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Bullring Days 3 book cover

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

Chapter 27

Firing up the turbo Offy in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis was no less of a project than it had been at Bradford, except for the fact that at the Speedway there were a few more people around who knew what was going on. Sure enough, T.J. Wireman showed up in the early part of the process wearing his fireproof coveralls and carrying his helmet and offered to take over the starter cart for Ray, so he could concentrate on the switches and the vitals of the engine. While they were concentrating on the car, Ted drafted a couple mechanics from nearby teams to stand around with fire extinguishers and to help keep the crowd back.

As before, the warm-up was loud, and the backfires from the normally over-rich engine were like explosions, a lance of flame that was felt by those of the crowd who dared stand too close.

Once the engine had been warmed up, it was almost time to get Ted set to go out on the track for his driver’s test. “About twenty minutes before we have to be down in the pits, I think,” Ray commented. “Ted, you might as well get ready.”

“Catch you down there,” Wireman told them. “Thanks for letting me help. You have no idea how good it is to hear an Offy here again.” He headed off for his own garage, presumably to see what his own teams were up to.

“You know,” Ray commented to Ginger once Wireman was out of earshot, “that is the most unbelievable thing. There’s a guy with three cars, all with chief mechanics and car chiefs and crewmen working on them while he stands back and watches, but he comes down here and gets his hands dirty with us, and we’re at least technically competitors.”

“Interesting guy,” Ginger agreed.

A few minutes later, Ray had pulled the warm-up plugs out of the engine and replaced them with race plugs and done a few other things needed to get ready for the test. It was time to go. Ted had suited up and was sitting inside the car to steer as Ray, Ginger, and a few of the spectators pushed the Eagle and the starting cart down Gasoline Alley and through the gate onto pit road. From here the empty grandstands loomed high overhead; a car screamed past with a V-8 shriek, another driver out on his driver’s test. An official confirmed that there was only one more car ahead of Ted, so they got him in, strapped him in tight and got set to start the car for real.

Finally, after what seemed hours, the official gave them the sign to crank it up. While a couple of people stood close by with fire extinguishers, Ginger held the exhaust deflector up against the single pipe, while Ray dealt with the engine and Wireman manned the starter. Ray gave the high sign to get it going; the turbo Offy belched a couple times, farted, backfired, and began to growl with its trademark four-cylinder rumble. The noise was incredible; Wireman backed away with the starter and gave Ginger a signal to take the exhaust deflector away. Ted sat in the car, warming it up with gentle increases of the throttle, followed by a quick backfiring letdown; then the official gave a hand signal for Ted to get going, and Ray gave him a thumb up as the Eagle accelerated away. In only a few seconds he was on the acceleration lane out of sight, going around turn one.

In the relative quiet, they could hear the aged Offenhauser spool up as it pushed the Eagle down the back stretch. “Still a warm-up lap,” Ray told Ginger. Soon, the orange and white Eagle appeared in turn four, coming down the front stretch at a moderate pace, picking up speed slowly.

Even in that day and age 170 mph was slow for the Speedway, but that was part of what the driver’s test was all about. They could hear the car picking up speed as it came out of turn four, and this time it was moving a lot more quickly, smooth but loud, the echo of its growling exhaust filling the air. Here and there up and down pit road, things came to a stop at that sound, already one unfamiliar and out of the past. They followed the car by its sound as it roared around the track, once again appearing on the front stretch and flashing by the three-foot-wide line of bricks that marked the start-finish line. To Ginger, it seemed far from the first race she’d seen not all that long before at Potterville, and even a long way away from the familiar track at Bradford.

A number appeared on the tower: 171:235. “I’d say that was cutting it pretty close,” Wireman commented. “Nice and smooth, looks good to me.”

After three more laps an official radioed to Ted to up the pace; the next lap was in the mid 170s, but after that they settled down just over 180. Again, everything went good, and he was told again to up the pace. At 190, he was moving along at roughly race pace, and everything was going well. Two, three, four laps just over 190, and the official radioed him to bring it in. They could hear him back off the throttle, and mostly coast around the track as his speed burned off. He pulled it into the pits and stopped just shy of the entrance into Gasoline Alley, then shut the engine off with, of course, a backfire.

“Looked good to me,” Wireman commented, “but it’s a decision for the officials to make.”

Another car was heading out on the track; still belted in the car, Ted had his helmet off now, and an official was bending over him, having a few words. The voices were just a little too low for them to hear, but from the smiles on the official’s face, and on Ted’s face, it was clear that he’d passed the test.

