SPEEDLUST

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Chapter 24

The race shop was a beehive of activity. What appeared to be chaos was in reality a very controlled advance by the best team in auto racing, an advance towards the championship.

The engine dyno room was creating quite a ruckus on the far end of the building, even with all the sound insulation; the screech from the high revving power plant could be overwhelming.

The suspension engineers were dialing the dampers in on Jake’s shock dyno. Monitoring the performance characteristics on a computer screen, changing velocity rates and tailoring the damping to achieve certain levels, to control the motion of the suspension to give the driver the best handling, the best chance of winning.

Every aspect of these competition automobiles was being analyzed and optimized all in a quest to be the best, to give Rhoad/Steele an advantage.

As Jake walked through he was very impressed with the efforts by the team, a professional group that was at the top of their sport and wanted desperately to stay there.

Along with the original team, Jake saw some new faces. Irving had put on some additional personnel, at Jake and Steele’s request, as the additional car was creating an additional workload.

The next event on the schedule was a race through the streets of downtown Miami, Florida. This event would be very hard on the cars particularly the brakes and the drive-train.

A meeting was set with the engineers and crew chiefs. At the meeting two crew-members were designated as specialists, one to handle the brakes, the other focused on transaxle build up and maintenance, joining the specialists that worked exclusively on engines and shock absorbers. This allowed them to focus on these areas with the responsibility being shifted from the crew chiefs, freeing them up to address details on the rest of the car and equipment. The bigger A-Team had the complication of managing that effort at an increased non-linear rate, while their possibilities of victory increased, it didn’t increase at the rate their work did.

Jake met the new team members. Buck was a brake expert that had worked mainly for brake manufacturers and a top NASCAR team.

Dale had worked in many capacities, for many teams and his career could have been described as peripatetic. Dale came to Rhoad/Steele as their new transaxle specialist and would be responsible for keeping those gearboxes in perfect condition.

Buck and Dale both were very personable and obviously intelligent additions to the team.

Later Steele and Jake had a meeting about the new drivers. Steele was enthusiastic and was looking forward to the two-car assault…Jake was preoccupied with worries he couldn’t shake. The team had been magic to this point, that was the problem…no one can maintain a winning streak at this level for this long…they had no where to go, but down. This knowledge, which Jake kept to himself, was coinciding with the return of team Johanson, which didn’t seem to bother Steele at all.

“That bastard should be in prison,” Jake thought this to himself, bitter at the lack of justice our society has. Who was it that said, “The more laws a society has, the less justice.” Well, they called that right.

The Stoudenmires came out for a visit. Amelia was wearing a dark pink, one-piece jump suit from some silky looking; body clinging material and she just about brought the race teamwork to a halt. Dallas was thoroughly enjoying the attention turned in his wife’s direction some men are like that.

The meeting resulted in a test scheduled to evaluate the potential drivers Steele had on his short list.

Jake left to go over to the ‘Corkscrew’. When Jake was in this mood, he liked being there. Jake enjoyed the sounds of it all, people working; the tinkle of a glass, a quiet conversation at the bar, the waiters going back and forth, these things relaxed him.

After a few hours, Jake headed home to the farmhouse and sat on his porch with his furry friend. A friend that wanted nothing from him, but a little affection and some food now and then…on a very regular basis.

What do you call it when you achieve more than you ever anticipated…more than anyone ever thought you had the potential to do…you’ve reached that point and find you’re no longer too excited about who you are?

Jake nodded off in the warm Texas night with Charlie, the cat setting in his lap. Jake could see the black smoke billowing into the gray sky…everything was gray tones and people were running to see…everyone but Jake. Then Jake could see the hand…a hand reaching…reaching for help. Jake reached out, but now it was gone.

