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Bullring Days 3:
Banners Flying
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2014

Chapter 18

“It feels good to be back in business,” Mel said as the four of them and Ted gathered around the Austin breakfast table early Saturday morning. “Test and tune isn’t a real big deal, but after all winter there are going to be people who want to blow the carbon out, especially after fiddling with their cars for months.”

“At least there’ll be people running again,” Arlene smiled. “I always feel better when that happens. And it’s going to be a nice day for it.”

“I’m really looking forward to trying to fire the car up and get out there myself,” Ted told them. “I mean, I’ve had the thing for months but I’ve never turned a wheel with it. I don’t know yet what I’m getting myself into; I’ve only been able to think about it. At least if it works, today I ought to find out a little what it’s like.”

“That’s all well and good,” Mel said. “I don’t mind you getting out there and turning a few laps with it. If nothing else it’ll add a little unusual interest to the proceedings. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to take up too much track time from the other people. I’m going to pass the word that we’re hoping to have an Indy car testing for a few laps and that you get to buck the line of the people waiting to get out on the track because of your warm-up issues. But I don’t want to overdo it and get people pissed off at us, either.”

“When you get right down to it, all we’re trying to do is find out if it runs reasonably well and give Ted a little taste of driving it,” Ray commented. “If we can get a good clean start with it and nothing seems really out of whack, we’ll be a long way toward being ready to head down to the Brickyard in a week. If we have problems, at least we’ll know now and will have some time to try and deal with them.”

“Yeah, under the circumstances you really can’t ask for a whole lot more than that,” Mel agreed. “Here’s hoping things work out well for you. How do you plan on going about it?”

“I figure we’ll do the prep work and initial warming up right in the shop,” Ray told them. “Then we’ll tow the rig out to the track, set up on the back side of the concession stand, get the heaters plugged back in and go from there.”

“Not wanting to tell you how to go about it,” Mel suggested, “but you might want to grab up your stuff and get everything out there before we get the test and tune running. That way you won’t have to worry about things cooling off when you have to cross the track. Don’t forget, you’ll have to load up the starter cart and a bunch of other crap, too. That’s going to take time.”

“Probably not a bad idea, now that you mention it,” Ray nodded. “The only problem is that if we need some goofball tool or other we’ll have to run down to the shop to get it, and I could get exhausted beating a ditch into the pavement if things get out of hand.”

“Well, throw everything you think you’re going to need in the back of your truck,” Mel counseled. “And everything you think might be useful, too. Throw some of that crap in the hauler trailer and take it down there, too.”

“Probably a good idea,” Ray agreed. “It ought to save time in the long run.” They talked for another few minutes about how they were going to go about setting up for the test session.

Finally, when the talk died down a little, Ginger spoke up. “Have you figured out what you want me to do today?”

“Well, the big thing is that you need to get an idea of what’s going on,” Mel said. “We won’t have the full crew here today, not by a long shot, but this is a good time for you to poke around a bit.”

“I think having you in the back gate house would be a good idea,” Arlene commented, “at least for the first couple hours. We’ll probably have a lot of traffic then. I’ll come out with you and help get you started. I know you’ll have to spend some time in the infield, so once things die down you can go do that. Maybe we can get Diane to spell both of us about the time these guys are trying to fire up that noise machine. I know she’ll want to spend most of her time down at the infield concession stand, but she’s going to have people there who know what they’re doing, so she won’t have to be there all the time.”

“I would like to see it run,” Ginger agreed. “Especially after all the talk I’ve heard about it the last week.”

“We’ll let you know on the track radio when we get ready,” Ray promised.

“That’s a thought,” Mel said. “We do have radios in most of the vehicles and most of the buildings. We need to remember to turn them on, folks. That’s why we have them. It’s not critical today, but they don’t do us much good if they’re not on. We’ve gotten too used to not bothering over the winter, so remember to tell any track workers to have theirs on too. Ginger, you got the batteries changed on all the portables, right?”

“They’ve each had a day on a charger up in the track office,” Ginger replied. “If that’s not enough then they’re going to need something special.”

“There always seems to be one or two that give us a fit after they’ve been running for a few minutes, even if they worked fine when you tested them,” Mel said. “We won’t need all the portables today, but I’ll keep three or four in the truck with me in case one of them craps out. I’ll be up in the office a bit in the beginning, but once we get started I want to spend some time in the infield, just talking with people and finding out what’s going on with them. That’s as important a part of a test-and-tune session as anything else.”

*   *   *

Until she’d spent a little time with the track books, Ginger hadn’t thought that the test-and-tune session was going to be a big deal. It turned out to be a much bigger event than she had been expecting.

