Chapter 3: The Paddock
I always knew Formula 1 was luxurious but messy, fast but highly focused, crowded but lonely. My mother and I spent quite a few days behind the scenes, in the camera rooms where we then watched Dad and Rafi make a name for themselves. But I underestimated just how busy it was when you arrived here with a team, a mission, and a dream.
“There they are!” Salim’s familiar face appeared from one of the dozens of tents with Azure Racing’s logo on it. “Come on in, guys.”
Connor rushed into the tent, and while I stepped to the side to let him through, I accidentally bumped into Phoenix, who shot me an annoyed glance in response. He didn’t say anything, though — not that I expected him to. The entire flight to Mexico he spent in silence, not even trying to make conversation. Every question I asked was met with a shrug or a glare, and at one point I stopped trying.
Let this guy be an asshole. I had no idea why he was even here to begin with.
“You going, or not?” His poisoned words made me refocus on him, and I found myself squaring up to the guy in front of me.
“What the hell is your issue?!” I was annoyed by his attitude and the obvious disregard for human decency. Let him know I wasn’t afraid to show that, either.
He scoffed in response, the fire in his eyes so potent that it suddenly became hard to breathe. Phoenix didn’t like me challenging him, that much I could tell. But that wasn’t my issue; I wasn’t going to let him make me feel small. No matter how long I had to mirror his stare; I would do it. Just for the sake of keeping my integrity.
I could tell he didn’t expect me to hold his glare, and he didn’t expect me to not move out of his way as he asserted his physical advantages so blatantly. “Forget it,” he finally grumbled and stepped through the opening, right into Salim’s arms.
Fuck yeah. Got him.
His previous coldness washed away the second Phoenix ran into Salim, and the two greeted each other with a familiarity that surprised me.
“Phoenix!” My boss threw his arms around the tall grumpy guy who reciprocated the notion instantly. I heard them whisper something before they broke apart, and Salim then turned to me to shake my hand with a smile. “Florence! I see you’ve met Phoenix already.” Pride lingered in Salim’s voice, and I could tell these two shared a bond that was closer than I had anticipated, especially given their hostility the other day.
“Great,” Salim chimed in with a smile, “Phoenix is here to... Well, he got a last-minute spot in the program, too.” The two shared a quick look that made me furrow my brows, but neither of them elaborated on it. Instead, Salim waved us further into the space. “Come on. I’ll show you around.”
We ended up touring Azure’s paddock and even got a glimpse of some of the bigger teams, like Quito Racing. They were one team competing for the world championship, which is probably why they weren’t the most welcoming of people I’ve seen. Their biggest competitor, Fumarrey, was a bit nicer to us. I was surprised by how open they were, introducing us to everyone we needed to know, all while covering their cars, obviously.
Formula 1 was an expensive sport, one full of secrets and legal gray areas, which is why none of the teams would want a stranger getting a glimpse of their most exclusive object: The car.
After an introduction to a few dozen people whose names I tried to remember as well as I could, Salim got us our own IDs. So far, we were only allowed in the paddock as part of the team, but these plastic cards would give us access to all areas except the other teams’ paddocks, of course.
“So, what’s the first thing you’re gonna do with this?” Connor wiggled his card in front of my face, and even though he already annoyed the hell out of me, I plastered a smile on my lips.
“I’m gonna visit someone,” I responded as I clipped the card onto my shirt. “You?”
“Huh.” He shrugged. “Don’t know yet. It’s not like there’re many places to go... You should know as much as I do that backstage is not as luxurious as people think it is.”
I knew what he meant, and still I didn’t appreciate his tone. The way the employees worked behind the scenes might not have been as clean and extravagant as it seemed on the outside, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t luxurious. To anyone’s standard the things they ate, drank, saw, and wore, were still premium quality.
“If you say so,” I muttered and stepped away from him, trying my hardest not to show how appalled I was by his behavior. I should’ve known Connor Williams wouldn’t understand how special this was — or should be, at least —, and yet it irked me.
“Alright, guys.” Salim rescued the awkward exchange with a clap of his hands. “The bus is still waiting outside with your luggage, so why don’t you all check into the hotel and get some rest? I know you’ve had a long flight. We will meet for dinner at the hotel restaurant, be prepared to see a bunch of new faces there.”
“Thanks, Salim. We will—”
“I’ll stay here for now,” Phoenix interrupted me as he leaned against the wall at the other side of the room, and I couldn’t help but narrow my eyes at the guy. I still wondered what role he was playing, and why they would consider two drivers for the program in the first place.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Phoenix,” Salim approached him with a frown.
“Well, I do. Just tell them to leave my bag here. I’ll take care of everything.”
My boss raised an eyebrow at the driver in front of him, and I could tell something was going through his mind when he suddenly gave in. “Alright then. If that’s what you want. But remember, this was your idea.”
Phoenix grumbled something in response, and I watched how he pushed himself off the wall before he disappeared around the corner, not once glancing back at us.