Suzanne Clark wanted a team presence at the Auto Racing Writers Award’s dinner in Long Beach, California. This prestigious event was held on the Queen Mary Ocean Liner and a Fashion Magazine was doing an exclusive article on the event this year, with Madison Avenue’s road racing team, the centerpiece of the article. Although this event did not fit in to Rhoad/Steele’s schedule, Steele made the best of it by scheduling the test at Willow Springs International Raceway, which lies north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. This track had been the scene of many auto racing first runs and now would be a setting that Rhoad/Steele would use to test their driver’s potential.

On the flight out Steele brought up the possibility of using a woman driver, seems he had been talking with an interesting girl named Strangeways that had been working as a stunt woman in Hollywood.

Jake listened to Steele’s pitch and could tell that Steele had already made up his mind.

“That’s all fine and dandy, but I’ve got two problems we need to see about first.” Jake tried to be the sane one in this nut house.

“Yeah? What are they Jake?” Steele sounded actually hurt, after all Jake usually just trusted his judgment.

“First Steele, stunt work isn’t racing.” Jake had a stern tone in his voice, “it takes more than balls…I mean guts to cut it on a fast road track. Can she drive?”

Steele was chuckling at Jake’s balls reference, then said, “That’s what we’re going to find out this…week, what’s your second problem?”

“Rhoad/Steele represents a men’s clothing group, where does a woman driver fit in?” Jake sincerely didn’t see how or for that matter why? Auto racing was a male dominated sport and always would be. These women drivers were always flash and bang, then they were gone…off to pursue some other activity to wile away their time or they marry some poor schmuck that never saw it coming.

Well, Jake that’s what I’ve been working up to…I guess…I mean…oh, hell…Madison Avenue’s coming out with an action women’s apparel line up and Sandy wants a chance to drive the new car…in a race I mean.” There, Steele had spilled the beans and now awaited the blow up that never came.

Jake looked out the window at lights below. He took a sip of his ginger ale, then looked at Steele and smiled at his partner that he had grown so fond of.

“Steele, it sounds like you’ve got it all figured out, with lots of conniving on Sandy’s part I bet…and the fact is…it’s fine with me.” Jake saw the relief sweep over Steele’s face. Jake knew something had been eating at Steele and had thought it was Johanson. Now he knew Johanson couldn’t worry that man, but Sandy wanting to race and Steele’s thoughts that Jake wouldn’t want her to, now that had worried him. Keeping the team together…that was Steele.

“Really? I just knew you wouldn’t want her to race, knowing the danger and all, so I stalled and she’s been wanting to ask you since that test day.” Steele looked relieved.

“Well, Steele it’s not that I wouldn’t worry…I would…I worry about all the drivers…this sport is deadly as you know…but I want a woman to walk beside me and things like this just go with the territory. I wouldn’t ever try to change Sandy.”

Team Rhoad/Steele’s cars were set up on either side of the red carpet runway that led into the side of the Queen Mary. They were positioned in such a way as to give equal viewing for Madison Avenue and Stoudenmire Investments. Models were posing with the cars and all over the ship. Jake noticed the women’s clothing line, debuting here; looked actually like something you might see women wearing. Jake cut quite a figure in his Madison Avenue formal attire and more than one of those beautiful models gave Jake more than a casual glance.

The dinner theme, they always had a theme, was the I.M.S.A GTP era, a time that both Jake and Steele were involved in up to their ears. The stories told, brought back many fond memories.

It was a fantastic evening and Jake and Sandy had time later for a romantic dance and a walk about the deck.

Everything was right, but Jake could feel that things were about to change…a premonition that Jake had learned to never ignore. It gave him uneasiness.

WILLOW SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY

ROSAMOND ~ CALIFORNIA ~ USA

Jessica Strangeways was gorgeous, in a tomboy kind of way. Tall, curvaceous, but muscular arms, blonde hair, no stripes, no roots, tan, and her perfectly shaped nose and mouth complimented her beautiful blue eyes. Jake liked her instantly and they talked about Hollywood stunts for about half an hour outside the office at Willow Springs International Raceway. They were sitting together on the concrete retaining wall that separates the paddock area from pit road, when the rest of the team began showing up.

Jake had risen early and drove out alone only to find Jessica had arrived before anyone.

