SPEEDLUST

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Chapter 22

The Mexican sky was a startling shade of bright blue. The breeze blowing eastward carried high floating white puffy clouds, moving rapidly off of the Pacific Ocean crossing the Sea of Cortez and then eventually to the Mainland of Mexico.

Jake watched this from a sea of humanity. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, Jake actually felt alone. Nothing he did could break this feeling of loneliness, so Jake had turned to the one thing, the only thing, which had never failed to give him exactly what he expected. This was the BAJA 500 and Jake would, in a very short while, be racing across the rough mysterious desert at incredible speeds, testing himself, once again.

The racing vehicle he leaned against was his own creation, so if it failed there would be no excuses. This is what Jake wanted, a test for himself. Why? That he did not know.

The Ensenada Convention Center with its stately white stucco covered walls and red tile roof looked like a massive hacienda from times gone by. The throngs of people were a combination of racing enthusiasts, race team personnel, people with no connection whatsoever that just wanted to be a part of a happening, citizens wanting to ply their wares in hopes of a profit and villains that want just to prey on the hapless ones that fall into their clutches.

Mariachi bands wandered through the crowds playing beautiful music creating a festive mood. Corporations, such as, Tecate, Red Bull, Monster and Coca Cola were well represented with groups of dark eyed senoritas in tight fitting, revealing outfits, their uniforms reflecting their various corporation’s logos and color schemes.

This was Baja, one of the greatest festivals of speed on the planet. Three hundred and sixty-seven vehicles were lined up by class waiting their turn to take the green flag and then blast across the hot desert floor towards each of their own destinies. Man and machine battling the clock, the desert, each other, and themselves.

All types of competitors are drawn to this legendary event, millionaires looking for their latest rush, buying the best equipment, then trashing it unmercifully until either they finish or the equipment breaks. Winning means that they are in possession of major skill and talent, anything less means the design, creator of their machine failed and he or they are the losers. Also, putting their hopes into the Baja, are blue-collar workers that build their own racers. Working day and night to create something that they see as special…sometimes they are alone in this vision, sacrificing everything in a meager assault on an event that is heartless. A race that will wad you up and spit you out, leaving you broken, shattered, penniless and then it will march onward leaving you behind…wondering just why you ever took this path to begin with…your dream of rising to greatness lost…until the next time.

They come by the thousands from every walk of life, each with their own dream of conquering the Baja. The rich guys bring hundreds of supporters. Chase trucks loaded with tools and spares to rebuild anything broken. Eighteen-wheelers converted into rolling fabrication shops, caterers, and motor homes, all equipped to care for the crew’s needs. Satellite navigation and communication, even helicopters to carry parts to their racer and create massive dust storms in the path of any competitor that threatens their rich guy’s victory.

The financially impaired bring their hopes, their dreams, their family, their ingenuity and little else. Putting it all on the line, often failing and falling heavily. Spending years afterward remembering that bitter taste of defeat, some comforted by the words of that great American leader Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Even if they fail, they fail while daring greatly.”

The bikes had left at 6:00 a.m., giving them time to get down the path before the unleashing of the four-wheeled racers.

Now it was nearly 9:00 a.m. and the starter would soon begin waving them off one by one. The elapsed time measured with each entries actual time of start.

Jake felt alone, standing in this sea of people. Yesterday this was what he wanted, but now…now he just felt like going home.

All this exposure to racing with the new Rhoad/Steele auto racing team had stirred up old emotions and he had pulled his old desert racer out of storage and prepped it for the Baja. This truck had won many a race in desert competition and was a sturdy reliable platform that Jake was comfortable in. Eddie had jumped at the chance to ride along as navigator, riding mechanic, and co-driver. The truck was beautiful in its light tan and black color scheme. Even though the body work was years older than most of the other racers, lots of admiring fans had stopped to look it over, taking photos and giving compliments.

Jake was absorbed in thought when someone near spoke, “Jake don’t you think this has gone on long enough!”

Jake turned to find Sandy standing right beside him. The surprise was total and it must of shown on Jake’s face from the cunning smile that Sandy had. “I swear Jake your going to be the ruination of my reputation…me chasing you all over the world.” Now Sandy looked timid…the confident, powerful businesswoman had melted away…her vulnerability drew Jake to her.