“Okay!” Connor clapped his hands together with a grin. “Guess that’s our cue.”
“Actually,” Salim chimed in, “why don’t you go ahead, Connor. I still need to discuss some things with Florence. We’ll be quick.”
Connor narrowed his eyes at us, but was smart enough not to say anything; instead, he motioned a salute before he disappeared out the door.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as soon as we were alone, and Salim sighed in response.
“Um... Yeah.” He ran a hand through his dark hair, and just like that, he looked tired as hell. “I just wanted to apologize for not preparing you for the third intern. It’s my job as the recruit coordinator to make sure you all feel comfortable here, so I’m sorry if this is awkward.”
His genuine apology surprised me. Salim was my boss, after all. He could decide what he thought was right for the team without needing to include an intern.
“You’re good, Salim. Your job, your decisions. Just because my dad is an important name in the business doesn’t mean you need to be nice to me.”
He laughed in response. “Oh, believe me. This has nothing to do with your dad. Actually, I kinda wished it did — the man is a saint.”
“You say that now,” I retorted. “Wait until he needs to look over your English paper and then makes you rewrite the entire thing.”
“A perfectionist on the track and at home, I see.”
It was my turn to grin now; Salim hit the nail on the head with that statement. My dad was an amazing father, a man to look up to for any child. But he was a perfectionist in every fiber of his being, and even though he never forced that trait on us, it was still something that defined him deeply.
“Absolutely. Speaking of... Would it be okay if I visited him before dinner later?”
“Of course.” Salim smiled. “You work here now, Florence. This is your territory.”
“Huh.” I let that realization sink in. “I guess it is.”
Salim nudged my shoulder, and I didn’t miss the grin on his face when he whispered, “Well, welcome to your dream, Miss Nyx.”
It was two hours before dinner that I decided to see my dad. I tried taking a nap, but my nerves and the adrenaline of being in a new environment had me lying in the hotel bed with wide eyes.
I liked being productive. I liked being up on my feet and taking care of things. I couldn’t handle lying around doing nothing, when I could discover this fairly unknown world from a mechanic’s perspective.
Cleaning myself up, I then changed into a fresh pair of jeans and one of my favorite sweaters before I rushed down the stairs of the pristine hotel we were staying at. It was right next to the racetrack and secure from any unauthorized media personnel, meaning this was a safe spot for the crew.
“What the fuck do you mean you don’t have a room?!” A familiar voice boomed through the lobby, proving once again how important the lack of media coverage was in this hotel.
As I walked down the stairs, I saw the desk clerk tapping away on the keyboard in front of him, shaking his head while saying, “Sir, I apologize, but there must have been a misunderstanding. It’s the race weekend, so we’re fully booked.”
“I know it’s the fucking race weekend because I’m a driver for fuck’s sake! That’s why I need a room to begin with!” Phoenix slammed his fist on the counter in front of him, and I noticed a security guard at the other end of the room glance over to them in high alert.
“Goddamnit...” I muttered and strode toward the two men who now held a staring battle, as if that would offer any solution to the issue at hand. I might not be a great team player, but I made a promise to Salim, and if Phoenix gets in trouble at this hotel, that means problems for all of us. “What seems to be the issue?” Gathering all the confidence I could find, I positioned myself right next to Phoenix, facing the clerk.
“This is none of your business,” Phoenix grumbled.
“It is if you’re making a scene in the middle of the hotel,” I snapped back, shoving myself between him and the desk. He didn’t move an inch though, leaving the two of us pressed against each other as I turned to face the clerk with a smile. “Sir, I apologize for his behavior, but is there any way he could find a bed somewhere?”
“Well...” The man glanced at Phoenix and then back at me. “Technically, he has a bed. He just doesn’t want it.”
“Yes, um, he is supposed to share a two-bedroom suite with someone else from your team, Miss, but he refuses.”
His words made me turn around, and I tried my hardest not to notice the darkness in Phoenix’s eyes as he glared at me. “Why would you...” The words got stuck in my throat as I realized why exactly this guy was so reluctant to share a room. There was only one other person from our team checking in today. “Connor Williams. You don’t want to share a room with him.”
I gave my best not to shrink when he pushed his hands on the desk behind me, caging me in without an inch left between us. The way his chest rose and fell made me lean back even further, but the hard surface behind me already poked into my spine and stopped me from moving.
“I still don’t understand why you think this is any of your business.” His words were venom on his lips, but I prayed for every ounce of confidence I had left as I pushed myself against him.
“You acting like a child means the team has to deal with your shit, which means less time for my education, which means my career is compromised. That’s why it’s literally my business. Now get over yourself and your head out of middle school, for fuck’s sake.”
“Who the hell do you—”
“You know what?” Without letting him finish his sentence, I turned around to face the man on the other side of the desk. I was done listening to Phoenix’s complaints, suddenly. This guy got on my nerves, and I didn’t even know his last name. “I’ll share a room with Connor if that’s the issue.”
