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Chapter 32

The searing heat was all you could think about. Jake looked out at the surrounding woods, the trees looked to be suffering as much as he was. Their leaves drooping and not a breath touched those limbs. Heat waves were shimmering across the asphalt surface of the track, as Jake looked towards his left down the long hill of the front straight away, watching turn fourteen, for his racecar.

Finally, he watched Joe braking as he entered the turn, a ninety degree right-hander at the base of the hill. Turn fourteen completed this circuit that had thrilled entrants and spectators alike since opening in 1955.

Joe now accelerating up the hill, moved right and entered the pit road. As Joe came to a halt, the crew swarmed around the car checking tire temperatures with multi-point pyrometers. These temperatures were critical information that would enable the team to make informed decisions on the adjustments to the suspension and tires.

As this information was being gathered, Eddie downloaded the on-board computer to his laptop. This on-board data acquisition system collected an overwhelming amount of information that would tell them just about everything the car had just been through. Everyone in professional racing possessed these tools. Very few know how to use them to an advantage, Jake and company knew.

While all this was going on, other racecars were entering and exiting the pits, while some were traveling down the straight away at speeds approaching two hundred miles per hour and this was just a practice session.

Jake suddenly looked up, for some unknown reason, high above a lone buzzard circled in the hot pale blue sky. Jake’s sun glasses still permitted too much glare, so he blocked the sun with his hand to better see that circling bird. What must he be thinking of the human species? This has to be one of the most ridiculous endeavors ever perpetrated by any species on the planet, this auto racing. What must the other species of our world be thinking? On that note, Jake chuckled to himself. Yes, what do they think of us?

Everything needed had been gathered and the crew moved away as Irving told Joe, “Go play some more.”

Joe lit up the tires and accelerated away violently. Getting the all clear from the pit steward and Rhoad/Steele’s spotter, Joe moved to the left and drove into turn one, a right-hander and disappeared for another 4.048 miles, one lap.

Jake looked back down the hill in time to see the team Rhoad/Steele car emerge from the shimmering heat waves as though it came from another dimension into this crazy world.

Jessica pulled to the right entering the pits and Bob, with his guys, went into action. Steele observing the same process, a part of the sport that few ever see. Boring mundane stuff to most, but not to these guys. It’s the drug in life they crave, that they’re addicted to, the challenge, and the test that they just can’t say no to.

A large number of teams were pitting just now, the crews swarming over the wall, hundreds of brightly clothed men dedicating much of their lives to a sport…for what?

Jake grimaced with these thoughts in his mind as he looked at his tired scarred leathery hands…for what?

The money…well, some have made lots of that. He certainly had, but many had just wound up broke. No, it wasn’t the money, no one would justify this much pain and suffering, just for money.

Was it the glory then? Jake looked about him at the hot sweaty crews working furiously…no, its not too glorious burning your hands on a glowing hot brake rotor…no glory there.

Jake laughs out loud and looks up for his buzzard, “What do you think bird? Are we all mad?”

“I don’t know about me, but you are a lunatic…talking to buzzards.”

Jake looked over quickly to find his partner, Steele glaring at him, grinning ear to ear. Steele’s seamed leathery face, now an even deeper bronze than ever, was obviously awaiting one of Jake’s famous, witty responses, but it just wasn’t there.

Jake clasped his friend’s shoulder with a strong left hand and then just turned and walked away into the throngs of race crew members, all on separate urgent missions…missions that will lead them, hopefully to a glorious victory under this searing, hot sun and at least one buzzard’s watchful eyes.

A victory that will soon be forgotten, except by an old man…setting alone years after, who will say to himself…on that day you were really something…on that day you were special…on that day you had value.

Team Rhoad/Steele now had quite a caravan that would roll into the races. Starting off the racing year they had an old Eagle bus and an eighteen-wheeler to carry the cars and equipment. Soon after, Jake decided to add a chef with a mobile kitchen. This rapidly paid for itself and they also carried fancy tables and chairs to create an outdoor restaurant feel to their paddock area. Chef Andy was a great addition to the team and his wife Louise acted as hostess. The food was the best.

Next Joe bought another Eagle bus, so that he, Sheila, and Wanda could finally have some privacy. Steele taped an x-rated sign on the door of Joe’s bus. Joe looked hurt the first time he saw it, but continued to display it at each event.

Jessica and Reese still shared with Jake and Steele, while Suzanne and Sandy had bought a brand new Prevost bus that was the most luxurious coach Jake had ever seen.

