The months had melted away, the mundane task necessary to the creation of a competition automobile were behind them. The proving, testing, and developing at desperate, abandoned looking, out of the way road tracks, such as, Hallett in Oklahoma, and Willow Springs in Rosamond, California, where tumble weeds come bouncing across the course, were over, for now.
This was Road Atlanta; one of the premiere road courses in the world and Rhoad/Steele was there to make a statement. The tall pine trees lined the course like sentinels, overseeing what nature must perceive as madness. This utterly foolish, irrational act by man that we call auto racing, which sometimes seemed so rational, only to suddenly sweep into Jake’s consciousness as a completely insane endeavor. Well, we were here now and we had it to do. To prove once again that we were up to the task or as Eddie put it, “Worth a shit.”
Why was he doing this again? Jake really didn’t know, but he did know one thing, he felt more alive today than he had in years. Nothing could make him feel this way; no medicine or stimulant could bring back the zest.
Their car was on pre-grid for qualifying, one of fifty-two, growling hell bitches, vying for the coveted pole position.
Steele had told their driver to do the best he could and went off to his assigned spot in the paddock. Jake stayed with the driver and crew that would handle any emergencies like starting the car.
Jake watched their runt of a driver checking over his driving equipment. This little muscled up guy was a decorated war hero and while he had experienced success in auto racing, he had never competed at this level. His practice had them in the upper third of the field, but had not really shown Jake anything and had certainly not lived up to the potential of their car and team. Do your best, while comforting with no pressure was ok for some drivers, in Jake’s opinion not what this particular driver needed.
“Ok, Joe forget the thirty minutes,” Jake gives instructions in a very unemotional, business like tone, staring into Joe’s eyes through the open doorway, engines revving all around, “What you do is heat your tires to green, then make one lap, fast.” Jake places emphasis on the word fast now putting emotion into his voice, “Then on that second green light, I want you to drive like your life depended on it! If you wreck the car, I have another. What I don’t want, what I won’t accept is average. Average is not what we are about, is it?” The hue of Joe’s face changed as the responsibility shifted to him. “Joe we’ve done all we can do, it’s up to you now, and I know you are the man for this job, so go out there and stand on it!”
Determination burned in Joe’s eyes, as Jake backed away, closing the door. The steward was directing the drivers out behind the pace car to the growling of highly tuned engines and the whining of the straight cut gears in the transaxles.
The crew was busy getting the pit cart loaded for the trek around into pit road. Eddie smiled, an affirmation that Jake had done the right thing.
Bob wasn’t so sure, “Man, you sure put the pressure on!”
Jake looked Bob in the eye until Bob looked away, and then said, “That’s the question isn’t it, Bob, every move a man makes, every decision. Was it the right one?”
Billy, a young man that was bald and jovial, piped up, “Hey you guys need to lighten up, and after all it’s only racin’!”
Jake looked at Billy and without a word conveyed his disapproval at Billy’s dismissal of Jake’s life long passion.
Eddie, who was sitting on the ATV and about to drive off, spoke up, “If you feel that way about it, Billy, then maybe you should find something else to do. This isn’t only auto racin’, it’s who we are as a team and we want to win!”
Jake walked through the sea of humanity that professional auto racing events, like this one, created. Thousands of enthusiasts and participants descending on a piece of real estate to witness a spectacle, some come for the speed, others to meet people, a social gathering and some like to see the wrecks. They revel in them, especially the ones where another driver intentionally puts a competitor into a wall or another vehicle. Believe it, they revel in watching a driver out of control speeding backwards at 160 mph into an immovable object!
The gorgeous Georgia sky was a bright blue, a backdrop to the gigantic, green pine trees that lined this place. The shinning black asphalt glided over the green and red hills. Green from the perfectly landscaped lawns and rusty red where the red earth and clay were exposed to the sun.