The clerk, whose name tag told me he went by Charles, seemed surprised by my request. “Um... Are you sure, Miss?”
“No, she’s not sure,” Phoenix chimed in, making me turn to look at him. He shot me a long look, one I couldn’t quite read, but finally averted his gaze to address Charles. “Just give me the fucking keys.”
“I don’t... Um... Yes, sure.” He tapped away on his keyboard, and even though I could feel Phoenix’s glare bore into my soul, I stayed still. Something told me if I left, he would start stirring up trouble again. “Here you go!”
Phoenix basically snatched the keys from Charles’ fingers and picked up his gym bag, slinging it over his shoulder before he stepped away from me with one last glare. It only took a few seconds before he disappeared into the hallway, and I couldn’t help but sigh in relief.
I didn’t know what to make of him, and I had no idea what exactly he was doing here. Salim said he welcomed him into the summer program, but something told me there was more to that.
I needed to find out more.
And I knew just who to ask.
“Sunflower!” My father ran up to me with open arms, not at all caring about the weird glances thrown my way.
And even though a part of me didn’t want to be associated with the man every single person in Formula 1 was familiar with, I couldn’t help but pull my dad into a tight hug. “Hey, Dad. I missed you!”
“Ahh, not as much as I did you.” He pressed a kiss on my temple before he pulled away, giving me the typical once-over. “Did you lose weight?”
“Dad, you saw me a couple of weeks ago. It hasn’t been that long.”
“Well, that only worries me more!” He ruffled my hair and pulled me into another quick hug, and we just stood like that for a moment, enjoying each other’s presence.
“How are you doing?” I asked while pulling back.
“Ah, you know. We’re still struggling with the turbo and have a hard time keeping up right now, but the engineers might have found a solution, so that’s good.”
My father had been driving Formula 1 for over twenty years, and while he was part of some smaller teams for a while, he finally found a spot at J. J. Morrison, one of the three top teams. Things were looking up this season, even if the team was still struggling with the car’s extra power.
“What about you?” he asked with a nudge, his arm slung around my shoulders as we walked through the pit lane. “How was your first day?”
“Very first day-ish,” I responded with a laugh. “Although Salim surprised me with something.”
Dad seemed amused by that revelation. “Well, surprises are all we work with in a sport as unpredictable as this one.”
“True.” I nodded. “But this was different. We have another member on the program. His name is Phoenix, and from what I can tell he hates Connor Williams almost more than we do.”
“Phoenix you say?” My father furrowed his brows. “Huh. The only Phoenix I know in the business is a Formula 2 driver for... well, for your team, with the tiny difference that it’s a whole other league. Phoenix McCoy is his name, I think.”
I contemplated his statement, trying to figure out what exactly he was doing here, and how I should behave around him. “So why exactly would a Formula 2 driver join the Formula 1 internship on a race weekend? They drive the same weekend you guys do, after all.”
“They do, but we both know the Formula sport has a weird way to work things. Drivers get promoted, demoted, suspended, sent out to gather experience... Azure Racing is one of the teams that prepare their Formula 2 drivers to send them up to Formula 1 later. Your guy might have just been doing his job right.”
“Well, he sure doesn’t act that way,” I muttered under my breath, earning myself a humored glance from my father.
“Is that my daughter saying race drivers don’t act like normal people? Like she didn’t know that for eighteen years already?” He laughed with another ruffle of my head.
Pulling my hair into a ponytail, I rolled my eyes at the old man before I responded, “Well, at least you don’t make a scene over nothing. This guy seems like he’s all over the place.”
“He’s only twenty, I think. And he’s under a lot of pressure, we both know this business is tough. When I was his age I was all over the place too.”
“When you were that age Mom got pregnant with Rafael,” I couldn’t help but comment, considering my brother is about the same age.
“Yeah, that was a valid reason to stop being all over the place, I’ll admit.” He chuckled. “But that’s not what this is about. No matter what this boy is doing here... Just keep your distance. Drivers are trouble.”
“Says the world champion.”
“Exactly my point.” He winked. “Now, what do you have planned for the evening? You think you have time for dinner with your wrinkly old dad?”
The face he pulled made me laugh, and I suddenly hated that I was here on a job. I would always appreciate this chance, but even after eighteen years I couldn’t help but desire more time with my father, with the man who helped me become who I was.
“I wish I could,” I finally admitted with a frown, “but Salim said we’d all have dinner together, to get to know the team and all.”
“Oh, that’s exciting!” My father’s eyes sparkled with elation, and I found myself mirroring his grin, instantly catching his contagious amazement. My father always lived and breathed this sport, and I could already sense the same passion stirring within me.
“I know. It is,” I finally admitted. “This is all so... So sparkly.”
“Good. That’s how it should be. Enjoy every moment of this, Sunflower.”
“I will, Dad. Promise.” A well of emotion rose within me, but I swallowed as quickly as it came.
“I know you will.” Dad pressed a kiss on my head as we reached the end of the pit lane. “Now go and prepare to shine, Flo.”