In the beginning Ginger had more or less thought that if someone needed to give a car a tryout that they ought to be able to haul the car out to the track and do it. It took her a little while to realize that it wasn’t Mel or Ray who made the decision to do something like that, but the track’s insurance company. The insurance company required that, among other things, they have a safety crew of observers, rescue workers, as well as the ambulance and ambulance attendants available on the property when a car was being run. Sometimes the safety crew might be a little casual, like when they’d tested Mike Rowe’s Late Model the week before, but the ambulance was there, with Arlene as the EMT, and Ray, Mel, and Ginger logged as the observers and safety crew. It was no big deal if done casually once in a while, but it would quickly become a drag if a lot of people wanted to go out just anytime and screw around with their cars.

The test-and-tune sessions – there would be several over the course of the summer – cleared up a lot of that problem. They didn’t need a full crew on hand for them, but with so many people present there needed to be flagmen to direct traffic. There were enough people around to justify running the infield concession stand, although with a slightly reduced menu. Arlene had enough else to do that it was worth the trouble to have regular EMTs on hand with the ambulance, even if the EMTs would mostly be sitting and drinking coffee all day.

All that cost money, mostly to pay the track workers, but also for other things. To justify the expense – and make a little profit – the people coming to test were asked to pay a $20 entry fee for the day, along with $10 pit passes for everyone coming in the gate besides the driver. There were a lot of kids who were admitted at a reduced rate, but they were charged since their presence meant a higher insurance premium. Since there were usually two or three people present for each car, and sometimes as many as six or eight, that actually turned into a fair chunk of cash, all of which was handled through the back-gate ticket office. Everyone coming in needed a wrist band too, just to keep track of everything.

Even though a lot of the people coming in were track regulars, new information and release sheets on everyone were required, again by the insurance company. That meant things were busy around the back-gate ticket stand for a while, with both Arlene and Ginger handing out forms, taking money, issuing wrist bands, and the like. The rush started right when the gates opened for the session and didn’t let up for a couple of hours. It seemed like there was a steady stream of trucks and haulers bringing race cars into the track, and there was a steady roar coming from the track in spite of the sound being blanketed somewhat by the hill.

When things slowed down a little, Arlene and Ginger managed to find a few minutes to count up and bundle some of the cash that had been taken in – and it proved to be several thousand dollars! “I somehow didn’t think there’d be that much,” Ginger commented.

“It’s good to see some money coming in,” Arlene replied. “You know, I was in racing for a long time before I realized that the back gate was just about as important as the front gate to keep the track going. We’ll come out all right today, even if it’s not the big moneymaker that actual racing is later on.” She glanced at her watch and added, “That’s probably the big rush for now, but we’ll have people coming in all day. Why don’t you take off for a while, hop in the truck, head down to the infield and see what’s going on? I’d kind of like to see them run the Eagle too, so if they’re getting close, give me a call on the radio. I can put up the “back in a few minutes” sign and watch from the back stretch stands if you or Diane don’t come out to relieve me. Then you and I can trade off the duty throughout the rest of the afternoon.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Ginger admitted. “After all I’ve been hearing from over the hill, I want to find out what’s going on over there.”

“Stop at the outside entrance to the track,” Arlene told her. “There should be a flagman there to tell you if it’s clear to cross to the infield.”

*   *   *

While she waited at the back stretch entry to cross the track in the work pickup, Ginger checked out the infield. It was partly full of cars and haulers – not entirely full, but there wasn’t a lot of room left. She remembered Mel explaining that in the beginning they hadn’t planned to use the infield for pits at all. In the first years of the track there had been reasons to pave the whole infield, partly so it could be used for kart racing, and partly as part of the road course and road course pits. With it paved, there was no reason to not use it for the oval track racing, even though it was too small for everyone. On normal race nights some classes got to use the infield, and others the backfield pits; it rotated from weekend to weekend, she’d been told.

A raggedy-looking Chevy Malibu with crudely-painted numbers was circling the track at no great speed – probably an Economy Stock on its first tryout, she thought. Its progress seemed positively glacial after the way that Rowe’s Late Model had attacked the track last weekend, and at that Mike hadn’t been pushing it. She sat in the truck, watching with a light tinge of boredom as the driver took his laps, while she tried to pick out the activity down in the infield.

Finally, the Chevy pulled off; the flagman held up a black and green Modified of some unidentifiable heritage while she was waved across the track. She had hardly pulled into the pit entrance on the far side when she heard the driver of the Mod stomp on it, getting up speed for a few laps around the track. Once she’d parked down near the concession stand, she got a cup of coffee, then hiked around back to see how Ray and Ted were coming with the Indy car.

