the necessary equipment to their spots on pit road. Setting up their re-fueling rigs, nitrogen tanks (many of these like team Rhoad/Steele were built into their pit carts), tool boxes, radios and spare parts. At each end of a pit were buckets of water, sand and fire fighting equipment. Tire changers were testing their impact guns, fuelers filling their re-fueling rigs…drivers having last minute strategy sessions, awaiting the National Anthem and the prayer…then it was time to strap in and start your engines.

Jake was usually calm at this point, today more so than ever. Reflecting back on the many events…each so important at the time and meaning so little now…it was easy to take all the pre-race events in stride…Jake turned his thoughts to home and his furry friend, Charlie. Charlie was a homebody and didn’t like to travel or he would be with Jake now, but Jake did miss him.

Joe Savage and Reese were down at the media center, signing autographs. Joe in particular always took extra time for that activity, talking to anyone that had something to say. Early that morning Jake was leaning against the hauler reflecting on the car and the strategy when he saw Joe watching a kid, soliciting an autograph from a European driver. This driver was rich and famous, having raced Formula One, never winning Formula One, just racing on his family’s money.

The driver just ignored the kid and went into his motor home. Joe called the kid over, talked to him, sat him in the racecar, gave him a Rhoad/Steele shirt and autographed photo, then sent him on his way. This was Joe Savage, he was one of the good ones and Jake was proud to be associated with Joe. Watching that transpire this morning, Jake looked over to find Steele watching also, his shining eye also filled with pride at their driver’s actions. Steele felt Jake’s eyes upon him and turned, smiling at Jake.

Walking through the paddock, Jake saw many familiar faces, a young man crossed his path wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with Jake’s number 09 car and the name Melvin Murphy below the picture of the car were the words that made Murphy famous, “Just don’t fuck with the Irish!”

Jake thought how old was that shirt? Fans have long memories for the good and the bad, team Rhoad/Steele was now in the legend building business, one race at a time, Jake had tried to keep them unaware of this as long as possible, so the pressure would not alter what was, so far, a dream combination.

The Grand-Am announcers were talking about team Rhoad/Steele on the P.A. system; over by the stage where the winner was presented his trophy, ‘Victory Circle’ they called it, a TV crew was interviewing Joe Savage and Reese. Hundreds of fans were gathered around, watching what Jake hoped was a pre-victory interview. Other teams were waiting in the wings for their chance to talk about their sponsors and plans.

The wind whipped across the sea of humanity, cooling them off. The brightly colored pendants hanging in every direction, fluttered violently. The flags straightened out flat showing off the livery of each manufacturer, team, and nation involved in this contest of speed. Across the paddock smoke bellowed out into the breeze, spreading the aroma of grilled burgers and bratwursts.

Vendors were selling souvenirs, patches, models, programs, stickers, shirts, hats, jewelry, drinks, popcorn, and hundreds of items to show that you had participated; you had been a part, in some way, of this magnificent spectacle.

The sights, the sounds, the smells all blended together to create a feeling that this place was a happening and going forth from this day you would carry forever, the feeling of being a part of something grand.

Jake was over at the false grid now. All the cars were lined up; Eddie Hoffman was just positioning number 09. It was breath taking to see, all the shiny cars, all the crews and setting on the front row, a car that Jake had conceived, designed, and built with his own mind and skill. Emblazoned on the windshield was Jake’s name, his team, Rhoad/Steele, no matter how many times Jake experienced this, it never became old hat, it always was special…today felt magical and the race hadn’t even started.

Reggie Gunther Jr. was standing next to his car, the second place qualifier. Reese was at ease, or so it seemed. Jake glanced over at Gunther and saw him glance up at Reese, his dark eyes were menacing, Jake saw this and recognized what would be a formidable opponent right from the start, he had something to prove and he wanted to prove it now!

The Grand-Am officials came through calling out, one minute, the drivers began strapping in, tension was in the air, the engines were fired up now…rasping their rough idle. Down on the third row…a crew scrambled, as the engine would not fire!

Racecars all around revving their engines, the roar making the crew’s job even more frantic, as they could not hear their engine cranking, pulling their rear canopy, the crew searching for anything awry…Jake knew what they were going through and hoped they would find it…Grand-Am officials were signaling for them to enter the grid…the cars pulled down into the pit road…leaving the stranded car and crew, frantically working, shouting at each other, desperately trying to find a solution.

Jake opens the door to his car, Reese opens his visor looking into the eyes of this man whom he respected so. “This guy’s gonna try to own you in turn one…don’t let him…even if you rub…you’ve got the inside line…you’ve got the advantage…that car’s powerful…no games on the start, when the pace car pulls off stand on it and drive like the devils on your ass…that makes it easy for hot shots, like you, now doesn’t it,” Jake winks and pats his helmet. Reese’s dark eyes were hiding anything but determination…that was what Jake saw last…an unwillingness to be defeated…not one race, not one corner.