Jake didn’t say a word; he just embraced her and gave her his most passionate kiss…Sandy melted into his arms. For a long while they just held on to each other…the two of them committing to each other…alone in this sea of humanity…speaking without words.

Jake no longer felt alone…he never would again. Moments later Eddie and Jake were strapped in tightly into their racing seats. The vibration from the rough idling race engine could be felt through their legs.

The line was moving now, every thirty seconds the flag man would wave off another competitor. Each racer would then pull ahead; the next in line would drive up onto a ramp built for the purpose of starting. Banners stretched across the top of the ramp opening. The starter would watch the official clock then furiously wave the green flag and the racer would drive off at tremendous acceleration.

Jake was excited…Sandy was his girl…he was back doing what he loved and he had someone to share it with. Jake remembered Sandy’s smiling face through the window net as she reached to touch his fingers through the mesh.

The time was near now as his class began leaving ahead of him, class and the luck of a draw determined starting order.

His safety harness was too tight biting into his torso…Jake tightened it more. The gauges told Jake the engine was getting hot…it wanted some airflow. Eddie turned on the cooling fans. Jake eased out the clutch, moving ahead…most of the racers in the truck class ran automatics…Jake had a wider field of knowledge than the designers of those trucks…manual was better, whether you looked at it from endurance or from performance.

It was their turn now…Jake pulled up onto the ramp, down the road leading from the ramp hundreds of thousands of spectators lined each side…Jake looked the starter in the eye, grinning his old wry smile…a smile that said, I’ve been here before…this is what I’m best at.

Jake told Eddie to hit it and Eddie flipped the switch that triggered his iPod that blasted out loudly over several on-board speakers in the rear of the truck…Elvis singing, ‘Burning Love’. This small sacrifice of less than three pounds was an entertainment concession for the fans…fans that would never forget that moment that happened now, as the flagman waved the green and Jake leaped the racer off of the ramp burning his Goodyear’s out on the asphalt. The King bellowing “Lord Almighty I feel my temperature rising”. The fans went crazy, cheering them on…fast they went past the thousands of spectators, driving into a left hand turn, over steering, almost out of control…powering at incredible speeds, some fans reaching out and touching the truck as they passed, now going over one hundred miles per hour.

Jake shifted up through the gears as they came to the end of the paved section, dropping into a wash still lined with spectators. Approaching the first big jump Jake moved to the left already passing the competitor that started thirty seconds before them. As they passed, Eddie gave a thumbs up…the drivers only response was a scowl that had ‘Crazy Son of a Bitch’! written all over it.

As they passed under the Guadalupe Bridge, which was full of people, one of them threw a rock that barely missed…that was part of BAJA, the locals wanting to interact with the racers.

Jake just laughed as Eddie realized he was riding with someone almost as crazy as himself. Coming out of Ensenada, heading into Ojos Negros, Jake crosses over a peak in the trail, the desert vastness lay before him, the path they were traveling led down the mountain, many endless miles stretching out straight as an arrow towards the Sea of Cortez. The dust of competitors far ahead of them was pluming high in the distance, a southern breeze blowing the dust off to the right of the course.

The beauty of the distant mountains, the desert, the boulder strewn cactus laden landscape startled Jake. This was experiencing life to the max. The plumes of dust beckoned Jake onward calling him to come hither…race with me. Jake stood on the gas!

The truck easily absorbed the punishment thrown at it by the rough terrain. The shocks had been tuned on Jake’s own design shock dynamometer, one of the only dynos in the world that could handle the large off road racing shock absorbers.

Soon they encountered the dry silt beds. This substance that they called silt wasn’t sand and it wasn’t the silt suspended in the waters of a river, no this stuff has the consistency of flour. It was dry, it was deep, and it was treacherous. Concealed beneath its tranquil surface were giant holes, ruts, rocks, and jagged boulders.

Silt explodes out at you almost like water splashes. Soon it’s in your pores, your lungs, your mouth, your ears, your nose, and your eyes. Regardless of how much effort a group puts into keeping silt out, silt always finds a way.

As a driver plunges into the silt bed it explodes outward an upward into the air, its iridescent colors reflecting off of the sun and obscuring the path before him, while he’s traveling at one hundred and fifty miles an hour!