Jessica seemed very at ease and excited to have the opportunity to test for team Rhoad/Steele. Jake kept their plans to himself, not wanting to get her hopes up until he saw what she could do behind the wheel. As it turned out Jessica already had her S.C.C.A. license and had gone through the Jim Russell and Bob Bondurant Driving Schools.

When Eddie pulled in with the race hauler, Irving and Bob were with him. Jake had them unload both cars and begin warming them up for the run.

Reese was the first driver to show, so Jake had Reese drive Destiny around with Jessica following in the new car.

Jessica created quite a stir with the crew when she changed to her driving suit right there in the John Harman garage and she wasn’t wearing anything underneath! That had gotten the crew’s attention quick, but Jessica never even took note of their extra attention.

Soon the racecars were roaring about at pretty fast clips, but nowhere near competition speed.

Jake put on the radio head set and listened as Reese explained his line to Jessica. Jake smiled at the thought of how fast Reese had changed from a bartender to a championship potential driver…all it took was someone to believe in him.

Jessica passed Reese as they motored down the front straight away. She began increasing her speed, Reese about four car lengths behind, watching her line through each turn.

“Perfect,” Reese was observing her entry into treacherous turn nine.

Jake felt a presence near him and looked to find Steele, Sandy, and Suzanne had arrived and they were watching the exhibition of speed with great interest.

The racecars flashed past at high speed, soaring into turn one erratically changing direction towards the left violently then back to the right into turns two and three.

“Whew! That car really moves.” Steele was noting the fact that the new car had jumped ahead several more car lengths, “but I thought you were going to put Reese in Destiny?”

Jake looked off towards the Budweiser balcony and said, “Reese is…in Destiny.” Jake then looked at Steele and saw the respect that Steele displayed in his eye or was that a tinge of worry, it was still hard for Jake to tell what Steele was thinking.

As Jessica passed Jake and Steele both put her on the watch. She didn’t talk and didn’t appear to be sliding or doing anything that wasn’t glass smooth.

At the end of her lap, Jake snapped her time—1 minute, 10 seconds—that time was incredibly fast. Jake called her in.

Jessica slowed her speed gradually and made for the pit entrance at the exit of turn nine.

As she exited the car there was neither emotion on her face, nor any expression whatsoever. Jake didn’t even think her pulse was racing.

Jake looked at Steele and nodded towards the bus. The meeting was short and sweet. They hired her on the spot, based on that lap. Steele already had the contract ready and they didn’t hesitate.

Meanwhile, Sandy had gotten into the car and was strapping in while Eddie and Bob did a right rear camber adjustment, based on the tire temperatures. By measuring tire temperatures across the face of a tire, engineers can tune a racecar’s suspension to make the loading more even. This accomplished, can make a racecar faster, but is usually just a reflection of the racecars last turn and this must be considered when adjusting the suspension.

Suspension adjustment went quick and Sandy was soon out on the track following Reese around, learning the track.

After five laps, Reese began to pick up the pace. Jake timed them, as Sandy was uncomfortable close behind Reese and they were running consistent one minute fourteen second lap times. This worked out to an average of 122 miles per hour.

Steele was watching with an intense look, and then he said into his headset, “Reese, y’all back off a bit.” At that time Reese was flying into the wings leg and he slowed immediately, but rather than slow down Sandy pulled to Reese’s right and passed as they approached the turn eight sweeper. This turn eight changed into turn nine with a drastically decrease in radius and has fooled many an experienced driver and had taken quite a toll on auto racers and their cars. Add one more to the treacherous turn nine, as Sandy had in her efforts to impress made a serious error careening across the track sideways, as the turn tightened, out of control the car completely sideways as the car flew off the track backwards, hitting the soft sand, catching, then rolling side over side violently over and over, many times until it wrapped itself up in the chain link fence.

Jake and company was already running over to the scene, which was just beyond the entrance to pit road.

Reese had stopped Destiny on the track and was out running towards Sandy.

