So, I was forced to reassess my position as I rode around with the driverís ed kids the rest of the day. I still didnít think I should do it, but Mike had given me a couple of good reasons to reconsider. When it was all said and done, I knew that I was going to at least have to bring it up to Arlene. I guess I was really hoping that sheíd tell me no.
I guess I should have known better. That evening, I explained the whole thing to Arlene Ė Smokyís asking me, Mikeís comments about it, and my thoughts. "It might be fun, in a way," she smiled. "Iíve been missing the racing, too, you know. It wasnít bad when we were living in town, but hearing the roar from the track every Saturday night keeps making me think that we at least ought to go check it out sometime. We donít have to go racing, and you donít have to get involved in this thing with Smoky, but wouldnít it be nice to touch the old days a little?"
"Iím glad you didnít say Ďgood old days,í" I snorted. "Compared to what we have today, they werenít all that good."
"No, they werenít," she agreed. "But it was a real adventure, something to remember. Come on, Iíll find a sitter, and we can at least go see how bad it is. Itíll be nice to be away from the kids for an evening."
That didnít leave me with a lot of choice. The next morning, I called up Smoky and told him that Arlene and I were going to come check the track out Saturday night, and he agreed to have pit passes waiting for us at the back gate ticket house.
As I recall that was a Thursday. I spent the next couple days being a little nervous. I knew darn well that I was thinking about doing something that I really shouldnít do because I knew trouble lay down that road. I had a feeling that going to the race that night was going to lead to more darn trouble than I wanted. I could still get out of it but was pretty sure that I wasnít going to try.
Finally, along late in the afternoon Arlene and I got set to go. As dirty as we knew the place was going to be, we just dressed in jeans and work shirts since there was no point in messing up good clothes. We had an early dinner since we had no idea what the track food would be like and it seemed pretty likely that it wouldnít be much good. The babysitter was a college girl Iíd known through high school; she showed up on time, and there was no longer any putting it off. We got in the Chevy since there was no point in messing up the good car, and drove down to the track. Sure enough, there was Diane Ziegler, a kid Iíd had in one of my history classes, and she had the passes for us. We talked for a moment about how her summer was going. She was going to be a senior that year and was looking forward to being done with school, but we ran out of conversation pretty quick, so she had us pin the passes to our shirts and we drove on into the pit area.
I parked the Chevy off to the side and got out. It was still pretty early, but there were a dozen or so cars there already. "What do we do now?" Arlene asked.
"I guess we just wander around and see whatís to be seen."
We walked over to the nearest car, which was still on the trailer. It was what they called a modified, but one look at it told me that the car was stretching the definition about as far as it could be stretched. It was still sitting on the trailer, and a couple guys were underneath it, draining the oil out of the rear end so they could change the gears for this track. While they were messing with that I took a closer look at it, and it didnít take much looking to see that this thing had never been a street car. It had a space frame chassis welded up out of steel tubing, sort of like the old Kurtis Kraft midgets I used to see Ė and like the Indy cars I used to see, too. The body looked like it might once have been a í32 Ford coupe chopped and channeled to within an inch of its life, but a closer look revealed that it had never seen a Ford plant Ė it was fiberglass. The engine was clearly a Chevy V8; it had two four-barrel carburetors.
"Whatís that mill?" I asked.
"Three twenty-seven," came a voice from under the car. "Bored out to 390."
"Winds out pretty good, I bet," I commented.
"Yeah, when itís running right," the voice said. "We tried running a Corvette fuel injection on it, but it doesnít run worth a shit with it. We decided to try dual quads and see if that might help."
I knew better than to ask what kind of horsepower it might have Ė these guys might not have had it on a dynamometer and if they did that was something they might want to keep a secret. Smoky had said that there were cars out here that had to be pushing 500 horsepower, and I could believe even more Ė that big of an engine, those carbs, probably a hot camshaft and custom headers among other things made 500 even seem like it might be on the conservative side. Although it was a bigger car than the midgets Arlene and I had driven, it was clear that this thing was considerably hotter. Even if this weighed twice what one of those old MMSA midgets weighed, it had five times the power. That was going to make for a lively ride, at a minimum.
More cars were arriving, some on trailers, others on tow bars. We stood and shot the bull with the guys for a couple minutes Ė we never saw their faces, at least not right then Ė and finally we decided to wander on down the line. "Not exactly like the 2 car, is it?" I chuckled softly to Arlene.
"Good grief, no," she shook her head. "I donít think Iíd care to drive one of those things, even just for a hot lap or two."
"Me, either," I agreed. "There was a time I would have liked to have tried, but those days are long gone. Letís look at some of these Junior Stocks. Thatís what we came for, after all."
