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

Chapter 19

“Are you sure?” Ted asked, more than a little bit awed at the display of power and noise that he’d just seen, more than a little intimidated. Ginger could see that he was wondering if he was up to handling it, and she could understand. Good God, what a beast!

“Yeah,” Ray told him. “We need to move fairly quickly. It’s warmed up enough now; we don’t want to let it cool off much or we’ll have to do the whole thing all over again. But we’ve got a few minutes. Ginger, why don’t you help him get buckled in while I get the warm-up plugs out and the race plugs in. After I get that done I’ll come help you out.”

“It sounds awful ragged,” Ted protested mildly. “Kinda like the proverbial bucket of bolts.”

“Naw, it’s OK,” Ray said. “Offys have been sounding like that for forty years, this one is no different.”

“If you say so,” Ted shrugged.

“Come on,” Ginger said. “I’ll give you a hand.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d been in the cockpit; she knew there had been considerable work done earlier in the week to rearrange it, adjust the padding and seat to fit him into it as snugly as possible. At full speed he would be heading through the corners at something like 3 Gs of side force, and the last thing he’d want to think about at that speed was hanging on.

Soon Ray came up to help with the process, pulling the belts even snugger than Ginger and Ted had fastened them. “You ready?” Ray asked finally.

“Hell, no,” Ted said honestly. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for this monster, but I don’t see any choice but to try it out.”

“That’ll work, I guess,” Ray laughed. “I’ll tell you what T.J. Wireman and a couple other people told Paul. If you ever get confident in one of these things it’s time to get out of it and stay the hell out of it. It should scare the hell out of you.”

“It’s got that down pretty good already,” Ted nodded.

“OK, I’ll go over it one more time,” Ray told him. “Ignition on when you get some oil pressure after I start cranking, just like before. You might have to give it a little throttle, but not very much, and don’t wing it when you get it running. Just let it warm up like I was doing. Slowly up to 4,000 revs, then back off quickly. I’ll let you know when the track is clear and you can head out there. Go slow in first gear for a couple laps until the water temp is up to 160. Same thing, don’t keep the speed steady, but try to stay out of that rough section around 2600 rpm. Once you get it up to temp, shift to second, same thing on the revs and about forty inches of boost, but keep a little brake on until you get the oil pressure down to 150. When you get it down there, go ahead and run the boost up to sixty inches. Then, go to third and try to get a feel for it, go as fast as you’re comfortable. You got all that?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“OK, we’ll get your helmet on now, do a radio check, and then we’ll crank it up for real.”

It took a couple minutes to get the helmet on, which included a horse collar to help stave off the centrifugal force of the corners, along with a strap to the side to help him hold his head up. Ray headed over to the truck, pulled out a portable radio – a different frequency than the track radios – and gave him a call: “Ray to Ted for radio check.”

“Got you, Ray,” Ted replied. “Let’s do this before I have to piss again.”

“Hold on,” Ray replied, with an obvious multiple meaning. He grabbed the microphone for the track radio mounted in his truck and said, “Pit gate, this is Ray. Hold ’em as soon as this guy gets off the track and leave plenty of room for the Indy car to get through.”

“Roger, can do,” the gate worker replied.

“All right,” Ray said to the group standing around, “Ready with the fire extinguishers again, everybody. Jim get the exhaust deflector in place. This is for real.” He pulled his own helmet and gloves on again, then pushed the starter up to the engine. “Ginger, give him the windup sign,” he called, and closed the face plate of his helmet.

Ginger twirled her finger in the air, then Ray hit the starter. As before, the car turned over several times before Ted turned the ignition on, and then it belched and farted a couple times, tried to catch and failed, then caught with a rumble and a blare of sound. Ray backed the starter away, waited a few seconds, then pulled the starter cart out of the way as he signaled Jim to remove the exhaust deflector.

Ray hustled over to the open door of his truck, pulled the helmet off, and called the pit gate. “You ready for the Indy car?” he said.

“Yeah, let ’er rip,” the guy replied.

Ray put down the truck’s mike and picked up the portable. “OK, take it easy,” he told Ted. “The track is clear; you won’t have to worry about running down some poor bastard in an Economy Stock.”

“Rolling,” Ted replied. “Boy, that clutch is stiff.”

“Supposed to be,” Ray told him. “That ain’t no grocery getter, after all.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Ted replied as the car started to pull ahead slowly. It was a tight turn into the pit lane from where they’d been working on the car. Ted passed several cars waiting to get out on the track – most of them were silent and empty, with the drivers standing outside to get a better look at this strange sight for their familiar little Bradford Speedway. There was plenty of room for Ted to drive past the leading car and make his turn onto the track.