What she saw was not quite what she expected. It was noisy around the car, and the air smelled of kerosene. There was a forced-air shop heater of the type her father had called a “salamander” sitting in front of the car, blowing heat up the nose and presumably to the radiator. Another one was forcing heat back against the side of the engine. Ted was standing back and looking on, while Ray was hunched over the engine, inspecting something. A little curious, she saw he was holding a lighted magnifying glass of the kind the doctor uses to look in your ears and up your nose. That surprised her enough that she forgot about any kind of greeting. “Ray, what are you doing with that?” she asked.

“Making sure there’s no crap in the fuel injector screens,” he replied, not taking his eye from the device. “This is something you do every time you go to start an Offy up for the day.”

“Why the heaters?” she asked.

“The engine has to be pretty warm before you go to start it,” he said. “It’s built to run hot and you could hurt something if you try to start it cold. Some people use heating pads to warm things up, but this works a little quicker and just as well.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” she shook her head. “Are you getting about ready to wind it up?”

“It’ll be a while,” he said, putting the tool back in his shirt pocket and using a wrench to fasten the line to the fuel injector. “We’re just seriously getting started, but now that you’re here you can read the check list to me while Ted gets ready.”

“Check list?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t try to do this without one,” he shook his head, “even with practice. It would be too easy to screw up and miss something.”

“Here you go,” Ted replied, handing her a sheaf of several sheets of paper. “I’ll head into the john and get my fire suit on. That’ll give me a chance to piss for about the fourteenth time this morning.”

“A little nervous, huh?” Ginger asked, without the intention of it sounding like she was teasing.

“Christ, you have no idea,” he said. “We’re up to item three.”

“Good luck,” she smiled, and turned to Ray. “OK, three,” she said. “Prime the fuel pump.”

“Crap,” he said. “That’s an old list, from back when they used heating pads to warm everything up. We’re going to be dealing with fuel in the open, so we’d better shut off the heaters. Find a pen and make a note on the list, would you?”

“I can do that,” she said, grabbing a pen from his pocket as he started toward one of the heaters.

“See what I mean when I say you can screw up bad without a check list? I almost did, right there.”

In a couple minutes the kerosene heaters had been shut off and pulled to the side. “All right, this is pretty quick,” Ray said, turning to a tool box in the back of his truck. He pulled out an open-end wrench, got down beside the engine, and unscrewed a hose. He took a can of 3-in-1 oil and put several squirts down the hose, then screwed it back into place. “All right, next item.”

“Unscrew spark plugs,” she read from the list.

“All right,” he said. “The next several steps are done with the spark plugs out. I know it sounds goofy, but it’s an Offy.” He took a spark plug wrench, loosened the plugs and set them on the fat back tire of the car. “Next item.”

“Ignition off, out of gear,” she read.

“OK, now we’re getting serious,” he said.

As she read items from the check list, he took the fuel line off the injector and put the end of it into an open tin can sitting down in the engine somewhere. He went back to the back of the car with a socket wrench, fitted it onto the engine’s main shaft accessed through a hole in the cowling under the exhaust pipes, and turned the engine over by hand several times. “Good deal,” he said. “Nice and loose, nothing’s locked up.” With that done, he took the wheel-mounted starter motor over to the tail of the car, hooked its drive onto the shaft and bumped the engine over several times while keeping an eye on the oil pressure gauge up in the cockpit. Once he was satisfied, he checked the fuel that had been running into the tin can.

Several times Ginger read off items on the list that were completely incomprehensible to her but obviously meant something to him. Several times he said, “This isn’t a new engine, we can skip that.”

With all that out of the way, he went back and cranked the engine hard for several turns, keeping an eye on it until he could see fuel blowing out the spark plug holes. “Good enough,” he said. “We’re getting there. Time to get the warm-up plugs in.”

The sight of such an exotic beast as an Indy car at this little track had drawn a small crowd standing around and watching. He looked around the group and said, “I need someone with a fire suit and a full-face helmet to help out with the next step.”

“Yeah, I can help,” a driver Ginger didn’t know replied. “I’ll have to go get my helmet.”

“I’ve got to get mine on for the next step, too,” Ray said. “Now is where it starts to get dangerous.” He grabbed a set of flameproof coveralls from the back of his truck, pulled them on over his clothes, and then put on a full-face driver’s helmet and gloves.

It was only the work of a couple minutes to put the warm-up plugs into the car, by which time the guy who had volunteered to help was back. “What do you need me to do?”