The brightly colored uniformed crews packed up along the pit wall, all eyes turned to the right watching for the pack to come down the hill. The pace car shows first, as it emerges from under the bridge hanging far to the left hand side of the turn, entering the downhill pit road entrance. Then the prototype cars pass under the bridge going slow, lined up in rows of twos, as they make the final right hand turn of the circuit and enter onto the front straight away. The throttles pick up to a screaming crescendo as the flagman furiously waves his green starter flag. The cars now screaming into right hand turn one, the heat waves shimmering over the pack of cars, massing behind the leaders, now accelerating up the hill, and out of sight entering into the esses.
Jake, standing near the edge of their assigned pit space overhears a crew chief cautioning his driver about the ‘dip’ a former feature of the track, a gully the track enters and exits, between turns nine and ten. That wasn’t Jake’s style, leave the driver alone, tell him only what you have to and let him drive the car, besides the dip had been removed in 1996, so this guy was out of it.
Steele had the guys preparing for a pit stop. Jake walked over and told Steele, “Have the steward time us this next lap.”
Steele looked surprised then said, “I was going to let him do about five and then bring him in to do tire temps then if…” Jake’s determined look stopped his partner cold, “Well, if you think he’s ready…” Steele contacts the race steward and gives them authorization to time car 09 this next lap. Due to problems with scoring Grand Am had implemented a new qualifying procedure that allowed teams to specify a lap to time, if they so desired, rather than pick the best from a qualifying session. No one used this method today, but Jake thought that was about to change.
As Joe steered the car through turn twelve he had it set perfectly, his left side tires at the very edge of the track. His fast lap had put distance on the field that was trying to space out for a clean run by driving slowly. They all heard the thundering engine and felt the displacement of air, as car 09 flashed past, into turn one, as if it was on rails. Now out of sight Joe was on the clock and on the gas. Jake’s spotter reported that Joe was already in the chicane at the end of the long back straightaway.
Steele glanced at Jake, and then smiled, “I guess Joe was ready, at that.” Only a minute had gone by when Joe appears on the steep downhill approaching the diving turn twelve, their car way over on the pit road entrance cutting back diagonally across the track for a perfect entrance into the last turn. Around it came displaying blinding speed carrying the car to the left side edge of the track now past the flagman.
Steele’s mouth is open as he looks at his stopwatch, then looking at their timekeeper, now holding her fist in the air, thumb extended. Jake is unsure of what just happened. The loudspeaker announces, “Lady’s and gentlemen, we have just witnessed a new track record being set by Rhoad/Steele racing’s Joe Savage!” Jake restrains himself and musters up the look of that’s what we came for. “That’s right folks,” the announcer continues. “This first time for the new team. A Daytona prototype car and this all new team with an all new to professional road racing driver, just ran a 1 minute, 7.022 official time.”
Team Rhoad/Steele’s pit went crazy with shouting and hugging. Jake looks off down pit road to the sedate crews of the rest of the field and reflects on how many times he had been in their shoes, all of your work eclipsed by some stunning achievement. He thought of how fleeting success can be and then resolved to take this success, this opportunity with a measure of class, and hoped his team would also show a respectful manner.
The racecar was in front of their pit now. The door was open and a TV crew was there, interviewing Joe. Steele was leaning in shaking Joe’s hand. Joe had tears coming down his face as he thanked Madison Avenue, Ford, Forgeline, and a host of other sponsors. Then he said, “I want to thank all the personnel at Rhoad/Steele Racing for giving me a chance,” and then adding, “especially the boss for motivating me to drive to my potential.”
Jake was choked with emotion and turned to leave the scene, too much; too soon, this session wasn’t even over yet. Then Jake saw, in his mind, Joe Savage, sprint car racer, turning from working on his out dated Stanton chassis sprint car, his greased stained driver suit, his grubby, ragged, finger nails, his two wheeled open trailer being pulled behind a rusted out old Ford pick up. Jake saw again the eyes of a champion that only needed someone to have faith in this poor war hero. Well, Joe Savage was now in the record books and his life would never be the same. Jake stopped, turned around and ran back. This was his moment, their moment, and they would share it together.Steele hugged Jake and said, “You are the best!” Jake had no words. Then Steele added, “Now let’s win this race!”