He turned out onto the track and let the car lope along while it warmed up. “Everything is shaking like hell,” he reported. “Especially right around 2600.”

“So don’t drive it there,” Ray said over the portable radio. “Try to keep it between 3000 and 4000, but remember you have to drive it around the track, too. How’s it going?”

“Not too bad,” he replied. “It’s just that everything is vibrating so bad I’m not sure which one of about five tracks I’m supposed to be driving on.”

“Try the middle one, you’ll figure it out,” Ray grinned. He reached in the truck, pulled out his stop watch and a clip board, handing it to Ginger. “Get some lap times,” he told her. “Might as well get them while he’s going slow so you can practice.”

“Right, can do,” she said, walking around to where she had a little better view of the start-finish line. She punched the stop watch when he crossed the line, followed him around the track, and punched it again when he had completed a lap. “18.76,” she announced.

“That would be a slow lap for an Economy Stock,” Ray smiled. “And that’s just warming things up.”

Ted continued to circle the track at a relaxed speed for several laps. “How’s the water temp?” Ray called.

“Getting there,” Ted radioed back. “Oil pressure is about 175, if I can see the gauge right.”

“OK, go ahead, go up a gear and give it some boost,” Ray replied.

“Will do,” came the word from the driver. “Now I get to find out a little about this thing.”

They could hear the engine pick up power – it began to roar, to sing the rumbling song of the Offenhauser that had echoed around American race tracks for decades. A couple laps later, Ginger reported a lap in the high fifteens.

“How’s it feeling now?” Ray radioed.

“Not bad. I still feel like it’s just loafing along, though. I’d sure like to push it some.”

“What’s your oil pressure now?”

“Around 150, as far as I can tell through the vibration.”

“OK, then, give it some more boost, go up to third and get the feel of it.” Ray took the radio away from his face and said, “Now we find out whether we fish or cut bait.”

Ted came out of the fourth corner much more on it than he’d been before. The Offy was roaring now, and the car was visibly at speed. It shot down the front stretch, bailed off into the corner like it was on rails, and came out of turn two like it was shot from a gun. Over the next three laps, the lap times continued to drop, as the air was filled with the sound and smell of a working turbo Offy.

After another lap or two, they could hear him back down more and just motor around the turn. “Third is just too much for this place,” Ted radioed. “I’m not getting much past about 7500 before I have to shut it down for the corners. I’m going to try it in second.”

“How’s it handling?”

“A little tight, but damn! It really sticks in the corners!”

“OK, give it a try,” Ray replied. He took the radio away from his mouth, keeping his eye on the orange and white Eagle.

This time when Ted came out of turn four, the turbo Offy growled like it meant it. They could hear the engine wind up higher than they’d heard it go before, and Ted was just about flying as he ran down the front stretch. The engine sound died as he got hard on the brake, but it began to howl again as he powered his way out of the corner.

“Man, he’s going like a son of a bitch,” someone commented.

“13:98,” Ginger reported a few seconds later.

“That is damn flying,” someone else said. “That’s only three tenths off the track record.”

“I’ll bet he gets it under that when he gets the feel of it,” a third person said.

Whoever that third person was, they were right. Ginger had the stop watch on him, along with several other people. By the third lap in second gear, Ted had the Eagle under the track record and was trying to shave some more off of it. They didn’t hear anything on the radio – he was too busy concentrating to talk – and Ray was not about to bother him.

Ted ran the Eagle about ten laps like that, going like a house afire, while everyone on the track just watched the Eagle fly into territory that had never been seen around the Bradford Speedway before. Finally, Ted slowed the car down to what seemed like a relaxed pace and called on the radio, “You know, this thing might just be worth all the damn trouble.”

“You seemed to be going pretty good,” Ray said noncommittally. “I think we figured out about what we wanted to, so you might as well bring it in.”

“Damn, do I have to? I guess we’d better save the engine for the Brickyard, though.”

“Yeah,” Ray said. “We wouldn’t want to wear it out screwing around here.”

“I suppose,” Ted replied. “But damn!”

“Just bring it down by the trailer, let it idle and shut it down,” Ray told him. “I guess the old girl still has a few laps left in her.”