Ray handed him what looked like a stovepipe elbow attached to a stick. “This is an exhaust deflector,” Ray told him. I want you to hold it over the exhaust pipe, tight, and keep it there until I get the starter out of the way. That’ll shoot the exhaust and any backfires out to the side where they shouldn’t hurt anyone.” He looked around at the crowd. “I want everybody way back from the back and the far side of the car,” he said. “When this thing backfires it’s like a flamethrower, but you can’t see the flame. Ginger, you can put the check list in the truck, I can fake it from here. Bring the fire extinguishers. He looked at the crowd, saw a couple guys he knew in fire suits, and volunteered them to help with the fire extinguishers. “Remember,” he told him. “This is a methanol flame and it burns clear. Ginger, you grab a fire extinguisher too, there’s no such thing as too many.”

By now, Ted had his fire suit on. “You need me in the car?” he asked.

“Not right now,” Ray told him. “We’re just going to warm this up some more.”

“It’s not warmed up enough already?” he asked.

“Just to the point where we can dare to start it,” Ray told him. “I’m going to crank the engine a bit. When you see some oil pressure, you can flip on the ignition switch. It should start at an idle, but if we have to we’ll put on a little throttle with the linkage, but not very much. Ginger, keep an eye under the car for leaks. If you see anything, shout out, OK?”

“Can do, Ray,” she nodded.

“OK, everybody,” Ray said loudly. “It may start and die several times, so be ready. Jim,” he said to the guy with the exhaust deflector. “Make sure you keep that over the exhaust until I give you the high sign, and that won’t come until after I get the starter out of the way, OK?”

“Right. Boy, this is a pain in the ass, isn’t it?”

“Shit, you have no idea,” Ray shook his head. “We’re doing real well so far, now let’s just hope it starts at all. OK, everybody in position and ready? Guess so. Here goes!”

Ray took a deep breath and hit the starter button. The motor in the starter began to turn over. Ginger happened to glance over at Ted, who was standing outside the car, intently watching the oil pressure gauge. She could see him reach down and throw the ignition switch.

The Offy burped a couple times, acting like it was trying to start, hitting a few licks, then dying out again. Ray stopped the starter and let it wind down. “OK, guess it needs a little throttle,” he said. “Ted, same thing. We’ll get it up to speed with the ignition off till the oil pressure goes off the peg, then get back and add a little throttle with the linkage. Just a little, don’t wing it or anything, OK?”

“OK,” the driver replied. “Let’s try it again.”

Once again, everyone got into position and Ray got the starter going. After a few seconds, Ginger could see Ted throw the ignition switch, then move back to the engine section and fiddle with the throttle linkage. The engine burped again, caught, stuttered a little, then came to life with a growl that was almost ear shattering, even at idle. Ray pulled the starter back and out of the way, giving the signal to the guy holding the exhaust deflector.

Ray headed back over to the engine, running his hand over the warm exhaust pipe and the cam covers, to see if there was an indication of any problems. “OK, Ted, I’ll take it from here,” he said. Ted stepped back out of the way, while Ray got his hand on the throttle linkage. Using it, he ran the engine up partway. It sounded very loud, even at that low speed; things around the car were vibrating, and Ginger could see some wrenches and things in the bed of the truck vibrating at the noise. She wished she’d thought to put in earplugs, and resolved to do so the next time she was around when the thing started.

After running the engine up a ways, Ray let the revs die off quickly. All of a sudden there was a moderately loud explosion of a backfire behind the car. Several people jumped at the backfire, but Ray wasn’t one of them; some people who had been edging toward the back of the car thought better of it and decided to get out of the line of fire. There was a considerable stink of burning methanol that made their eyes almost start to water.

Ray ran the engine up again, slowly, then let it die quickly, causing another backfire, then another. Everyone there was used to race engines, but this was more than a stock block that had been warmed up for racing at the local track – this was obviously a barely contained fury, raw power built for speed of a class that no one around was used to or even quite ready for.

This went on for quite a while – just minutes, really, although it seemed longer than that, while Ray warmed up the engine, keeping an eye on the gauges in the cockpit. Eventually, he was satisfied with the gauges; he let the engine slide back to an idle, stepped over to the cockpit and cut the ignition.

For a few seconds there was blessed silence. Then, all of a sudden, there was a loud KAPOW!!! as the largest backfire of the day exploded behind the car.

“Not bad,” Ray said mildly. “Not very feisty at all for an engine with all the time on it this one has. Ted, I guess we’re about ready for you to give it a try.”

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To be continued . . .

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