Not to be outdone, of course, Dallas had bought a similar Prevost bus, not as luxurious as Madison Avenue, but this one had the wazoo factor of previously belonging to celebrity singer, Willie Nelson. Dallas would speak of this as though Willie had given it to him as a favor and he even had a photo of him and Willie together outside the bus. Dallas’s arm clasped tightly around Old Willie.

Yes, the blatant display of materialism was getting pretty thick at team Rhoad/Steele.

Stoudenmire Investments even had a hospitality tent that Dallas would set up at each event, so his investors would have a place to get out of the heat. On some days Dallas even had a live band entertaining.

Yes, this circus was far removed from Jake’s original concept of a racing team.

The essentials were still the same, as the results at Barber Park had shown. This sport was not like a boxing match, where only a KO can guarantee victory, the rest being subject to a Judge’s decision. The trend in the world of these so-called sports was exactly in that direction, one reason why some have begun to refer to these as games, not sports.

No, auto racing isn’t a beauty contest and being popular while it may be nice, will bring you nothing. In auto racing you have to put it all out there and sometimes you have to get mean, draw on something way down deep and say, “I will not fade away and go quietly into the night.” Sometimes you must just go and take it away. When you can do this, then the possibility exists to win over and over. There is only one winner in each race, the one that crosses that finish line first. Parnelli Jones said it best, “Second place is the first loser.” This statement gives one an insight to the mentality necessary to be successful in competitive auto racing. When you will settle for nothing less than first, you are a winner and no one can ever take it away.

Just as it had happened to team Rhoad/Steele at Barber Park, a win is a very fragile thing. Regardless of your winning attitude, if your tires are flat, you’re not winning anything and no matter how many spares you have setting in the pits, no matter how much money you’ve spent or the depth of your team, you are out!

It takes an entire package and sometimes the most austere teams have the best package. A large well-funded effort can sometimes get lost in all the whistles and bells, but Rhoad/Steele wasn’t one of these, they weren’t lost. Jake and Steele know what it takes and they always emphasize the racers golden rule, “BEFORE YOU CAN FINISH FIRST, FIRST YOU HAVE TO FINISH!”

Jake had set both cars to handle best in the high speed and slow right hand turns throwing away the left hand turns of five, six and eight.

This was a pretty standard approach, but Joe had another suggestion and asked that Destiny be adjusted for more equal handling. Mainly moving ballast around and adjusting the camber and castor settings accomplished this. Joe’s idea was aimed specifically at turn eight, which was the entrance to the part of the track known as the ‘Carousel’ or turns nine and ten. Joe felt by getting into the ‘Carousel’ better, he could pass on corner entry into eight and this would be an unusual place to pass, possibly creating opportunity.

To test Joe’s theory, Jake had Destiny changed up, while leaving Sandy and Jessica’s racer set up for better right hand performance.

During the next practice session, Sandy led with Joe right on her tail.

The ‘line’ into eight was to move to the right hand side of the track, after turn seven, then on entry to eight, under braking, sweeping across the track to the inside of the turn, then after passing the apex, aiming for the right side of the track through the ‘Carousel’.

Joe passed Sandy on the outside, entering turn eight and was easily able to gain the inside line through the ‘Carousel’, however, in turns fourteen, one, and three, Joe was much slower.

Talking it over, Joe felt that most drivers, not privileged to Rhoad/Steele’s strategy would seldom press in those areas, just as they would not suspect to be pressed in eight.

Jake listened and was somewhat skeptical, but Jake could hear Joe’s determination and decided.

“Joe if it’s ok with Reese, then I think it’s worth trying.”

Reese wasn’t anything if he wasn’t easy to please, so he readily agreed to try. While Sandy and Jessica preferred the set up to remain as they currently were running.

Qualifying would show a lot, but not necessarily which decision would be best for the race. Everyone cleared out, going about their respective business.

Jake was walking down the hill on the paddock road when he spotted Sandy talking to one of the other drivers, a tall rugged looking fellow with dark hair and very tan.

Sandy laughed and put her hand on his folded arm. She turned and saw Jake looking towards her.

Jake turned his head, too fast. What was Jake thinking…after all they really had no commitment to each other…so why was he jealous?

Jake walked faster. One of these days old boy you’re going to find the woman of your dreams. When you do, Jake…will you recognize her?

Buck was working on the brakes as they had been getting overheated.

Bob and Eddie were consulting over the suspension adjustments, looking for every edge.

Dale was making some gear changes that the drivers had suggested.

Steele seamed happier than he had for a long time.

Suzanne had a photo shoot going on with some models posing in likely positions with various pouty and pissed off looks on their faces.

Qualifying time came up fast, always one more thing to do. The cars were beautiful all lined up on pre-grid. Jake was admiring the collection of exotic machinery when ‘Dinky’ came swaggering by.