Too fast, you say! This must be exaggeration! No, and that’s actually conservative. A well-known filmmaker decided to film a documentary on the sport…that is, off road racing. One scene of a prominent race truck team was shot from a helicopter that had a top speed of one hundred and fifty miles per hour. They followed for a while filming through the rough stuff, then the truck hit a smooth dry lake-bed. The driver accelerated shooting a plume of dust miles high into the air and the truck just drove away from the helicopter, I mean it just left the rotary wing aircraft behind in no time at all, it was out of sight! This is a fast and dirty sport.

Now Jake and Eddie were blasting down the canyon road. Crowds were lined on the left side all over the canyon wall looking down on the racers. On the right side was a steep cliff and the path snaked along the wall, zig zagging left and right, the wall protrusions obscuring the path before you.

Soon the spectators disappeared and the competitors were spread out, many already dropping out of the race for one reason or another. Retiring back to Ensenada to the cantinas and the brothels to relive their short, but glorious Baja adventure.

Jake and Eddie were still moving ahead, still charging, negotiating a narrow rocky road amidst a statuesque forest of cardon cactus. They felt alone now with just the sounds and vibrations from their racer to keep them company.

Entering Valle de Trinidad they came upon another truck on the side of the course, the driver and co-driver working feverishly on the engine, it’s front bodywork set to the side.

Jake eased up beside and asked if they needed anything, the driver just waved them on.

Onward they drove through the rocks and the mountains following the red arrows that marked the course, Eddie monitoring the GPS when in doubt. They immersed the truck in water as they crossed the river approaching Mike’s Sky Rancho.

Jake’s crew was waiting at Mike’s. They fueled it up and changed the tires. Bob told Jake they were running in twelfth position overall. Jake drove off into the desert not thinking of anything just reacting to what was thrown at him. Man and machine, taking on this brutal, beautiful desert.

The dust and sand had found its way into the sealed pressurized cockpit, a feature most competitors didn’t have. The safety harness was biting into Jake’s flesh, his body long since having released its efforts to hold Jake in place, now he was adrift secured by the harness, his arms and legs barely holding onto the necessary controls.

The pounding this machine had absorbed was incredible. Each mile of the course marked with broken dreams, some with crews working furiously to repair/rebuild them, others abandoned awaiting retrieval after the race was finished.

Jake pressed onward through the ruts and rocks. Eddie glanced at Jake and saw determination in his eyes and the set of his jaw…this man, Eddie thought, would never quit.

Passing another broken machine Eddie began to think, not only of finishing, but of…winning!

Cresting another ridge, between rock cliffs on either side, Jake spied a rooster tail of dust, far ahead; calling him onward saying to him, pass me…if you dare.

Eddie received communication from Bob; they were waiting just ahead and had been monitoring their progress on the satellite tracker. Now Jake and Eddie were running second place…three minutes behind. Eddie told Jake on the intercom. Jake didn’t respond in anyway, the concentration on his face unchanged…maybe his jaw was set a little firmer.

Spectator pockets began appearing more frequently. They needed neither fuel or tires so Jake didn’t even slow for their chase crews pit set up…Eddie gave a thumbs up through the window as they blasted past in a swirl of dust. The crew strangely sedate as though they were afraid they might provoke a reaction if they cheered. Bob just watched in awe and wondered where they lost the right side rear body panel.

Crowds lined both sides of the course. Every turn a potential booby trap…that Jake and the truck seemed to handle effortlessly.

The dust of a competitor was just ahead as they entered a long dry wash Jake shifting through the gears to high, spectators waving them on.

Up ahead Jake could see the arch making the finish line, a racer was only fifty yards ahead of them. The truck was at wide-open throttle and they were reeling the competitor in, fast!

Just as Eddie thought Jake was going to rear end the racer in front of them, Jake lifted the throttle. The two racers crossed the finish line together, the flagman waving the checkered flag furiously. An official waving them off to the impound area towards the right.

Jake pulled up next to the trophy truck that finished just in front of them and Eddie shut off the switch. The silence was deafening.

Eddie’s body had become so used to the vibration that Eddie now felt strange.

Officials were now swarming around. Everyone was smiling, giving out congratulations. SCORE’s president, Sal Fish was congratulating Jake…shaking his hand. Jake was laughing. Jake then walked around and hugged Eddie in a big bear hug.