Jake walked over to Steele, who grinned a wry look, a look he had shown a thousand races before. The veterans knew what all could transpire in just a few moments…dreams would be smashed…this they knew…would it be theirs or somebody elses? As far as the world was concerned it didn’t really matter. No, this was really a personal battle and they were better prepared and understood it all more than anybody.

The parade of racecars followed the pace car off to their right down pit road streaming under the pedestrian bridge into Big Bend.

Jake walked over to climb up into his scoring/support cart. Sandy caught his eye as he went by; she was smiling warmly at him. Jake turned away…no smile on his face. His sunglasses hiding whatever his eyes were saying.

Looking across the paddock, as he mounted his cart, Jake could see the serpent of racecars moving through the left-hander, zig zagging back and forth.

One engine was screeching now, uncontrollably, the throttle must be stuck at wide open. The driver had depressed the clutch…the engine grenades before he shut down the ignition…fire belched from the rear fender wells as oil caught fire on the headers…smoke bellowing out into the blue sky…flags, pedants, clouds, and now smoke blowing across the beautiful blue sky, that now witnessed, once again, the smashing of another’s dreams.

Jake fixed his gaze on that burning car as safety crews rushed to extinguish the flames, “One less we have to beat, eh Jake,” Steele’s mind wasn’t about to be muddled with sympathy for those he was about to annihilate.

“Yeah, that’s right…one less,” Steele had a single minded, purposeful way of looking at things that made his life an easier place to be.

The yellow was out and a wrecker was positioning to extract the ruined racecar…that team’s crew was extricating their equipment, their hopes dashed, preparing to return home beaten with a pile of bills to greet them.

Clean up was ongoing, men sweeping oil dry back and forth on the track. The pace car leads the group onto the front straight away tightly packed together.

“Don’t yield an inch Reese…force him to drive through the kitty litter.” Steele’s instructions would place Gunther’s car right in the oily litter…nice? No, but who said auto racing was nice.

Jake thought about Steele’s advice, his ruthless advice. These teams were out to tear them down. They had been practicing all week to exclude Rhoad/Steele, drafting, setting up passes, and working strategy to make sure Rhoad/Steele was out. Steele’s advice was not only fair in view of the competition’s gang up attitude; it was brilliant for the upcoming green.

They watched as Gunther tried to bully over to no avail. Reese held his line, as did those in line behind him, Gunther therefore was forced to drive through the oil soaked floor dry thoroughly coating his tires.

As the field past, the workers went to town cleaning, track sweeper machines and vacuums followed the field onto the spot zipping back and forth over the affected area.

The cleanup crew finished and quickly moved off the track. The pace car was exiting the downhill to Jake’s left. The pace car whipped off the track onto pit road.

The number 09 car began accelerating immediately catching the field off guard slightly. Jake watched the flagman, then spoke into his radio, “Green, green!” Reese stood on the accelerator just as the flagman waved the green flag furiously in a figure eight action.

Further back in the field there was contact, however the green stayed out and Reese was cookin’ into Big Bend with enough of a lead he could run his high momentum line, building an even further lead on second place, Scott Bennet, Gunther falling back to fifth unable to mount a challenge, over steering badly as he entered Big Bend.

Reese was perfect through the left hander and was just driving away, as the rest of the field fell into place following one another in a very uncharacteristic, for this early in the race, seemingly sedate pace.

“That hundred pounds, your suspension, those tires, and Reese’s driving are just too much for those guys,” Steele, ever the optimist had the race in hand, Jake preferred to wait and see, however a more commanding start could not even be contemplated.

A few laps into the race Reese began passing cars, putting each a lap behind the number 09 car. Contact between back runners was made several times, but none were bad enough accidents to justify full course yellows. The cars would come smoking into the pits with cracked, smashed fiberglass rubbing the tires, crews swarming around in a desperate drama, trying to hold on to their thirty-second position.

One crew began holding a decision-making conference right in the middle of their pit stop. This in particular brought a smile to Steele’s countenance. He began looking from the conference to Jake and back, laughing harder each passing moment. Auto racing was serious business at Rhoad/Steele and these antics were akin to watching a Three Stooges episode.

“I’m sure glad these boys opted for them centerlock hubs,” Steele offered up a bit of sarcasm…knowing a farm boy with a lug wrench could have performed a faster pit stop.

While Jake seldom manifested into words his feelings on some of the ridiculous displays going on in auto racing, his face would often tell the story, revealing his disdain for what he felt was less than professional behavior.

Jake’s looks could be brutal, but that was better than getting too excited and being unable to control oneself, as did one famous racing driver known for physically assaulting his own crew during a pit stop.