“Dinky, I’m afraid I never had a chance to congratulate you for that drive you put on at Barber,” Jake shook ‘Dinky’s’ hand.

“Aw, that’s alright Jake, I know you had your hands full at that race, thank you.”

Jake liked ‘Dinky’ even though he was just a big baby and from all appearances had just about been given everything he ever wanted. ‘Dinky’ was a member of the wealthy elite driver squad that had never had jobs or ever struggled to get here.

How this group ever managed to win at all was amazing to Jake. Struggle builds character, but they were here and some of them were fast…damn fast.

“Well, set the track on fire, ‘Dinky’.”

Jake moved on back to his pits, while ‘Dinky’ went to his car. Racers are a superstitious lot and it’s rumored to bring bad luck to wish someone good luck so racers use other words, like, “Kick Their Ass!”

The series had switched to one brand of tires, but now that had changed allowing competition between the tire manufacturers. This had really heated up lately and everyone wanted Rhoad/Steele. Jake contemplated this as he passed the tire trucks lined up in a row. Jake could remember a time when no one would give him anything, now his team was the go to team if you want to have bragging rights. Every one of these tire companies had solicited Rhoad/Steele switching from Goodyear, after the teams disaster at Barber, but they didn’t know the truth about those failures and they never would.

Back in his pit spot, Jake found Steele perched on his pit cart, ready and looking anxious, “Well, I guess we’re about to see a driving display,” Jake said with enthusiasm in his voice. Steele just glanced his way and sort of grunted.

Joe had told Jake he wasn’t going to pass anyone in turn eight until the race, so as not to reveal their secret strategy, a strategy that Jake wasn’t too sure about and that Steele vehemently opposed.

The pace car led the field off. All those purring race engines sounded so good.

Paper debris flew high in the air, whipped about by waves of displaced air.

On the first lap of qualifying, cars were already streaming into pit road, drivers wanting minor adjustments.

Two cars tried to occupy the same place on pit road resulting in a minor crash and a major verbal assault between pit crews. Racers curse worse than sailors.

Steele looked disgusted, turning to Jake, “Juvenile,” was all he said.

Jake laughed inwardly at his partner being so above it all, while nodding his head in agreement.

Soon the composite debris was all picked up and the action continued.

Sandy was cranking out low 1:40’s, which was within one half of a second of breaking the track record. Jake notified race officials and put Sandy on the clock without even letting her know. Sandy’s qualifying time was 1:39.623, which was a new track record for one lap! This was not just a record for their class, but an all time record previously held by an Indy car.

The crew was jubilant and Jake decided to call Sandy in before telling her, “Pit next lap.”

As the car rolled in, the announcer was telling the crowd, Jake keyed his mic and held it towards the speaker, “That, ladies and gentlemen, was an all new track record set by Ms. Sandy Jones of team Rhoad/Steele, sponsored by Stoudenmire Investments and Madison Avenue Apparel!”

The crew was just ecstatic. Jake opened the cockpit door and leaned in to find a squalling Sandy. Yes, Rhoad/Steele’s elite road race driver was crying like a baby.

“Well, Sandy I guess all that posing in your racing suit for your women action wear ads has finally gone to your head…I mean here you’ve gone and bested all the men, just to sell clothes,” Jake felt so happy for her and knew how much this meant.

“I didn’t even know that I was on the clock…I mean, I didn’t know!” Sandy’s face was streaked and she was smiling with joy.

The crew had Sandy bring the car around and Sandy went off to clean up and straighten her hair before the press conference.

Joe’s qualifying lap was 1:41.322 and Joe said he had a clean lap, so the set up was definitely hurting them, but Joe insisted on leaving it as it was. Steele wasn’t happy about that one, but Jake stood strong and that was that.

Jake had a different philosophy about drivers. As a driver himself, he always worked to make them happy and to nurture them. Steele thought of drivers as part of the car…like spark plugs, you can screw them into the car and you can screw them out, just as quick.

Joe’s strategy had Destiny in the eighteenth position.

“It’s a damn good thing that your secret strategy is going to allow you to pass so easy, Joe.” Steele laid the sarcasm on a little thick, but Joe just smiled and took it.

The press conference was a circus and Sandy did fantastic. She seemed like a sponge, soaking up all that attention.

Pete was everywhere arranging interviews, distributing press releases, and information along with setting up photo shoots.

Dallas, Amelia, and Suzanne were also busy, as were their personal company public relations people.

These things always made Jake a little anxious, but Sandy just fit perfect, this was her element.