We found one not far up the line. It was a í51 Plymouth with the old Chrysler flathead engine. The car looked pretty beat up; it was rusted out more than a little bit, and there were several dents, some of them pretty big. The left side and right side front fenders didnít match the paint on the rest of the car or each other; the grillwork was missing and the bumper was bent. The car had been gutted out, there was a single seat behind the wheel. The number "64" had been painted roughly on the side, with a cheap brush, it looked like. It was pretty much what I would have considered a jalopy, except that it was newer than the jalopies I remembered. There were four teenage butts hanging out from under the open hood. "Beats the hell out of me," I heard one halfway familiar voice say.
"Problems?" I spoke up.
Four teenage heads looked up at me. "Yeah," one of the boys said. I recognized him; it was Don Boies, from my Auto Shop II class the previous year. I knew the other kids, too; two of them had taken Auto Shop I, and one was Phil Sharp, who had been out at the track with me earlier in the week. "The only thing I can figure is that itís jumped time, but we donít have a timing light."
"Itíd be useful, but itís not absolutely necessary," I told them. "You can tune it pretty close by ear if you can get it running at all."
"Thatís just it, we canít get it to run. It wonít hit a lick," Don said.
I took a little closer look at the engine. "Not surprising," I said. "Youíve got it flooded to beat the band from trying to start it. Got a screwdriver?"
"Flat or Phillips?" Don asked.
"Doesnít matter," I told him. "Take the air cleaner off and stick the screwdriver down the carb throat to hold the choke open."
"This has a hand choke," Don protested, seeing what I was driving at. In those days, sometimes an automatic choke would stay closed on you when you wanted it open when the engine was partway warm.
"Might be that the cable has come loose," I told him. "I can smell the gas."
Don shrugged and pulled off the air cleaner so he could get at the carb. He reached out and moved the choke Ė it swung back and forth, sliding on the cable. He took the screwdriver and tightened the screw that held the cable on. "All right," Don said. "Phil, get in and hit the starter."
It took a little bit more fiddling since the car was badly flooded, but soon they had it going. It was running pretty ragged. "Yeah," I said. "Your timingís off, but itís not that bad. Sounds like you need to retard it just a hair, maybe two hairs since youíre going to be racing it. But youíve got a miss there, too. Itís most likely a plug or a plug wire, Iím not sure which."
Three of the four kids had been through my auto shop classes, so it didnít take them long to figure out that it was the number two cylinder that wasnít firing. As I stood there watching, Don found a plug wrench and yanked the plug. "Jeez," he said. "Pretty foul."
"Yeah," I agreed, glancing at the plug. "The gap is off, and youíre getting some oil in the cylinder. Probably needs rings, but you might not want to bother on a heap like this."
Don shook his head. "Itís probably not worth the effort," he said. "We just wanted to have a little fun and keep from getting run off the track. Thereís no way weíre going to win anything, but itís fun to be out there. I donít have a spare plug, though."
"Got a pocketknife?" I asked. "Clean it off the best you can with that, then use the thickness of the blade to gap it. You might want to think about pulling the other plugs and see how bad they are."
"Thanks, Mr. Austin," Don said. "I should have been smart enough to see that."
"The best tool you have for working on cars is between your ears," I told them. "Stop, take your time and think about it. If you get rushed, then you make mistakes."
He shook his head. "Seems to me Iíve heard you say that before."
"Iíve said it an awful lot over the years," I told him. "You run out here much?"
"When I can," he said. "I spend more time working on the car than racing it. Itís still a piece of shit Ė uh, excuse me, Mrs. Austin."
"Donít worry, Iíve heard the term," Arlene smiled.
"Itís a piece of, uh, manure," Don continued. "Itís fun, but it seems like I spend half my time fixing things that have gotten bent up because someone wanted me to get out of their way. There are two or three guys out there that get more fun out of wrecking someone else than they do out of racing."
"Iíd heard that," I nodded. "I was just curious to see how bad it really is."
"Sometimes it gets pretty bad," Don said. "I donít have a lot of money to throw at this, and there are guys out there whose folks have put a lot of money into their cars. I just want to go out and have some fun, but getting deliberately wrecked every other week is taking the fun out of it. When this car gets wiped out, Iím probably done for the season."
"Thatís a shame," I said. "Seems like there are jerks in this life wherever you go."
"Thatís the truth," he said. "Hey, thanks for setting us on the right track, Mr. Austin."
"My pleasure," I said. "Iím going to wander around and check out a few other cars."
We wandered on down the line, past several other cars. People were working on some of them, and others just sat there while people stood around and shot the bull. I recognized a few of the adults from around town, and more of the kids. It wasnít all local kids; I probably only knew a quarter of them or less. In every class the cars ranged from pretty rough to pretty good looking, and you could about tell from that who was going to run good and who wasnít.
Every time I came to a car that was obviously a Junior Stock, I stopped and looked it over and talked with the people around, the drivers, and sometimes the parents. After a while, we came to a í51 Chevy with the stovebolt six in it. It was pretty clean looking, compared to some of the other cars; it was clear that it hadnít come directly from a junk yard. "Nice looking car," I said to the kid with it.