Jake would absorb, analyze, and surround himself with good people. As the race progressed, Jake spoke on the radio, “We have entered this window.” Now any incident that brought out a yellow flag would signal the pit stop.

The window only lasted ten laps, as after that, by Jake’s calculations, they would run out of fuel.

Three laps after, the fourth place car tying to negotiate a pass of a back runner in a heated battle for twenty-fifth spot tried to occupy the same particular section of asphalt. Now both cars were scattered about the track in very large chunks and Reese swerved violently into the pit road.

Air hose on—fuel hose on—tires off—tires on—fuel in—driver out—new driver in—windshield tear away off—full tank—air hose off—fuel hose off—car out.

The crew were hugging and slapping each other in jubilation.

Joe entered the track in number one spot with only four other cars even on the lead lap, just in front of 09 physically.

Reese, Gatorade in hand appeared before Jake and Steele’s support cart, staring up at them. Jake’s sun glasses, hiding the pride in his eyes, reflected back Reese’s own image to Reese, seeing himself as a professional racing driver. Looking at that image was a profound moment for this young man who had so struggled to find his way. Shifting his gaze to Steele, that big, powerful force of mankind, whose shining eye told the story, but Reese waited on the words.

Steele’s genuine smile showed a row of white teeth gleaming at him.

Jake spoke first, “Well, ok, you did pretty good for a rookie.”

“Yeah, not too bad, I’d say,” Steele, added, “you know Reese two of those four…that you didn’t lap…have won Lemans.”

“And one you did lap has won the Indy 500, twice,” Jake adds to the discussion, “but they didn’t have our car.”

“Nor did they have us…Jake and me…” Steele is really having fun now, “so don’t go throwing away those bartender aprons just yet…you’ll still be on probation, I’d say, for about another decade or so.” They all laughed and Reese was very pleased with his review.

Jake turned his attention to the track just as Joe came by. Leaving shimmering heat waves in his wake, as he entered Big Bend.

Late in the race two cars collided going into the right hand turn that leads into the no name straight away. One car catapulted from the gravel run off area over the retaining wall. Violently flipping end over end, over and over, disappearing into the wooded area.

Steele commented, “I hope he’s ok, that car was still moving fast enough, he may have landed in the creek!” Referring to a waterway running through that area, way out behind the woods.

This brought out a yellow flag. Jake rapidly calculated the mileage and it was close, but he thought they could make it all the way. Joe was silently awaiting a decision as he made his way around the track, now on the uphill section.

To bring him in meant that any staying out on the lead lap still would inherit the first place position if they were close enough to beat the pit crew…there was an eighteen second interval to second place…the crew could do a ten second splash and change tires…Jake’s mind was racing…if we stay out we may run out of fuel…we may be slower than a car with fresh rubber…trust your crew! “Pit next,” Jake spoke calmly into the radio.

“Irving, we want fresh tires and a splash.” Steele calmly instructed his crew, then turned his steely eye on his partner, his admiration showing. “These moments are what I missed most, Jake.”

Jake looked cool and calm, he glanced at his crew lined up on pit wall, ready to spring into action, one mishap, one mistake and their race could be lost, each member willingly putting it all on the line, risking, being the one who screwed it up and never thinking twice about it. They soaked up the excitement of the moment and they valued their importance…their part in this intense drama.

Joe entered the pits fast…flipping his pit speed switch that kept the car precisely at maximum pit road speed. Joe placed the car perfectly as per Irving’s signal, the crew performed their ballet perfectly, just as they had practiced many, many times…ten seconds later Joe was speeding down pit road…the second place car was coming out of the downhill and stayed out on the track, their crew chief hoping to beat Rhoad/Steele by capturing the lead while they pitted, but they were too late!

Jake watched as they went by, Joe already in Big Bend, the yellow was still out, the pace car now on pit road would pick Joe up on the next lap so all the cars were now pitting, the second place should have pitted, now if he does, next lap he will lose track position to all the other lead lap cars. That’s tough, a bad strategy for them.

Jake looks at his guys, who are strangely sedate, now watching, just spectators, watching their future unfold, it was all in Jake’s hands a few moments ago…then their hands…now it’s up to Joe…Joe and destiny.

The racecars are clumped up behind the pace car now. The debris that didn’t make it off the track has been scraped up. The driver is off to the hospital, no report on his condition, his destroyed chariot of speed, lies in the woods. The new second place driver has his car almost touching Rhoad/Steele’s car’s rear bodywork; this is his chance to show the world what he’s capable of doing.