An interview was arranged for all the drivers, so Steele had called each to come over, but when they arrived the reporter looked confused, “Uh, I was under the impression that all the drivers were women.”

“Well, they are for one car, while men drive the other car,” Steele explained.

“Oh…I see, well that’s ok, but I won’t be needing you two.” The reporter gestured in the direction of Joe and Reese, while smiling at Jessica and taking her by the arm leading her over to Sandy and the cameraman.

Joe and Reese looked amused, but Steele was mad. This went on the rest of the afternoon. The race officials were very happy with all the increased exposure this was going to bring to the series.

Irving and Jake were walking back to the bus when they came onto a group gathered in a circle, “She didn’t look that fast to me…Grand-Am is just fixing it.” Jake glared at the speaker to see his old acquaintance, Hardeman. Some people just never learn. Hardeman could see people of the group looking apprehensively over his shoulder, so he turned his head to look right into Jake’s cold piercing green eyes. He turned a shade paler.

Jake thought, “Cold cock that son of a bitch.” Then something swept over Jake, a feeling of goodwill and maybe a little bit of pity for that poor, crowing son of a bitch.

Jake just shook his head, grinned, and then turned and walked away…feeling better about himself than he had for a very long time.

Everyone went out partying that night, the town of Elkhart Lake always went all out for the racers and team Rhoad/Steele in particular had a lot to celebrate.

Jake and Reese just stayed at the track and Jake grilled them some steaks. They talked late into the night, setting outside their old bus, sipping on cold beer and watching the stars. They talked of girls, cars, and racers long gone. People like Parnelli, Foyt, Gurney, and Shelby. Struggles, victories, and defeats, these things occupied their minds.

Then as the embers in the pit were dying down and sleep was calling to them, Reese’s voice suddenly became serious, “Jake,” he said quietly, “thank you…for this chance, for believing in me…for making my dreams come true.”

Jake’s eyes watered up, his voice choked with emotion, “Oh, you didn’t need me…this damn smoke,” Jake rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, “I think I’m going to call it a night, goodnight Reese.”

“Night, Jake,” Reese stared off into the night and wondered, “what will tomorrow bring?”

Dawn broke still and hot. A few early risers were walking around the paddock drinking coffee, acknowledging each others presence with a mornin’ or a nod, no one really wanting to speak, no one wanting to break the moment.

Then the inevitable happened, some son of a bitch had to fire up his racecar.

Jake smiled, “Imagine the nerve of that guy,” he spoke out loud to no one there.

The team had cordoned off the cove created by the buses and hauler with stanchions linked with rope. This discouraged people from wandering around in their paddock area. Going out, Jake hadn’t noticed, but coming back he noticed a cardboard sign had been attached to one of the stanchions, it read, ESTROGEN ALLEY’.

Jake just stood there for a moment; then he just unhooked the chord and went in…leaving the sign.

Reese was up setting in the galley. Jake handed him a coffee.

“Thanks, Jake,” Reese eyed him curiously, “what’s got you so amused?”

“Me?” Jake seemed surprised at Reese’s perception, “that plain, huh?”

Jake motioned out the window, “It’s just that sign somebody put up…Estrogen Alley.”

They both laughed…as the chuckled died down, Reese sipped his coffee, “And you…left it up?”

“Yeah…I liked it!”

They both laughed again. Soon the crew began arriving, most were hung over.

Steele came in with more coffee and doughnuts. Wearing sunglasses.

Jake leaned over in the settee and pulled Steele’s glasses down to where he could see his one eye.

“Geez, that eye is blood shot,” Jake commented as he set back.

“You should see it from this side!” Was Steele’s retort.

“Lee Marvin…Cat Ballou,” Reese looked like he was waiting on his prize.

“You’re right, give that man a new car!”

“What?” Steele was confused. He didn’t watch movies—he was a racer. “What’s that you say…cat what?”

“Nothing Boss…just forget it,” Reese was disappointed.

They were all standing out with the crew, talking about the cars, the race, and the competition, when Sandy and Suzanne arrived.

They just walked past, and then Sandy stopped in her tracks, walked back and pulled her sunglasses down, looking at the sign. Then she pulled the sign off, tore it in half and walked on in tossing the sign in the garbage as she passed…smiling at everyone saying, “Good morning.” They went into their bus totally unappreciative of the humor.

The activities at Road America were soon in full swing. Thousands of spectators were pouring into the track, which has open seating, meaning pay your money and go where you want to.

Soon it was difficult to move about the paddock due to the human traffic congestion. Spectators were packed at the edge of Rhoad/Steele’s area established by the stanchions and cord. Taking photographs, asking for autographs and talking to the crew. The guys felt like rock stars.

