I didnít see Smoky again for a couple days, which was probably just as well. Now, Iíll be the first one to admit that I had mixed feelings about the whole affair. On the one hand, I could feel for the kids like Don Boies. Thereís a limit to how much fun racing could be when you had young punks like Bert Mansfield driving a hell of a cheater trying to wreck you, and somebody needed to set things straight. On the other hand, when you had people like Glenn Mansfield involved, it was clearly going to be nothing like trouble if you called them on it. Right at that point in my life I had enough trouble to hold me just raising a family with young kids and trying to keep going.
Donít get me wrong. There was a part of me that really wanted to do it, if for no more reason than to prove I could. I knew that I still had a lot of racer in me, and even as crappy as things had been out there at the Speedway that evening there was still an itching in my palms and my right foot. Since I had a family with small children, I firmly drew the line at getting back into racing myself Ė it is risky, no doubt about it, and was riskier in those days than it is today. No one had even thought of a flame-retardant driving suit in those days, roll bars tended to be on the flimsy side when they existed at all, and I hadnít seen one car out there on Saturday night that had a full roll cage. Snell Foundation-approved helmets were around in those days, but as far as I knew werenít required at the track. You had to have a helmet, but I know Iíd seen some out there that had done prior duty on a football field.
But that didnít mean that I couldnít be involved in other ways, and this seemed like it had the potential of being a way I could scratch the itch without it eating up my life, even though it had some obvious down sides.
I was still of two minds about it when I sat down at the big breakfast table in Kayís Restaurant on the Tuesday morning break from riding around with my driverís ed kids. I was still flipping the pluses and minuses over in my mind without any real idea of what my decision would be when Smoky walked in and sat down across the table from me. There were only a couple other people at the table at that hour, so it didnít take us long to get down to talking business. "You must have gotten out of there Saturday night before I could catch up with you," Smoky started out.
"Yeah," I shrugged. "I didnít see any sign of you, so Arlene and I just headed for home."
"Well, I was busy as hell," Smoky said without any hint of an apology. "After a race most people get to pack up and go home, but thereís always about forty-íleven things I have to be doing at the same time. So, what did you think?"
"Smoky," I said honestly. "Youíve got a real mess there."
"Yeah, I know the joint could be cleaner, but itís a dirt track, so itís going to be dirty. I wish I had some money to fix the place up some, but with the car counts and crowds Iím getting there just isnít any money to spare."
"I mean in the Junior Stocks," I told him. "I mean, itís no damn wonder your car counts are falling off there. I talked to some kids after the race who have had about all theyíre going to take. Thereís several who were talking about heading over to Manchester next Saturday rather than be the targets for Bert Mansfield and his buddies. Hell, one of them was talking about chain-towing his car clear over there rather than just drive out west of town to get it wrecked."
"Yeah, thatís getting a little out of hand," he sighed. "But itís the same damn thing as always. I canít be everywhere at once."
I took a sip of my coffee and replied. "Thatís going to shoot you in the foot, at least as far as the Junior Stocks are concerned. Someone needs to come down real hard on the Mansfield kid and three or four others. If one or two of them got their asses thrown off of the track like they deserve, I think the rest of them would get the message."
"Christ, I donít want to have to do that," Smoky shook his head. "Shit, Iíd have Glenn Mansfield all over my ass."
"Smoky," I shook my head, "It about has to be one thing or the other. Either you have Glenn Mansfield all over your ass or by the end of the season youíre going to have his kid running a one-car feature."
"I donít think so," he sighed. "Yeah, we might lose a few cars yet this season, but thereíll be something left of the class."
"And that something left is frankly going to be cheaters that really ought to be running with the Sportsmen," I said. "Among other things, that totally blows up the idea of the Junior Stock class in the first place."
"I know there are some cheaters out there," he admitted. "But shit, I just donít have the time to tech all the cars. Thereís just too damn much to be done. Thatís why I need someone to do it for me. I know you donít have any axe to grind in the local racing community and I know you know racing, thatís why youíre about the perfect person to do it."