The ambulance crew was in a lounge when Irving burst through the door, “Get your butts out there! We’ve had an accident!” The two chubby fellows spilled their coffee as they scrambled for the ambulance.

A debris field led from the track all the way to the shattered remains of the once beautiful svelte competition automobile.

Sandy was unconscious and no longer in an enclosed cockpit as it was demolished, she was now setting out in the elements, and only her roll cage, safety harness, and seat had saved her from certain destruction.

Sandy’s helmet had a fence post that had protruded into the cockpit, up against it and a deep gouge in the side of the helmet.

The team began extrication attempts by pulling the fencing away, that was wrapped around and around the wreckage. Bob had run over to the hauler and came back with a big wire cutter. This was making removal of the fencing somewhat easier.

Others stood with fire extinguishers. Everyone was working furiously to clear the debris away from Sandy.

The paramedics had a flat board device and were trying to get to a point where they could check Sandy’s vital signs.

Steele took charge ordering each what to do and soon the guys could lift Sandy out. The paramedics didn’t want her moved, but with the danger of fire imminent, Steele made the call and Sandy was placed on the board.

Sandy then was put on a gurney and then into the ambulance. Jake and Suzanne rode with her and the medics.

The ambulance turned on his siren and lights as they sped out of the racetrack. Turning left as the headed for the hospital in Lancaster.

Joe had passed the ambulance as he arrived, late, with the two girl’s Sheila and Wanda.

Steele was directing the scraping up of the debris and loading the wreckage, when Joe and the girls walked up beside him.

“What happened?” Joe asked in a concerned tone.

Steele looked at Joe, a cold expression on his face and answered in a flat tone, “We started without you.”

Wanda answered, “Oh, I see.” Her efforts to sound knowledgeable just brought an eye roll to Joe’s face.

Steele moved off clearly not wanting any conversation.

Eddie shook his head, looking at his all-new racecar shattered and bent. The result of a massive amount of labor and love destroyed in the blink of an eye. He felt something, not anger, not frustration, just sadness, almost like he was at a funeral. This sense of loss permeated his existence. “So much for our great gender experiment,” Eddie looked up to find Irving surveying the wreckage.

“Women drivers…well, what do you think, Eddie?” Irving said, sarcasm thick on his voice.

“Shit happens…learn to deal with it, Irv.” Eddie put on his tough demeanor.

“Ing…” Irving commented, as he shoved on a piece of wrecked racecar.

“Ing?” Eddie looked perplexed.

“Yeah, Irving,” Irving replied, and he didn’t sound friendly.

Steele had walked up surmising this conversation correctly, “Well…it’s shit now, that’s for certain. Let’s scrape this up and head to the airport restaurant…I’ll buy you guys the biggest steaks they have for lunch…hell, we still haven’t picked our second driver…yet.”

“Driver for what?” Irving’s positive attitude had headed south for the time being.

Steele gave Irving a look of disgust, and then headed over to the bus. Jessica had observed the events from the bus and had stayed out of the way. Steele invited her to lunch and once the crew was all loaded up, they took their traveling circus down the road.

The steaks turned into forgettable club sandwiches and no one wanted to talk much. Steele arranged for Jessica to come out to the shop in Texas to get fitted into the spare car. Plans were still on for Miami and Jessica would only have the track time there to prepare for the race.

Jake called and Sandy was still unconscious, everyone was worried. The crew took the bus and the hauler and headed home. Steele had Jake’s rental car and had Eddie drop off Suzanne’s car at the hospital.

All afternoon Sandy slept and around six o’clock she opened her eyes. The doctors examined her and pronounced her fine. They needed to keep her over night for observation and said she needed rest.

Jake went into see her and all she could talk about was the car. “The guys must be so angry with me,” this was asked in a questioning tone.

“No, Sandy they’re not angry,” Jake lied, “they’re professionals, Sandy and these things happen.”

Jake could see that she wasn’t buying it, “That turn is so tricky…why even Andretti wrecked right there in turn nine.”