Sandy and Jessica, in particular, were receiving a tremendous amount of attention.

Johanson Motorsports had withdrawn from competition for this event; however, their cars were on display with checkered flags draped over the hoods and what amounted to a shrine erected to Johanson between the cars.

When this was set up, Steele had given it a brief painful look and had not commented on what everyone had been gossiping about…the murder of Chad Johanson.

The racecars were gathered up in pre-grid now. The drivers were mostly milling around, some already strapped into their racecar, looking nervous.

Sandy looked like she had come home, doing a last minute interview for ‘Speedstars’. Joe was leaning up against Destiny sunglasses hiding those flashing dangerous eyes, no expression on his face.

Reverend John Odowd gave the invocation, “Oh, Lord please protect these valiant young men and women who are about to do battle…for your glory…and lead them and guide them to help up, your Christian soldiers, in our eternal struggle against evil. Also, Lord, please help and look after our brave men and women who are off slaughtering evil in foreign lands on your behalf, while defending our freedoms, Amen! Now ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to remember one of our own, a fallen comrade, Chad Johanson, struck down in the prime of life by some evildoer.”

“Chad always contributed generously with his money…uh, and time to further the cause of this ministry…so now I ask that we give, out of respect to Mr. Johanson, one minute of silence.”

Across the paddock, around the track the good people of America did what was expected of them…they paid respect to a person most had the good fortune to never meet.

Jake looked about at the people with bowed heads. The wind had just picked up, blowing white puffy clouds across the pale blue sky.

The only sound was the flapping of the colorful flags and pennants, beating against themselves in the strong breeze. Jake looked at his friend, Steele, who now looked to be in pain.

Steele reached up removing his sunglasses, then rubbing his eye patch.

Jake looked across at his crew, Irving, Eddie, Bob…all looked upset, suddenly Joe turned from reclining against the car and climbed in and fired Destiny up!

Joe had made his statement…hell no, he wasn’t showing that Johanson son of a bitch one shred of respect. Joe revved the engine over and over.

The pit steward came walking over, obviously disturbed at Joe’s lack of respect for the departed, yelling for Joe to shut it off. Joe merely put his hand to his ear and revved it again and again.

Jake felt great, and then suddenly across the paddock, racers began firing up their engines, revving them over and over…the same on pre-grid.

Many of the crew-members began coming up to Steele, shaking his hand or in some cases, giving him a hug. Steele was choking up, now…tears streaming down his face.

The pit steward giving up, began calling for the drivers to get ready…drivers were strapping in.

Jake looked over at Joe. That beautiful, little man who just would not dance to the music.

Joe took off his glasses and Jake walked over and took them from him, one last glance up at Jake before putting on his helmet. Joe’s eyes that looked so dangerous at times, now held contentment, a man at rest with his soul in the knowledge that he had done what was right.

Jake gave Joe the thumbs up and closed his cockpit door.

The cars now were being motioned out onto the track, gunning them past, two by two, beautiful, brightly colored chariots of speed carrying their drivers to a future unknown, a future that regardless of success or failure, they will never forget.

Up in the announcer’s office, the preacher was venting.

“I have never seen such an offensive display of disrespect.”

“Well, Reverend…I take it by that statement that you really didn’t know Johanson at all…did you?” The track announcer asked this of the Reverend, remembering his few times of interaction with Johanson.

“I think that Grand-Am should disqualify that team!”

“You mean all the teams, don’t you or didn’t you notice?”

“It was shameful, that’s what it was!”

“Well, Reverend…perhaps you should pray and ask God to forgive them or do you just reserve that for big contributors?” The announcer displayed a wicked grin at the effect his chastisement was having on the preacher.

The smell of brake dust and burnt oil, sounds of gears, tires, and engines, sweat burning your eyes, drenching your driver suit, these are just some of the things Sandy was experiencing, as she led the herd of snapping, growling Grand-Am cars through the ‘kink’ at speeds that she had always dreamed of driving.

Fast she drove around the 4.048-mile track…picking the perfect line through each of the fourteen turns, never letting up in her push to the checkered flag. Never giving up an inch, nice guys finish second…second place is the first loser. Onward she drove faster and faster, each shift perfect. Sandy had become one with her car…Havoc the guys called the car.

Well, she would show them havoc, now braking hard, for turn fourteen…through the right-hander, now accelerating hard up the hill, wide open throttle, that’s how she lived her life now!

Suddenly, looming in her rear view mirror, she saw Destiny the car that is…one of the handfuls of competitors that she had not passed…and Joe was now glued to her ass!