I took another sip of my coffee while I let that roll through my mind. "Look, Smoky," I said as I set the cup down. "Are you just looking to have someone else for Glenn Mansfield to blame, or do you really want to clean things up? Iíll tell you right now, if that shit goes on, youíd be best off to just let it go for the rest of the season, and then just not run a Junior Stock class next year."
"Canít hardly do that," he said. "The Sportsmen are doing all right, and I wish we had more Mods. But it takes the car count from the Juniors to keep things afloat."
"If things go on youíre not going to have the car count from the Junior Stocks by the end of the season," I told him bluntly. "I talked to a guy in the stands Saturday night who said that you were starting maybe thirty cars in Junior Stocks when the season opened. You were down to twenty on Saturday, and I donít think youíll have that many next Saturday unless someone comes out of the woodwork. In another month, you could be down to having a single-heat race. Kids will only put up with getting their asses kicked so long before they take their bats and balls and go home, or to Manchester, or something. So, if theyíre that critical to your cash situation then you might as well close up, because thatís whatís going to happen if you keep letting Glenn Mansfield have his way."
"Shit, Mel," he shook his head. "You know Iím between a rock and a hard spot on this."
"Sure I do," I told him. "Thatís why Iím talking with you about this, rather than just turning you down." I realized Iíd left the door open with that statement, but before he could drive through it I added, "Itís like I said earlier: if you really want to clean things up Iím willing to talk about it some more. If you just want to have someone to blame when Mansfield gets on your ass, then I have to ask if you think the Cubs are going to be able to pull it out this season."
"No, they ainít," he shook his head. "The hell of it is that you and I both know that Glenn Mansfield is an asshole and his kids, well, they didnít fall far from the tree. But heís got some drag around here, and around some of the racers. I donít want to have to piss him off if I donít have to."
"Then sell him the track," I told him. "That really is about the only other thing you can do."
"I offered it to him," Smoky admitted. "But of course he just wants me to give it to him. Whatís it going to take to get you to come in and straighten things out like we talked about?"
"Several things," I told him. "The biggest thing is that I will not allow myself to be second-guessed. I have control. I canít just be an advisor. That means what I say, goes. When Glenn or someone comes to you after Iíve made some decision that pisses him off, which will be about one minute after he finds out about it, I donít want you overruling me. Smoky, thatís an absolute. You do that, Iím out of there no matter whatís happening at the time, even if itís in the middle of a feature. Period."
"Christ, heís going to be all over my ass."
"Then heís going to be all over your ass," I agreed. "Now, you can blame me, tell him that you think Iím being a little tough or something, but you donít overrule me. Now, I will say that if something like that comes up we can talk about it and I might change my mind, but overruling me without even talking about it means all youíre going to see of me is my backside as I head for the gate."
Smoky shook his head. "Jeez, youíre going to get me in a hell of a spot with that kind of stuff."
"Smoky, youíre already in a spot for letting Glenn Mansfield and a few others run roughshod over you over this shit. I might get you out of it, but remember that Iím not doing it for your sake. Iím doing it for the sake of those kids getting screwed over by those bozos. That means that you donít have to pay me anything for it."
"You donít want anything?" he asked, truly surprised to hear that.
"Just remember that some wise man once said that there ainít no such thing as a free lunch," I smiled. "I donít want to feel like thereís a paycheck riding on this. If I can get this straightened out in a year or so, well and good and we might have to talk about it again, but for now thatís how it will be."
"Well, I feel like you ought to get something," he said with another headshake. He had been doing a lot of that in the last few minutes.
"How about a couple chili dogs and a couple cokes, then?" I smiled.
"Hell yes, I can handle that. What else do you want besides not second-guessing you?"
"Only things that should be done in the first place. I donít know what your rules for the Junior Stock classes must be, but whatever they are they will be followed. No exceptions, not for anyone, especially not for someone named Mansfield. Same goes on the track, someone breaks the rules, they get a penalty thatís appropriate, whether their name is Mansfield or not. To make sure of that, I want my own flagman for the Junior Stocks."
"Why would you want that?" he asked. "Shorty does a good job."