“You done?” Ray called.

“Yeah, go ahead and take her back,” the official said. “Good job!” Ray, Ginger, and a couple of spectators found places to push on the car well away from the searing hot exhaust pipe, while Wireman dragged the starter cart. It was a long push back to the garage, but it was made in the spirit of a hurdle passed.

Back in the garage, Ray and Ginger helped Ted from the car; once he was out he peeled off his driving suit. There were some congratulations all around, and a couple compliments. Only when things died down did Ray ask, “So how did it go?”

“The first part was fine,” Ted reported, “but the last couple laps, it seemed real jumpy again.”

“Sure it’s not just the speed?” Ray asked.

“No, it didn’t do it at the lower speeds, and it didn’t do it the first couple laps at 190,” Ted shook his head. “I don’t think it was me. It just felt like it was trying to get away from me. I mean, it was running good, but it felt like it was right on the edge of being way loose, especially in the center of the corners. And it would come and go. Like I said, jumpy. That shock again, I wonder?”

Ray tried to make sense of it. “Can’t be, we changed all four.”

“It helped for a while,” Ted observed, “but it’s got to be something else. You were right that the tightness I felt down at Bradford would go away with the speed I’d have to run here, but this doesn’t make sense.”

“Ted, I don’t know what to tell you. It was T.J. who suggested the shock change, and it seemed to help, but maybe that wasn’t the problem at all. There’s only one thing I can think of to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Call in Spud McElroy. I don’t know if he knows anything about Eagles in particular, but if there’s anything about doctoring a chassis he doesn’t know, it isn’t worth knowing.”

“I don’t know him,” Ted shook his head. “You’re going to have to talk to him.”

“Guess so,” Ray agreed. “Hell, it’s Sunday. I haven’t seen him around here in a couple days. I have no idea if I can track him down today. About all I can do is try. Let’s slide over to the cafeteria and grab something. I’ll get on the phone and see what I can do.”

“Don’t know what else we can do,” Ted agreed. “Damn, I didn’t expect to get through this without problems, but this is frustrating.”

They closed up the garage and walked to the Gasoline Alley cafeteria, a tiny and rather grubby little spot that was notable only because some of the biggest names in racing rubbed elbows there in the month of May. Today was on the quiet side; driver testing had left Gasoline Alley rather vacant of the veterans. Ginger settled for a Coke, while Ray headed for the phone.

“You sure you wouldn’t like a burger?” Ted asked as they found a table to wait for Ray.

“No, I swore off burgers while I was working at McDonald’s,” Ginger told him.

“Can’t say as I blame you,” he smiled, “and you’re probably wise. This place makes some of the lousiest burgers I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across. They’re only good because of where they’re made, if you get my meaning.”

“Yeah, I think I do,” Ginger nodded with a smile on her face. “Ted, are you getting what you came for?”

“Oh, yeah,” he told her. “This is what I dreamed of. Hell, I’ve gotten to take hot laps around this place in a car that’s at least capable of getting into the race. I’ve met some legendary names, been a part of some legendary places. If that engine grenades the next time we start it, I’ll consider myself about even. But, now that I’ve come this far, I’d sure like to get a bit further. I was running at a pace that would have made the race last year. I don’t know if it’ll be enough this year, but maybe we can find a few more miles an hour and I can make it in.”

“Just out of curiosity, what happens when this is all over with?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought it out that far. Go home, I guess, and see if I can maybe find a Late Model ride, driving for someone. There’s a chance of that. Go back to work, see if I can get some bills caught up.”

“You know,” she smiled, “I’ve known you for weeks, and I really don’t know anything about you. Like, are you married? What’s your job?”

“I guess I’m not much to talk about it,” he shook his head. “My mind has been on here. I was married, but she didn’t like my racing every chance I got, so now I’m not married. No kids, thank goodness. In my real life, I’m an insurance adjuster. Hell of a thing for a race car driver, isn’t it?”

Ginger giggled, “It does seem a little odd, now that I think about it.”

Ray came over to join them, carrying a burger and a cup of coffee. “No answer at his shop,” he reported. “I didn’t have his home number but I knew Dad did, so I called Dad, and no answer at home, either.”

“Not surprising, I guess,” Ted shrugged. “Well, it’s not like we could expect to accomplish much around here today, anyway. Ray, you’ve got Ginger here, why don’t you two go take in a movie, show her around the Speedway Museum, or something like that?”

“You know, Ted, I can think of a lot worse things to do.”