Missing her braking point at almost two hundred miles an hour can be fatal, but Sandy recovered and saved it…barely! Now into turn one…Joe was gone now…maybe he went off!

“Three Laps” Jake was counting down to the fuel stop…driver change! Sandy frowned at the thought; she wanted to take it all the way.

Pressing hard, she could feel the car, giving up its grip some now, washing out the front end on corner entry. Jake called this ‘under steer’. Joe calls it a ‘push’. “Two laps,” Jake’s voice resonated through her helmet.

Now a burnt orange car was challenging…he wanted past bad! That was that old driver that Steele knew…‘Snake’ they called him.

“Well, ‘Snake’ Ol’ Boy, you can forget it…none shall pass.” Sandy pressed harder than ever, while ‘Snake’ was everywhere…sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.

“Pit next,” came those orders that Sandy didn’t want to hear.

“Doesn’t he see I’m in a battle here,” Sandy talks to herself.

Braking hard for fourteen, ‘Snake’ pulled abreast of Sandy on her left. As they exit fourteen, ‘Snake’ on the outside, Sandy let’s Havoc drift left trying to block, but ‘Snake’ was ready for that move and had checked up, now he shifted his orange speed demon violently to Sandy’s right side, about to pass.

Sandy moves to the right, right across ‘Snake’s’ path, hitting ‘Snake’s’ front with Havoc’s right rear quarter, correcting herself just in time…Sandy entered the pits.

Sandy brakes hard for her pit…stopping perfectly.

Jessica is ready with her seat insert that fills the void created for Sandy’s butt.

Sandy’s out of the car now, helping Jessica get her belts on, cool suit, air breather, and radio attachments connected.

Fuels in now and the four tires have been changed; cooling ducts cleaned, windshield tear off removed, cockpit closed, and car down, off the air jacks.

Jessica accelerates out to join the melee. Full course yellow is out now as corner workers are picking up pieces of ‘Snake’ Santorin’s new beautiful racecar that has now littered up the entire front straight away in small little pieces.

The main structure, due to Grand-Am’s technical staff, requiring a steel space frame structure, has remained intact and protected ‘Snake’ so he can race another day.

So is ‘Snake’ thanking his lucky stars? Saying a prayer to thank the Lord for his life?

Is that what you thought? Well, you don’t know ‘Snake’…‘Snake’ is yelling at everyone he sees. His head looks as though it could explode at any moment. Veins are protruding around his very muscular neck, as he yells, clenching both fists in a violent fit of uncontrolled rage. ‘Snake’ wants some retribution for the evil done to him; he wants to kick some ass!

Sandy walks calmly up to Jake who is sitting in his scoring cart with Steele. “Jake, don’t ever call me in when I’m leading and in a heated battle to protect that lead…you got that?”

Jake just looked at her with no emotion on his face…his dark glasses not allowing anyone to see the pain in his eyes.

“Listen here, Sandy, you will do what we tell you or you won’t be driving for this team…have you got that?” Steele’s patience was all used up for this day.

Jake was disappointed in Sandy, but relieved that Steele had intervened.

“Perhaps you need a reminder at just who pays the bills for this team!” Sandy shouted in anger.

“Sandy if Madison Avenue feels this team isn’t accomplishing to your expectations, then I would suggest that you not renew your contract, however that has nothing to do with your driving for Rhoad/Steele, which, as you know, is a separate arrangement. It is also spelled out specifically in a contract.” Steele’s voice was calm, business like and cutting.

“Sandy…‘Snake’, who you’ve wrecked, was actually two laps down,” Jake’s voice was soft, almost pleading, wanting this incident to never have happened.

Joe had walked up and overheard the entire exchange.

“Sandy your tires were gone and you had slowed…you really should have pitted earlier, the way your times were dropping off you…”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I had kicked your ass,” Sandy was furious.

“Sandy…Joe pitted is why he disappeared. How do you think he got here?” Jake was striving to keep this from happening.

A crowd was starting to gather. The crew, some other crew personnel, spectators, and race officials.

“You bitch!” ‘Snake’ Santorin came walking fast into the team Rhoad/Steele area.

Sandy looked stunned and thank God was speechless.

“I’m going to slap the shit out of you,” ‘Snake’ screamed as he walked up, raising his hand in a threatening manner.

Suddenly, from where, Jake never knew, Irving leaped in front of ‘Snake’, punching him right in the Adam’s apple.

‘Snake’ fell to his knees, gagging and retching, holding his throat.

Steele shook his head back and forth, “Some people just never learn.”

“Sandy, you need some rest…go to your bus, please,” Jake sounded very forceful.