"Shorty wouldnít know a black flag if it bit him in the ass," I snorted, not ever having met Shorty to the best of my knowledge. "Just during the heats last Saturday night here were at least six times that he should have thrown a black flag, sent someone to the back of the field or to the pits for the evening. You know that as well as I do. I want someone who will throw a black flag and not take any shit from a driver or a parent."
"Yeaaah," he said slowly. "There were a couple times there that Shorty let it get a little out of hand. I know once or twice Iíve wondered if he didnít have something going with the Mansfields, so you probably have a point. But I donít know of anyone else you could get to flag."
"I do," I smiled. "Arlene."
"Your wife? What does she know about it?"
"Enough," I told him. "Sheís flagged a few races over the years. You may have forgotten that she was a racer, too. In fact, it wouldnít surprise me if she had been leading me for season points when I got piled up here years ago. I always felt she was a better driver than I was, but she never got to run anything but partial seasons with the MMSA. Besides, sheís been the one whoís been pushing me to do this in the first place, so she gets to take some of the load."
"All right," he sighed. "Shorty will be pissed but it will give him a chance to sit on his ass and have a couple beers. She works for free, too?"
"Even cheaper, she likes her chili dogs with no onions," I grinned. "Like I said, she was the one whoís been pushing on it. Oh, and what I said about no second-guessing goes for her, too. If she black flags someone, thereís no arguing, right?"
"You are asking a hell of a lot," he said.
"I know I am," I told him. "Remember, I donít really want to do this. I have other things I can do on a Saturday night, and that includes watching the Sox game on TV. But Iím not going to take the responsibility for something without having the authority I need to do it the right way. Thatís basically a take it or leave it."
"No second guessing, and enforcing the tech and racing rules," he sighed. "Really, it donít sound like a hell of a lot, but how much do you want to bet Glenn Mansfield winds up taking a swing at you or me or the both of us before this is over with?"
"How about before the first night is over with?" I grinned. "Maybe, just to keep life interesting, we ought to see if Mutt and Doc would like to have free pit passes for Saturday night?" Mutt and Doc were two of the three city cops, and they were cops of the old school. That meant that we didnít have very many law enforcement problems in Bradford, mostly because you mouthed off to them at your peril. They had a tendency to kick ass first and take names later.
"I have heard dumber ideas," Smoky said with a grin. "That sounds like a pretty good one to me."
Smoky and I sat there in Kayís and talked over a few more things until my hour off was up and I had to go ride with more kids. We managed to work out a few details on some things that would have to be done. Smoky promised to spread the word as best he could that I would be taking over managing the class, and that it might not be a bad idea if the Junior Stock racers showed up early Saturday night since the cars would be getting a full tech inspection. I made a few mental notes myself about things that would have to be done.
Finally, I had no choice but to go and ride with the kids. I donít want to say that this was something that took no concentration, because it did, especially with some of the kids. Fortunately, I had a couple pretty good ones in the next session, so it didnít take quite as much attention as it would have otherwise, so I was able to explore a few ideas mentally.
Really, there were two ways to go about this Ė start off gently and let people know that things were going to tighten up, or make it clear right from the beginning that there was a new cop in town who wasnít going to put up with things being the way they had been. The first way would have made fewer waves, but it would take much longer to get things straightened out. The other way was bound to get people pissed off, but would make a major change right now.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I still really didnít want to do this. As I told Smoky, there were other things I could do on a Saturday night, but I realized that I didnít like to see kids like Don Boies getting shit on by people like Bert and Glenn Mansfield. I felt like Iíd been nominated to go even things up a little. In any case, as I rode around that day I realized that there were several things I was going to have to get hot on just as soon as I could. This was Tuesday, and Saturday night wasnít far away.
First things first. Because of the mess out at the intersection I wasnít going home for lunch, and had just planned on going to Kayís again. But before I did that, I took a swing by Mike Corriganís office, and was lucky to find him still there. "So, Mel, whatís happening with you today?" he asked.
"You remember the other day," I began, "When we were talking about my overseeing the Junior Stocks for Smoky Kern?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "I still think it would be a good idea."
"Iím not too sure how good of an idea it is," I told him honestly. "But I told Smoky that Iíd give it a try. I just wanted to make sure itís going to still be all right with you when Glenn Mansfield starts raising hell, coming to you demanding that I ought to be fired or something."