"Not too bad," he said, looking up at me. "Hi, Mr. Austin."
I took another look at him. If he wasnít John Mansfieldís younger brother then Glenn must have had a woods colt out there somewhere. He had that same black hair in a greasy Chicago boxcar cut, same dark eyes, same big size, and that same arrogant young punk attitude. Considering that he was fourteen or fifteen at the most, he had to have cultivated it for a while. He must have learned it from his brother, I figured.
"Bert Mansfield, right?" I asked, and quickly added, "You run all right with it?"
"Pretty good," he said. "This is my second year. Iíve won a couple times this year, and got beaten out of it by just a hair last week."
"Sounds fairly good to me," I said, realizing that this was one of the kids Iíd been hearing about. If ever there was a kid with the attitude of a bully, this was him. He was reasonably respectful to me, but Iíll bet if another kid around his age crossed him there would be fists flying mighty quick. "You canít win íem all."
"I should have won last week," he sneered. "But that Totten joker from over around White Pigeon got in my way and blocked me. Heíd better not do that to me again."
"Sometimes the run of the race just doesnít go your way," I shrugged. "Iíve had it happen often enough to me."
"Yeah, but that was just plain stupid. He doesnít have to pull that stuff." He said it in such a way that I understood that if the Totten kid showed up tonight he was going to get an introduction to the fence courtesy of Bertís fender.
"That was just uncalled for," I heard a manís voice next to me. I turned to recognize Bertís father, Glenn; I knew him from around school, although not at all well Ė and not that I particularly cared to, considering his reputation. "He had no cause to be racing him when he was a lap down. And then to just pull out in front of Bert, well I told Bert he ought to have dealt with it right on the spot."
No, I thought, Bert didnít get that punk bully attitude from his older brother. They both got it from their father. "Well, since I didnít see it, I guess I canít judge it," I said diplomatically. "But like I said, sometimes the run of the race doesnít go your way."
"What would you know about it?" he sneered. "I ainít never seen you here before."
"Oh, Iíve raced a little," I told him, "Just not recently. I was the Midwest Midget Sportsman Association champion three years running, so I know a little about racing."
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I remember you now. You got wrecked here years ago, didnít you?"
"Yeah, I was busted up pretty bad," I told him. "It was just an accident, though. The tie rod end broke on the car in front of me, and I didnít have any place to go but over him. It wasnít anybodyís fault."
"Yeah, but you were the one that wound up getting hurt. Seems to me you ought to have done something about it."
"Never had the chance," I shrugged. "Thatís all water over the dam, anyway, and a long time ago, to boot."
"So, what are you doing here tonight?" he asked.
"Oh, just wandering around, checking things out, seeing whatís changed over the years," I told him. I wasnít about to say that I was considering taking on trying to control the Junior Stock class, because I could see that the moment he found it out we were going to be facing off with each other.
"Well, we donít get the crowds that we used to, thatís for sure," he said. "Car count is falling off some, too. I keep telling Smoky that heís going to have to increase the payout to get more people here. It ainít hardly worth it when a win only pays fifty bucks. Used to be that if you didnít like one place you could go race somewhere else, but thereís been a lot of tracks closing the last few years. I think all the kids are going drag racing, but thatís just to see how much money you can burn."
"Yeah, itís not like real racing," I agreed. "But I guess itís getting popular. You do some racing, I take it?"
"I used to," he said. "But then the boys got interested in it, so I put most of my effort into their cars anymore. Maybe when Bertís out of high school Iíll think about building me another Sportsman or something. Iím getting a little old for all the rough and tumble, but I guess an old dog still has a few bites left in him. How about you?"
"Oh, Iíve thought about it from time to time," I said, not bothering to tell him that I didnít think much of the idea. "But I guess Iíve got other things to do in my life these days. I had enough racing to hold me when I was younger."
We talked a little more, and then Arlene and I moved to walk on up the line. "Boy, itís pretty clear itís going to be his way or the highway, isnít it?" she asked quietly as soon as we were out of earshot.
"Yep, thereís the main reason why I donít want to take on this chore," I said. "I donít know him that well, but I donít like him much, either. If it werenít for him, I think I might be able to enjoy it some. Itíd be fun to work with the kids, teach them a little bit. Iíll tell you what, Arlene. When we met, I was a teacher who had turned to racing. I think now Iím a racer whoís turned to teaching."
"But youíre still a racer at heart," she smiled. "You know, I guess I still am, too. Thereís something about this that gets my blood flowing." She hugged my arm and continued, "I think Iím going to be glad that the kids will be asleep when we get home tonight, because Iím already looking forward to you driving me tonight."
"We could say the heck with it and go home now," I suggested, getting her meaning.
"No, the kids will still be awake," she smiled. "And besides, I think I need to watch some racing to really get me going."