Sandy looked up from staring at ‘Snake’ who was now flopping around on the paddock tarmac. Sandy’s face had an expression of total disorientation. As though she wanted to say, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Sandy put the back of her hand to her mouth, and then looking down she turned and walked fast away towards her bus.

The crowd broke up; ‘Snake’ got up and wandered away.

The race went back to green. Steele glanced at his partner, Jake and grinned a sheepish smile, “Well, Jake I think we handled that all just about as well as could be expected.”

They both began to laugh, the way that they had, that just made the stress melt away.

Steele added, “Sandy was just a bit confused.”

“Well…I think we just straightened her all out.” Jake said with finality.

“Yes…now Ol’ ‘Snake’, I’m not so sure about, but that Irving is quite a communicator,” Steele’s laughing continued.

Jessica was on the gas, feeling the flow. After the confusion of ‘Snake’ Santorin’s crash and all the pit stops were made, she and Havoc emerged as the leader of the race, now she just had to keep it!

Accelerating around the huge sustained turn called the ‘Carousel’ turns nine and ten; Jessica passed two cars, both outside of her. Now she knew what could happen and when it did happen it happened fast, so she must concentrate on the moment, watch far ahead and think!

The miles and the laps went fast. The race was hers, like an unstoppable force, she dominated, passing at will each competitor she encountered.

Yes indeed, this race was hers! Racing through the ‘Carousel’ again Jessica sees her rear view filled with Destiny, Reese was right behind her.

What lap was he on? Should she let him pass?

Now she was driving through the kink and Destiny had dropped back a bit. Ignore Destiny, drive your own race, this voice in her head seemed to come from somewhere else.

Fast through ‘Kettle Bottoms’ now into ‘Canada Corner’, accelerating into ‘Thunder Valley’ Havoc didn’t feel as crisp as she once did, “C’mon baby don’t let me down…” A pleading voice uttered as her flashing eyes checked the rear view in time to see three cars exiting turn twelve, Destiny leading that pack now fifty yards back.

The spectators in ‘Bill Mitchell Bend’, that normally just argued about football, being dedicated cheese heads, were now gorging themselves on brats and corn on the cob—dripping in butter.

One chomping down a brat and swigging down an ice-cold Old Milwaukee turns to his companion. “They say that leader is a lady,” he utters between mouthfuls.

His friend, a bit of a philosopher, answers, “Well, it may be that it is driven by a female, but in this league, driving that fast, leading the race at this point, that’s no Lady!”

Up the hill she drove it, the flagman drops the white flag! This is it; Jessica Strangeways was going to take the checkered! All the work and sacrifice was going to pay off, finally she would get the respect she deserved.

Slow traffic going into one, that guy should move over, follow him through three, then pass in ‘Moraine Sweep’, no need taking chances, not now.

This was the longest lap ever! Left-handers, turn five and six, there’s Destiny again…right on me, where did he make up all that space?

Take a protective line through seven, not as fast but safe! Same in turn eight hug the inside tight. Reese is on the outside of eight! Passing me, his teammate! Passing by on my right, how can he hold that outside that fast on a left-hander?

The son of a bitch passed me! Driving into the ‘Carousel’ Jessica was mad, she felt betrayed. Another car was now behind her close, touching her car’s ass actually.

Reese battled to move left across to the outside of nine as his car’s front wasn’t holding and the outside was his only way around the right-handed ‘Carousel’. Destiny lurched as Jessica slammed his right rear. Violently Destiny began spinning, swapping ends. Reese was using all his skill trying to regain control.

Catapulting towards the inside now, Reese sees Havoc right in front of him!

Shards of composite material exploded everywhere! Sparks shooting everywhere the sound of screeching steel against the track and the guardrails, flying debris, a tire, wheel, and suspension slammed into Destiny’s windshield continuing past, taking windshield and roof with it.

Everything suddenly stops, and then another speeding car starts it all over again, then another and another. Reese wakes up to bright square lights passing by overhead, one after another, Reese can’t set up, he can’t set up!

“What the hell is happening,” Reese blurts out, his voice trembling with desperation.

“Reese, everything’s going to be ok,” Jake’s steady voice is an elixir, his grip on Reese’s hand gives him strength, his panic is gone…Jake’s here with him.

“Jake I can’t move,” Reese’s voice trembles with fear.

“You’re strapped to a gurney and the doctors are going to look you over. You were hit hard, but I’m going to be here. We’ll get through this together.”

“God please take care of this young man, watch over him, and let him come through this, Thank You God.” Jake said these words as he waited worrying about this young man he loved as a son.

The stark walls of the hospital looked dingy. The tacky colors of the chairs in the waiting room actually repulsed the eyes.