"You think itís going to be that bad?" he asked.
"No, I know damn well itís going to be that bad," I told him. "I remember Ed Snyder after all, and this is Glenn Mansfield weíre talking about. I donít need you taking shots at my back over this."
"Ed could have handled that a little better," Mike conceded. "But this isnít a school activity, and doesnít have anything to do with the school at all. Besides, youíve got tenure; itíd just about take an act of Congress to get you fired. Whatever bone Glenn has to pick with you, the school wonít have anything to do with it, and I can make that clear to Glenn if I have to."
"Good, just making sure," I told him. "Iím guessing that this is going to kick up a few waves, and I donít need more than Iím going to already have."
"Youíre not going to get any from me," he promised me.
"Good enough," I smiled. "You might want to think about coming out to the track on Saturday night and hanging around the pits, because thatís where the action is going to be."
"Iím almost thinking this is going to be one of those situations where what I donít know wonít hurt me," he laughed. "But I promise Iíll give it some thought."
When you got right down to it, I couldnít ask for much more than that out of him. We sat and shot the bull for a few minutes, and then I had to get up and go. There wasnít really enough time left now to go to Kayís, so I drove out to the A&W on Taney Ė like a lot of other stuff from the early sixties around Bradford, itís long gone now Ė and had the carhop bring me a hamburger and a root beer.
I kicked the idea around some more all through the next driving session. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that if I was going to do it, I might as well do it right. There were a couple other things that needed to be done that werenít strictly what Smoky and I had been talking about but at least met the spirit of the goal, so I decided that as soon as I knocked off for the afternoon Iíd get started on them. I had a long break from three until seven before the next driving session, so I headed home and got busy.
In those days Arlene was only working at the hospital part time. It was a little hard for her to take care of the kids, what with me teaching or doing driverís ed. Vern was the only one of our three in school; heíd just finished kindergarten, and Ray would be starting in the fall. Elaine was still in her terrible twos, so it gave Arlene something of a break to be able to go in and work at the hospital even though she didnít really like it much and sometimes the hours got a little silly. I didnít know it at the time, of course, but in another year or so sheíd quit the hospital entirely and go to work in Doctor Bronsonís office, which settled both our lives down more than a little. As it was, I sent the sitter home right after I got home so I could take my turn on the noise. Still, it didnít stop me from making a couple phone calls that needed to be made, and to have supper going by the time she got home from the hospital.
She always appreciated it when I could have supper going at the end of a long day, and I often did it although not always. "So, how did your day go?" she asked when she got back downstairs wearing shorts and a T-shirt rather than the ugly nurseís uniform.
"About the same," I told her. "I ran into Smoky at Kayís this morning, and we had a long talk about the Junior Stock business."
"That really is sad," she said. "Someone should do something about that."
"Well," I sighed. "We are."
"We?" she frowned.
"Yeah, we are. You were the one who wanted me to do it, and Iím going to need some help. I hope the hospital doesnít plan on you working Saturday evening, since youíre going to be working the flags during the Junior Stock race."
"Me?" she exclaimed. "How did I get sucked into this?"
"Thatís the price you pay," I snorted. "You were complaining about the lack of black flags just as much as I was. Now you can throw all of them you want. I got Smoky to promise that he wouldnít over-rule you or weíd both be out of there so fast that all he was going to see was a cloud of dust."
"I wonder how long before that happens," she sighed.
"If Smoky has a lick of sense, itíll be as long as possible," I told her. "He may have been willing to put up with some of that stuff but I promise you that Iím not going to."
"Well, good," she said with a smile. "Iíll be the first to admit that the track is a dump, and that some of the things that went on there stank pretty bad. But Iíll tell you what, Mel. After last Saturday night, I started to realize just how much I missed hanging around a race track."
"Yeah," I agreed, "Me, too. Arlene, I guess weíve both got it too bad to turn our backs on it like weíve done the past few years. I think it would be both foolish and wrong for either of us to take up serious driving again, but if this works out there may still be room for us."
She thought for a moment, then smiled. "Well, when you put it like that, it sounds pretty good to me," she said finally. "Now tell me what youíve got in mind."