“Really? Mario Andretti?” Sandy seemed to perk up a little.

“Uh…Michael…Mario’s son,” Jake saw this was helping. “Yeah, he went off in the same place as you…right after he broke the track record…way back in 1987.”

“Did you and Steele decide on drivers?”

Jake couldn’t believe this…all she could think of was racing.

“Jake…am I excluded?” Sandy asked so timidly and looked so fragile and scared.

“No, of course not, as a matter of fact…if you’re feeling up to it the…uh…Steele wanted you.”

“Just Steele?”

“No, of course not, all of us want you…if you’re better,” Jake felt ridiculous for lying, but he just didn’t know what to say.

“Oh, I am so happy,” Sandy held her arms up for a hug and gave him a big kiss.

Jake walked out into the hallway, turning left towards the waiting room. Steele and Suzanne were there.

“How is she?” Steele’s concern is obvious.

“She’s fine…our new driver’s fine…”

Steele wrinkled his brow over that comment.

Then Jake added, “You guys let me know if you need anything…I’ve got to go…” Jake turned and made a hasty retreat towards the exit.

“What just happened?” Steele asked himself, Suzanne overhearing.

“Sandy, Steele…Sandy just happened. She put Jake on the spot and Jake gave her the job,” Suzanne knew her partner.

“That’s not right,” Steele was concerned more for Jake than about who drives the car.

“No, it’s not right…but Sandy gets her way and she usually is right. I’ve just gotten used to her ways…however wrong they can be.” Suzanne looked down the hall after Jake.

“Well, Jake’s upset now,” Steele looked right at Suzanne. “Jake’s mad at himself…for caving in…I think Sandy made a mistake…regardless of how good she can drive…Jake will always remember how she got the job and that’s no way to start a new position…a new relationship.”

“I see what you mean and I agree. I’ll talk to her and explain, then we will fix this…Steele, I promise.” Suzanne hugged Steele and headed off to Sandy’s room.

Steele held his chin with one hand, rubbing it…staring at nothing, “Women!” He said, and then walked off towards the coffee machine. Coffee always made him feel better.

Steele sat alone in the hospital cafeteria and took stock of just where Rhoad/Steele was at as a team.

Well into the season, in the highest level of road racing competition in the world their all-new fledgling effort had dominated, winning each of the four events held.

A power crazed maniac (Johanson) had tried to stop them by a physical assault on one of the team principles, resulting in the loss of an eye for Steele and a huge financial blow for Johanson, but he had somehow escaped the wrath of the justice system. Just how had that happened?

Now Johanson was back with the intent of destroying Rhoad/Steele.

Madison Avenue and Stoudenmire Investments had put Rhoad/Steele on a very secure financial platform, so basically anything the team wanted they could buy. Well, anything that could be bought.

Their all-new prototype was destroyed, but the back-up was ready and they would have two cars at Miami with one back-up, a clone of Destiny.

Their two driver’s Joe and Reese were ready to take on the world and seemed undefeatable, but Steele knew that was just an illusion, anyone that had spent anytime in this sport knew that victory can be fleeting and is very fragile.

Their latest addition, Jessica Strangeways, right from the start exuded confidence and professionalism that Steele had never seen in a Rookie before. Her performance had been phenomenal, nearly breaking the track record on her first speed trial.

The second driver’s spot was a big question mark. Could Sandy handle it? Steele had his doubts and he certainly didn’t like manipulation or outright coercion. This was really his fault and he would have to handle this if Sandy didn’t straighten it out by herself.

All in all Steele was pleased and only God knew what lay ahead, but that was what he liked best about this sport…the challenge, the testing of oneself. Why? Well, that was the question he had been asking himself for years. The answer would tell him why; he was different from other people. The answer? Well, he wouldn’t find it in the bottom of this Styrofoam cup, that’s for certain.

Steele stood outside in the darkness of the desert evening, looking west at the crimson sky, illuminated by the setting sun.

Why? Well, what else is there, a challenge to do, to create? Isn’t that why we are here?
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