What had happened? Jake knew nothing other than five cars had been destroyed and Reese was hurt. When Jake realized what had occurred he had forced his way through the crowd just in time to get into the ambulance. No thought about the race or the cars, Reese was all that mattered now.

Reese had been knocked unconscious. Jake held his hand throughout the ambulance ride. The staff seemed to share Jake’s concern and was very attentive to Reese, while comforting Jake with hopeful words. Soon the waiting room was filled up with friends. Steele arrived and clasped Jake giving a questioning look.

“No word, yet,” was Jake’s worried sounding response.

These men had a bond that transcended any business relationship or even friendship. They were now family, right, wrong, mad, or happy, it just didn’t matter they would stand for each other and this decision really didn’t involve any conscious thought process, it just was.

“Jessica’s ok, not hurt at all actually,” Steele looks at the emergency room door as he updates Jake.

“None of the other drivers were hurt either, just Reese.”

Sandy and Jessica arrived together and walked straight over to Jake.

“Jake I want to tell you what happened, Reese was…” Jessica’s voice had a nervous tremor, she had been crying and felt the need to explain, but Jake cut her off with a cold emotionless voice.

“I know what happened. I don’t want to think about anything but Reese right now.”

Sandy shot Jake a look but held her comment when she saw Jake’s worried expression. They went and sat down; Sandy began to call someone, when Eddie pointed at a ‘No Cellular Phone’ sign. Sandy looked as if she was mad at Eddie and slammed her phone into her purse.

Steele called the guys that were still at the track scraping up the remains of Havoc and Destiny into the hauler and taking down team Rhoad/Steele’s Circus.

“Bob? No word on Reese yet,” Steele saw Eddie’s motioning towards the sign, looked at it, made an odd gesture with his mouth, and then turned away from the sign and Eddie, “Yeah, well as soon as we hear anything, we will call…uh, oh hell you know what to do…later.”

Just now Hardeman and Bob Evans, two Grand-Am team owners walked in and made a beeline for Jake. Jake looked up towards them without moving his eyes.

Steele looked at Jake and saw undisguised contempt, no much more than contempt, pure malice. “Rhoad!” Evan’s voice held menace, “your drivers and their ridiculous high jinx have wrecked both of our team’s cars and we want to know what you, yeah, you buddy boy, what are you gonna do to compensate us!?”

No conversation, not one word. Jake struck out viciously and lightening quick from a sitting position. Jake punched Evans right in his crotch!

Evans folded as if he had been smashed with a sledgehammer. As his body folded down, Jake grabbed both sides of his head, as he stood up, smashing the top of his own head, hard into Evan’s chin and nose. Evans continued on down into the floor at Jake’s feet, out cold.

Spinning about Jake let fly a right jab, right into Hardeman’s gaping mouth, followed by a left hook fast and hard into Hardeman’s chin. Hardeman fell flat onto his back, laid out with both arms at his sides, also unconscious.

“Not much for fighting, are they?” Steele looked down at Jake’s adversaries.

Sandy was now peering around Steele’s side, “Geez Jake what are you some kind of commando or something.”

“The only camera is pointed away from here, no way the fight is on their disc.” Eddie was forever practical.

“I wouldn’t call that a fight,” Steele looked up and reassured himself of Eddie’s observation.

A doctor emerged from the emergency room. He stopped short, looking at the two unconscious men, “What happened here?”

Steele answered immediately, “I guess these two guys knocked each other out. Well, I didn’t see it, but that’s all I could figure…you see I had gone for coffee and when I came back…”

The doctor had a bored look, “Alright, Alright…your friend’s going to be fine. He has a mild concussion and a bruised spine, but we’re putting him into a room and I want him to spend the night, just so we can keep him under observation, but he’s ok.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Jake had relief in his voice, “anything he needs, we want it and all first class.”

“Uh…ok, I better get some orderlies to help me here.” The doctor spoke to a now happy chattering group that were just walking off together down the hall.

A young man was coming in and almost ran into Jessica, letting the door close in her face, in his haste to get in.

“Hey, young fella, you watch your manners,” Steele lectured sternly.

“Uh…I’m sorry, uh…yes, sir.” The young man looked sincere, then turned and rushed off.

Jake turned to Steele, “Damn, you’ve really got to watch that bad temper of yours.”

Jake led out, the rest of the group looked at Steele with no loss at the irony of the situation except by Jake. They all started chuckling at the same time in laughter of relief at the turn of events and the good fortune for their friend, Reese.

Outside, Jake was looking at the crimson evening sky, “Lord, what a beautiful sunset!”

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