The four cars on the lead lap are lined up behind Joe as the pace car whips off into the pit road. The green waves furiously as Joe leads them down into Big Bend; Joe appears to miscalculate, dropping the edge of his right side tires into the gravel on the inside of turn one, spewing pea gravel and dirt behind him onto the track. The second place car loses traction instantly over steering badly with contact from the third and fourth place cars, both spinning out of control, gathering it up, barely avoiding several collisions within the chaos created by Joe’s apparent mistake. Joe, now fifty yards ahead and pulling away fast, smiles ear to ear.

“Our guy doesn’t miss a trick, does he,” Steele always appreciative of perfection.

Jake was constantly impressed with the driving of Joe Savage, a man who spent most of his driving career careening sideways through the turns. “No, Steele he doesn’t and I bet he’s laughing out loud right now.”

Over three thousand miles away, in her apartment off of the foothill freeway, Jessica Strangeways watches the Grand American Road Racing Association event on Speed TV. The race was over and the winner was team Rhoad/Steele, with their phenomenal fourth straight win! On the stage, in the center position stands two men, Joe Savage, a small muscular man, and David Reese, a young African American, with the physique of an athlete. They are holding a massive trophy hand in hand and smiling the most sincere jubilant smiles she has ever seen.

Reese is now crying, thanking Jake and Steele for believing in him. The commentator breaks away speaking of how just weeks ago, Reese was a bartender with only club racing experience. Now the commentator is interviewing Joe Savage, who until this year only raced Sprint Cars.

“I owe my career to Jake Rhoad and Steele, they saw something and gave me a chance, a chance denied me by others, these two along with Madison Avenue and Stoudenmire Investments.” “These guys,” gesturing to his race team, “that is what has made this dream run possible!” Joe then popped the champagne cork and he spewed the team and everyone within the area.

Phil Spence caught up with Jake Rhoads walking through the paddock area. “Jake Rhoads, what do you credit team Rhoad/Steele’s tremendous success, in the first four events of this year’s Grand-Am season?”

Jake stopped, looked straight into the camera, then said, “No one person or one particular item can bring an organization to this point,” Jake sounded sincere and looked very serious, “it began with the trust and professionalism demonstrated by the folks at Madison Avenue…Suzanne and Sandy gave two old racers the opportunity to compete on the best road racing circuit in the world, the Grand American Road Racing Association. All they asked was for our team, our efforts to reflect the same qualities that make Madison Avenue the top apparel company in the world. A quality product backed by people with integrity. That’s where it started, then we surrounded ourselves with the absolute best drivers, engineers, and crew…now, starting today, with this event we welcome Dallas and Amelia Stoudenmire, that is, Stoudenmire Investments, a green energy developer, as a new partner to our group…and we are just getting started with some really exciting announcements coming soon.” Jake was almost out of breath, but remained calm in this unexpected live interview.

“Jake, what we want to know is why the team seems so dominate?” Phil asked the same question with different wording.

“Well, Phil, I just told you…but if you look at our operation you will see hard working people applying all of our skills and energy to create excitement.” Jake then turned gesturing toward the bridge over the track, “Now, look at our competitors, they are at about the same level of technology as the old Bailey Bridge over there…nothing new…nothing innovative…they design nothing, then build the same old designs…they don’t test…then they whine to Grand-Am that those who beat them, somehow cheated…well, we don’t cheat…right now, we’re just better than they are…let’s just hope my comments will get them off their butts…Steele and I…we like a challenge…good day to you!”

Phil looked stunned; this was not your typical bullshit interview! Suddenly realizing they were still filming, he finished off with, “That candid conversation was with Jake Rhoads of Madison Avenue’s team Rhoad/Steele…the best team in professional racing!”

Jessica had never seen an interview like that one. It was exciting, he, Jake Rhoad, was exciting…he had seemed to indicate an expansion…her mind was racing now. Jessica Strangeways was a professional stunt-woman. Her expertise was driving stunts, but she also did falls, fights, sky diving, underwater, animal attacks, etc…you name it, she had probably, at some point in her ten year career, done it, but what she really liked best was driving…FAST! This team Rhoad/Steele may just need some drivers, so Jessica thought…why not me?

The crowds had left, the sun was disappearing, and radiating through the foliage of the tree covered western hills. The cars were put away in the darkened trailers, waiting another day…another chance at glory.

The tired crews were putting the wrenches away in their boxes, cleaning each one, turning their thoughts towards home, hoping their families watched them on TV, anxiously awaiting the touch of a loved one. Some already lusting for the excitement of another event, always wanting just one more glorious day, dreading the day that through events or age they are relegated to sitting at home surrounded by trophy’s and photographs of a better time…a time when they felt significant.

A tired old man with one shining eye sat in his old bus, feeling numb from the excitement of what they had accomplished and asking himself, what can we do to top this? What else? Their team’s choice was easy; they must try and win another race, there was always another challenge, that’s what sustained them.
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