After their abbreviated lunch, they headed back to the garage and closed things up for the day. The Speedway Museum seemed like a pretty good idea under the circumstances, and the two of them headed there to check things out.

For someone who hadn’t known or cared much about race cars until a few weeks before, the place was an education in the history and tradition of the Indianapolis 500, and American racing in general. Ginger’s attention was particularly drawn to several cars from the 1950s. “Boy, those sure make you think of the Old Soldier, don’t they?” she commented at one point.

“With good reason,” Ray told her. “They all come out of the same era, and a lot of them had the same builders. What’s more, for some time they approached the same problems much the same way, so came up with the same solutions. While almost everybody was running the same unsupercharged Offenhauser 255 engines, it’s not surprising. The design didn’t start to get shaken up until rear engines, and then overhead cam V-8s started to come along in the early 60s. Then, in about four years, the front-engine roadsters like the Old Soldier just went away, along with the unsupercharged 255s.”

“That’s the kind you need for the Old Soldier, isn’t it? Have you picked up any leads on one since you’ve been down here?”

“Not really,” Ray shook his head. “The only ones I know about are those in the museum here, so they don’t count. I’ve talked to most of the people still running here from that era either last year or this year, and they tell me they cleaned out their shops long ago. But there’s got to be one out there somewhere, and maybe it’ll turn up sooner or later.”

*   *   *

It was getting later in the afternoon when they got back outside. They caught a movie, had dinner at a fairly nice restaurant, and then just spent relaxed time with each other before heading back to the travel trailer to spend the night.

Ginger had originally planned to head back very early in the morning so as to not miss much work, but she rationalized that since it was Monday, it wouldn’t matter much. The two of them got up, went out to breakfast, and then Ginger started back toward Bradford while Ray went looking for Spud McElroy.

It was a long drive back to Bradford; it seemed longer than it had been on the way down. It had been fun to visit Ray and Ted, fun to see what they were working on and feel some of the excitement. On thinking about it, Ginger reflected that it might not have been as much fun if Ted and the Eagle were really in contention – it might be a little too serious. It would have been interesting to hang around longer, but she had no real reason to stay, given that there was work to do at the track in Bradford.

After she got to the house and her stuff put away, she headed out to the track office, where Mel and Arlene had left her a list of things that really needed to be done. It was pretty much the same things as usual, bookkeeping, a few things to repair, some picking up that needed to be done, taking care of the grounds. They were mostly things that she liked to do, even though her mind was far away.

Later in the week they got a call from Ray, just checking in and keeping them up to date. “Spud was over and looked at the car,” he reported. “He’s not real sure about the problem with it trying to get loose, but he suspects that it might be aerodynamic, rather than just a chassis issue. Something to do with the front wing.”

“Are you going to be able to fix it?” Ginger asked.

“We’ve tried,” Ray explained. “We adjusted it to increase the down force a little. It seemed to work when we had the car out today, but we’re not real sure we’ve tracked it down completely. The problem is that when you do that it increases drag and slows the car down. That’s something we sure don’t want right now, though the last thing we need to happen is for the car to get away from Ted.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Ginger said. “Ray, I’m planning on coming down on Sunday again if you think it’ll be worth the trip.”

“It’s always good to see you,” he replied. “I’ve been missing you. I feel like I’m just playing around down here when there’s things I could be doing up there. One of those things is spending time with you.”

When Saturday rolled around, Ginger had her doubts if she really should go down to Indianapolis on Sunday at all. The season was definitely under way at Bradford Speedway – there were ATV races in the infield of the little track on Saturday, with motorcycle races planned on the little track on Sunday. The kart racing season opened Saturday morning, as well, and of course the scheduled Saturday night race planned at the big track, the fast, winged Sprint cars the headline feature.

“It could be worse,” Mel told her Friday night around the dinner table. “We used to race karts in the infield of the big track. In fact, that’s part of the reason we paved the infield in the first place, but it really got to be a mess when their races ran late on Saturday, and we had to have the track open for practice and qualifying for the Saturday night show. Fortunately, we got the idea of paving a cutoff loop on part of the road course, and mostly they use that, now. We still use the infield for kart racing sometimes, but only on Sunday.”

“Cleanup is really the issue, especially cleaning up at the little track and after the karters on Saturday,” Arlene told her. “Fortunately this week we can take our time about cleaning up the big track after the Saturday show. We’ll have some extra kids on the crew, so there shouldn’t be any problem about you leaving early Sunday.”