“She does indeed,” Ted radioed, letting the car slow down through turns one and two, then braking hard to make the turn onto the back stretch pit entrance. In a few more seconds, he let the car drift up to the crowd gathered around the hauler. “Don’t get behind him!” Ray yelled as the car came to a stop. The sound of the engine died as Ted shut it off. There was silence again for a moment, then the violent KABOOOM of a really serious backfire from unburned fuel coming through the tailpipe. Nobody got singed in the invisible burst of flame but many could feel the heat.

In a few seconds, Ray and Ginger were helping Ted get unstrapped from the Eagle, and the onlookers were starting to crowd around a little closer – all of them knew they’d seen something that was out of the ordinary for Bradford. “Son of a bitch, this thing goes nice,” Ted exulted as soon as they had his helmet off. “That was everything I hoped it could be.”

They had him out of his straps and were helping him stand up when they heard Mel’s voice over the track speaker system. “This is a milestone day here at Bradford Speedway,” he said. “I had the electronic timing system going up here in the scoring tower while Ted Hilyard was making his test run in his Offenhauser-powered Eagle. According to the printout, his best lap was a 13:23, which is far and away the all-time Bradford Speedway track record. Congratulations, Ted, and the best of luck to you down at the Brickyard.”

“Holy shit,” Ted shook his head. “A track record? Shit, if we were to work on this thing a bit I think we could get it down into the twelves. Second gear is a little too low, I was having to lift before I got in the corner so I wouldn’t hit the red line. And it’s real, real tight in the corners, it seems like it wants to go straight into the wall but it really does turn.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Ray smiled, just happy as Ted at what had been accomplished, “but everything we did to it to speed it up here we’d just have to undo when we get down to the Brickyard, and we might not get it put back right where it belongs.”

“I suppose,” Ted shook his head, “but still, well, I mean, son of a bitch! Hell, if I never do anything more with it, that was worth all the effort. My God, what a ride!”

*   *   *

It took a while for the crowd to thin out after Ted’s run with the Eagle. As things died down a little he asked, “Ray, do you see any need to run this again today?”

“No,” Ray grinned. “No matter how much you’d like to. I think we can let it cool off some before we haul it back up to the shop.”

“That’s kind of what I was thinking,” Ted agreed. “I’ll go ahead and get out of this fire suit, then it’s time for me to buy you some hot dogs and Cokes.”

“I’ll take you up on that,” Ray grinned. “It is getting near lunch time after all.”

“I’ll even go order the hot dogs,” Ginger told them. “What do you guys want on yours?”

A few minutes later they were sitting on one of the handful of picnic tables located near the concession stand, with the Eagle in full view. People were still coming by to look at it, to touch it, and while Ray thought pretty well of most racers this was something he didn’t want to let get out of his sight in a crowd. Jim, the driver who had helped with the exhaust deflector, came over to join them. “Man,” he said, “you were going like a house afire. That thing is all get up and go, isn’t it?”

“It sure is,” Ted agreed. “You know, in a way it’s a little funny. If the dyno charts from the last rebuild on that engine are right, it should be kicking out about eight hundred horsepower at full boost, but I didn’t want to run it up that high to save the engine. So say seven hundred horsepower. Hell, I’ve driven Late Models with almost that much power, but that thing is in a different world.”

“That little?” Jim frowned. “I’m real surprised for as fast as you went.”

“It’s no Late Model,” Ray told him. “It weighs a hell of a lot less, less than half the typical Late Model. Plus, it’s a lot smaller than a Late Model, and those huge tires and wings make it stick a whole lot better in the corners. Ted, you got any idea what your RPM in the corners was?”

“No idea, I was just trying to hang on to it.”

“Just guessing,” Ray replied. “There’s a speed chart up in the office, but 13.23 means that you had an average of a shade over a hundred miles an hour. 102, 104, something like that, just doing it in my head. So that means maybe ninety in the corners, maybe 125 going into them. Really not all that fast, in one sense of the word.”

“Not that fast, my foot,” Jim snorted. “If I tried going through a corner here at ninety there’d be a hole in the wall.”

“That’s how much better it sticks in the corners,” Ray said. “Now, the interesting part is that you were looking at roughly half the speed you’d see down at Indy. Maybe 170 in the corners, 220 or faster at the end of the straights. Of course, you’ve got two and a half miles to work with, rather than three eighths, so everything is on a different scale.”

Ted shook his head “I still can’t imagine this is really going to happen, but I guess it is. I’m still concerned about how tight it is in the corners.”