“Jake I’m sorry…we came so close,” Eddie wasn’t as happy as Jake, “Sure it’s great to finish but…”

“Why, you nut,” Jake was looking incredulous at Eddie. “Don’t you know?” Jake paused for an answer, “We won the whole thing!”

Eddie was stunned, “But we didn’t pass them…”

“Hell, no!” Jake smiling, “that truck was second off the line, they started way before us!”

“We won?” Eddie couldn’t believe it. “We won!” Eddie jumped for joy as the thrill of victory swept over him.

Soon they were all there, Bob and the chase crew.

Champagne materialized from somewhere and they were all toasting each other.

Race vehicles were now pouring in from off the course as the impound area filled up quickly.

Jake surveyed his surroundings and asked himself how had he ever stayed away…and why! Jake knew now this was his home and he would never leave it again, as he could never quench his thirst for speed…his lust for a challenge.

The Tecate girls were suddenly all around Jake and Eddie. Their red, white, and black shorts and bikini top outfits were barely containing their voluptuous bodies. Eddie kissed one right on the mouth as she wrapped her arms around him. The only blonde of the four put her arm around Jake’s big shoulders crushing her breast into Jake’s side, as they posed for the photographers that were snapping away. As Jake smiled, staring unseeing into the now massive crowd gathering to see the winners, he missed seeing a short frail looking woman, whose dark eyes were burning holes into him from behind the photographers, watching the woman draped against Jake. Sandy turned away and walked into the crowd, her hurt showing in her eyes.

Later a tired, filthy Jake slides his card key into the door pad of his hotel room. Jake drops his gear bag onto the Saltillo tile floor of his beautiful suite and opens the veranda doors where he silently stands watching the glorious sun set into the Pacific Ocean, the dark night sky chasing the brilliant colors that disappear with a bright violet flash…leaving darkness behind.

Why hadn’t Sandy been at the finish? Jake called her room at her hotel across town, but there was no answer. Later Jake tried again to no avail, so he left a message telling her where the awards were to be held on the next day. Then Jake went to meet the guys at Hussong’s Cantina.

Jake had fish tacos for dinner and one of the best times he could remember ever having in Mexico. The music, the people, the food, his friends laughter, and antics were like an intoxicating drug that he never wanted to end, but it did and five minutes after hitting his hotel room Jake was sound asleep, dreaming of a dark eyed woman that made his life complete.

The SCORE awards presentation was held on Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m., poolside at the prestigious San Nicolas Hotel in Ensenada, Mexico.

The very large rectangular pool is surrounded by the three-story hotel’s balcony with giant palm trees and beautiful floral landscaping; it was a breathtaking setting for the trophy and check presentation.

Thousands of people were streaming into the area. Soon SCORE’S president, Sal Fish was speaking about the event, its history, the meaning of it all to the people of Baja and the impact that the race has economically to the region. Several guest speakers were invited up to share anecdotes from years gone by, these included Jack Johnson, Malcolm Smith, and Parnelli Jones.

Through all of this Jake had set with his team, an open seat beside him awaiting Sandy who had not been seen.

Finally Sal began awarding trophies, class by class. The voluptuous Tecate girls, looking even more gorgeous, were presenting the trophies and many of the racers were kissing them passionately. The girl’s skimpy outfits were clinging tightly to their bodies and leaving very little to the imagination.

Jake looked around into the crowd and could feel someone starring at him. There she was over near a Palm tree blending into the group of enthusiast, Sandy looked away quickly.

Jake had no idea what was wrong with her now. It seemed to him there was always something, but Jake loved her and wanted Sandy with him. Just as he was getting up to go get Sandy, they announced his name.

“Jake Rhoad would you please come up here?”

The crowd applauded and Jake stopped mid stride, turned and headed for the podium.

Well-wishers were shaking his hand and patting his back. Sal Fish was waiting to greet him as Jake climbed the steps onto the stage, smiling warmly and vigorously shaking Jake’s hand, Sal led Jake to the podium where he took the microphone and said, “This modest man is probably best known for his championship winning road racing team…however, those victories came after a career that spanned three decades as a championship driver…” Applause, “Jake has always represented, what I like to think, is the perfect image desired by any sport, professionalism, loyalty, and a role model for our youth…let’s have another big hand for our BAJA 500 champion, Jake Rhoad!”

The crowd gave Jake a standing ovation.