As expected, Saturday was a busy day, but for the most part everything went all right. It was not the prettiest day she’d ever seen; there had been thunderstorms in the area all day long, although none hit the track. The threat of them probably kept the crowd down Saturday evening, although the show went on as normal, and there was some good racing. Ginger and Frank spent a few minutes putting together the “Miss Marston” gag they were going to pull at the drawing, and again it went off well. They wound up passing the microphone back and forth to fill in at intermission, and during a break in the features the crowd realized that some fun was coming when Miss Marston sashayed across the track. They got the laughs and wolf whistles they’d intended, and Ginger was starting to like playing the part.

Once again, Mel and Arlene let her go early, shortly after the program was over with on Saturday night, and early Sunday morning the Gremlin’s grille was pointed down I-67 toward Indianapolis again.

There were a lot more people around the pits today, but she headed right for Ted and Ray’s garage, to find Ray fiddling with the car, as always. After a quick greeting kiss, Ginger asked, “So how did it go yesterday?”

“Mostly, it didn’t,” Ray told her. “I probably should have called, but I knew you were busy and things were crazy around here too. They just got qualifying going pretty good when a thunderstorm came through and washed everything out. When they finally got the track dried they managed to get a few more runs in, then we got rained on again, just enough to shut it all down. So everything is way behind. We’re still running the original drawing order, and it looks like we’ll be making an attempt about two PM today.”

“Is Ted getting nervous?”

“Yeah, he’s getting a little antsy,” Ray admitted. “I don’t know where he is right now, I told him to go someplace and get his mind off it.”

Qualifying at Indianapolis is a big deal, bigger than it could be, partly because the race is such a big deal. It stretched over two weekends, with the fastest cars all trying to qualify the first day. Spots in the starting lineup are determined both by speed and the day the car qualified, so getting in early is important. Ray and Ted weren’t exceptionally interested in being up near the front of the pack – they mostly wanted to be sure that Ted qualified the car at all. In theory, each car got three chances to make the race, but considering the number of cars and the limited time available, most cars don’t make three qualifying attempts, with the average speed of four laps counting as the qualifying time.

Sometime before noon, Ray, Ginger, and a couple volunteers from who knows where started preheating the engine. As always, it went slowly, but they got it running using the warm-up spark plugs about half an hour before they were due on the track, which was running a little behind schedule. With the engine warmed up, Ray made a few final changes like putting in the race plugs, then they started pushing the orange and white Eagle down to the pits. When their turn grew close, Ted got into the car, and Ray and Ginger once again strapped him in.

“OK, this is it,” Ray told him. “Go ahead and crank the boost all the way up to the limiter. You’re going to need all the old girl will give you.”

“Yeah, gotta go for it,” Ted agreed.

They’d become almost used to having T.J. Wireman show up about the time they had to start the car. He’d helped with the warm-up, and he did now, running the starter again while Ginger held the exhaust deflector, this time wearing a Nomex firesuit that fit, one she’d brought down from Bradford with her. Soon the engine was running, and Ted was off on his qualification attempt.

“It always amazes me how much you’re helping a competitor,” Ginger told him as Ted was making the first of his two warm-up laps. “How’s your team doing, anyway?”

“Got two in the field for sure, one in the front row,” Wireman told her. “The third, he may make it and he may not. He’s one of those deals where he brought the sponsorship money along with him, but I don’t think too much of his driving.”

“Well, congratulations.”

“Not the first time I’ve had cars in the field, not by a long shot,” Wireman smiled. “Probably more than I can count without going back over the records. It always means something to me to have a car in the field, but these days it isn’t like the thrill you guys will get if your car qualifies.”

The crowd noise was higher than it had been the week before, but they could still hear the four-cylinder growling howl of the turbo Offy as it made its way around the track. Ray gave the order to start the timing, and Ted came out of the fourth turn flying, the engine hitting a note Ginger had never heard before. The car flashed across the yard of bricks at the start-finish line, and disappeared around the first turn.

Ray had a stop watch going, more out of curiosity than anything else, but it wasn’t really needed because the time was posted on the scoring tower in miles per hour almost as quickly as Ray could say it in seconds. “Damn,” Ray said as the first time came up. “I’d hoped for a little more than that.”

The times were fast, low to mid 190s, faster than the car had run the year before in almost the same configuration, but the times still caused Ray to swear each time the car went past. Finally, after the fourth timed lap, the tower announced an average for qualifying: 193.747.

“Damn it,” Ray said as the car was slowing down on the back stretch. “He’s in the field for now, but that ain’t gonna cut it. It’ll never hold unless it rains all next weekend.”

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To be continued . . .

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