“No point in worrying too much about it right now,” Ray told him. “Like I said, twice as fast, the wings are going to be helping you a lot more. Again, it’s one of those things that there’s no point in messing with here since we’d probably have to unmess with it when we get down south. We know the engine runs, and we’ve been through the chassis. There’s still a pretty good list of things to do but we know we’ve got a runner. That’s half the battle. More than half.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Ted agreed. “If we hadn’t been able to get it started, or if it ran sour, maybe down a cylinder, I don’t know what we’d do.”

“Unless it was something simple, like maybe a bad plug or something, we’d be up shit creek,” Ray said flatly. “What do you say we load all the loose stuff back in the hauler, tow the car and the hauler back up to the shop, and just take the rest of the day off? I need to put in a little time around the track today, just to make it look like I’m doing something here.”

“Sounds like it has possibilities,” Ted agreed. “I honest to God think I’m going to take a nap. I hardly managed to sleep a wink last night, I was so uptight about running that thing.”

“I can’t say as I blame you,” Ray grinned. “I don’t mind telling you I don’t mind working on that thing, but I’m not tempted to even think about driving it.”

*   *   *

Ted’s run in the Eagle was pretty much the highlight of the test-and-tune session, although there were many hours yet to run, most of them active. There was always a line of cars, sometimes four or five deep, waiting for their chance to get out on the track and run a few laps. Nobody kept a record of how many runs had been made, but there were a lot of them.

There were breaks, however. Several times over the course of the day engines let go, and things had to be stopped to clean up the mess. “It always happens,” Mel commented to Ginger after one car ran around the track leaving a broad trail of oil behind it. “People work on their cars all the damn winter, and the first time they get out on the track they forget to do something simple, like having the oil drain plug barely screwed in.”

While Ginger spent a good chunk of the afternoon at the back-gate ticket booth, the traffic there was light – perhaps only three or four groups an hour came to add to the people hanging around the track. While there was paperwork to do and she spent some time building up a running total of the cash transactions, there was also time to think a little.

She had only been hanging around with Ray and the Austins for a few days, less than two weeks in fact. It seemed a whole lot more interesting, exciting even, than the humdrum life she’d had working at McDonald’s, with her father and mother sniping at her every chance they got. She’d rarely wondered what their reaction must have been to her leaving without so much as a note. If they had any idea of where she was, she had no sign of it – and that suited her just fine under the circumstances. It seemed like she was heading to a new life, more interesting, more rewarding than her previous one. Granted, up to this point she’d been doing a lot of rather menial work, but at least some of it was the bookkeeping work she’d hoped to do, and it looked like there was going to be a lot more of it.

And Ray. Yeah, Ted’s run in the Eagle had been thrilling, even exciting, not just for her but for everyone around the track. But somehow she had to think that it had been Ray who had impressed her, standing beside that roaring, finicky engine, bringing the thunder to life with his fingers, controlling it, tickling it, even. She remembered him as standing there, a pillar of calm in the ocean of excitement. Of course, he’d done it before; it wasn’t new to him, but that didn’t alter the fact that she saw Ray as a calm, steadying, placid presence that was thoroughly in command of the situation, much more than Ted had been.

Yes, Ray was a nice guy, gentle, quiet, steady, not very excitable. But he was a strong presence, one who didn’t lose his cool or lose his temper. While he’d been pleased at seeing Ted set a new track record, he hadn’t been jumping up and down with excitement, either – it was just the sign of a good job, one well done.

On thinking about it, she realized that she liked that about him – liked it a lot in fact. Yeah, so he was just a mechanic, but after watching him today the phrase sounded empty and wrong. A man capable of doing what he had done to the Eagle’s engine, in the calm, collected, professional way that he had done it, was more than “just” a mechanic. A lot more, in fact.

It didn’t take much thought to imagine getting a lot closer with him. In fact, from what she’d seen of him over the last few days, he seemed like a real good prospect for making a life with, whether he had a real job at the moment or not. A job seemed somehow immaterial, anyway – he was searching for his right place in life, and a job was only part of that right place.

Could she be a part of that right place? It wasn’t beyond imagining – and in fact, she felt like she was already well down the road toward it. Maybe the last few days they hadn’t seemed quite as close as they’d been the first two or three days she’d been with the Austins, but Hilyard and the Indy car had diverted a lot of his attention. But that would only last so long, and from what she’d been able to figure out he wasn’t likely to be involved as heavily the next week, anyway. Maybe there would be some more chances to get some time together before he had to take off for much of the month of May.

When she got right down to it, things seemed to be moving along nicely, and she had hopes for more. “Arlene,” she said mentally to the wind, “I’m on your side.”

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To be continued . . .

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