Sal ceded the microphone to Jake, stepping back. Jake, after a moment, held up his hands to quiet the crowd…then said, “I love the people of Baja.” The crowd went crazy with a thunderous applause, including all the SCORE people on the stage.

Jake held his hands up again, then said, “I’ve never received an award that means so much or that I deserved so little…I mean…I was just having a good time!” Jake smiled his big, warm Texas smile, the glint from his green eyes shining even brighter.

The crowd, again, gave a sincere thunderous applause for one of their own, which truly deserved.

Sal moved in to say, “Now, for the trophy presentation…girls,” Sal motioned for the Tecate girls to bring up the trophy.

Jake moved back to the microphone, “Hold It…girls you are all lovely, but…Sal, I have my own trophy girl, so if y’all don’t mind…”

Sal looked surprised and now was smiling, looking around.

“Sandy. Sandy, you’re the love of my life. Please, come on up here!” Jake was watching her now…the shock had been complete…the crowd seeing where Jake was staring parted and began clapping and uttering, encouraging remarks.

“Yeah!” “Go up there, girl.” “You go, Sandy!”

Sandy was stunned, then instincts took over as she felt compelled to go…to go to Jake…that man…that special man…her man! Sandy moved rapidly now through the crowd…tears now streaming down her cheeks, a smile on her face.

Jake saw the effect he had on Sandy and thought that Sandy was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes upon.

Sandy climbed the steps…as she passed the Tecate girls they handed her the very large trophy with the shape of BAJA on it. Sandy carried the trophy to the podium, leaned into the microphone and said, “For SCORE racing and the people of Baja, Mexico, I present to you, Jake Rhoad, the BAJA 500 Champion, this memento of your achievement.”

The crowd gave a enthusiastic response, the SCORE officials, the Tecate girls, everyone on the stage was smiling and looking about, absorbing what had become an even more special event due to Jake and his curious way of dealing with life.

Jake stepped up, kissed Sandy gently on the lips and took his trophy, held it high in the air and said, “Thank you SCORE. Thank you, people of Baja!”

Through the thunderous applause, Sal Fish escorted Sandy to an easel that had an oversize check with a very sizable figure, made out to Jake Rhoad. Sandy picked up the check and walked over to Jake, still at the podium. Sandy said, “This check is presented to Jake Rhoad…the BAJA 500 champion!”

Jake took the check, looked at the figure and said, “Wow!” Then turned to the microphone, “THANK YOU!”

The racers all were applauding. “The people of this country always make us feel so welcome…they do everything that they can to make these events, that SCORE puts on, a tremendous success each time. For that I want to thank them and following the example set by Bill Stroppe, Parnelli Jones, and many, many others, I want to give back to the Baja community, so in honor of all the racers who come here each year, and Sal Fish, his wonderful organization SCORE that does such a wonderful job at putting this event together…” The applause was deafening, “I want to donate these winnings to the community of Baja and we will establish an advisory committee that will administer these funds…in the best way possible to help these people who are so special and so deserving!”

Sal took over the microphone, “You, Jake are special also…let’s have another big hand for Jake Rhoad…Sandy…and all their team!” The applause was rousing.

Jake looked Sandy in her eyes…dark eyes staring with love and pride. Jake couldn’t remember ever feeling so good in his life…then Jake remembered a skinny, young, green eyed man starring into the starry night sky saying, “Lord, just give me a chance and I’ll make you proud of me…”

Those same green eyes…a little older, a lot wiser turned once again to the heavens and silently asked, “Are you watching, Lord? ‘Cause I hope we are just getting started.”

Later, the BAJA 500 trophy, setting on the coffee table in his suite, Jake and company partied the night away.

Across the room Jake saw Sandy talking to Bob, she looked up, their eyes locked into one anothers, she smiled a smile that lit up the room and Jake knew that his life would never be the same again and he was very happy.

The desert was near empty again. The only sound was the wind whispering through the brush and cactus. A snake lay coiled on a flat rock in the sunlight, clouds drifted through the blue sky.

A Vaquero walked his horse along a narrow rutted path and came to a stop near an embankment. The heat was stifling. The rancher placed both hands on the horn of his saddle and stared off towards the west, across this sun-baked land, a quiet and lonely land. He shifted his gaze to the rutted path leading to the north and the cracked, splintered remnants of a tan and black shattered fiberglass body part that was now and forever a part of this timeless land.


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