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

Chapter 28

They had the Eagle back in the garage before they really got to talking about it. “Shit,” Ted snorted. “We were running faster than that earlier with less boost. It’s got to be that we put too much wing into it.”

“Yeah, you’re most likely right,” Ray agreed. “But we put the wing in to keep it from getting flaky on you.”

“Well, at least that didn’t happen,” Ted admitted. “It was just as steady as a rock, but it seemed just about as fast as one, too. We’ve still got two qualifying attempts left. Let’s go ahead and back the front wing off, maybe even a little more than it was, and try it again. Let’s take a little off the back wing, too, to sort of even things out.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Ray asked. “Back off on the wing and it’s going to get flaky again.”

“Let it get goofy,” Ted snorted. “I’ll just have to drive the damn thing and keep from spinning it. If we make it into the race, we can crank the wings up again for some stability. If we don’t make it into the race, then we don’t get to the race, but if we don’t at least it won’t be for the lack of trying.”

“We’re not going to be able to get out there again today,” Ray said flatly. “Everything’s still screwed up from yesterday. I don’t think everybody in line is going to make it out on the track as it is.”

*   *   *

Ray went ahead and made the modifications, and they got back in line to try to make another attempt at qualifying. As Ray predicted, the attempt was fruitless; after a while they gave it up and put the car away for the day.

Again, Ray and Ginger spent the night together, and early on Monday morning she headed back up I-67 to Bradford, to wait out another long week of Ray being gone. As it turned out the wait wasn’t as long as she’d hoped, since Ray turned up around the middle of the day on Tuesday. “No particular reason to stick around,” he told her. “There’s not a darn thing to do down there except fiddle with things that have already been fiddled with. Since we’re trying to keep the engine time down, Ted can’t even get out and practice, so I figured that I might as well come home for a couple days and see you.”

While he was there, Ray couldn’t help but discover that Mel and Ginger had been working on the Modified in the evenings when they had nothing better to do. In fact, they had the engine nearly complete. “With the stuff you had for it, it’s not exactly going to be a turbo Offy for power,” Mel commented. “But it should be a strong, reliable engine that isn’t going to need a tenth the babying that the loud monster you have down there does.”

Pleased by the jump start on the ongoing project that had been lying around most of the winter, Ray turned to it over the next couple days. By the time he had to head back to Indianapolis it was nearing completion; even the body panels had a couple coats of primer on them. “If Ted makes it into the race it’s not going to hurt it to wait another couple of weeks to finish it up. It’ll be good to get this thing out and run it a little bit.”

The four of them had breakfast together on Friday morning. “Are you coming down this Sunday, Ginger?” Ray asked as he got set to go.

“We’ve got another busy weekend,” Ginger told him. “I really feel guilty about taking off when there’s things to be done here. I guess I’d better say that if Ted qualifies tomorrow with a speed that looks like it might stick, I think I’ll give it a pass. But if he winds up running on Sunday, I might as well come down.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Ray agreed. “If he doesn’t qualify, I might be back Sunday night, Monday for sure. If he does, well, I might be up for a couple days next week anyway. Whatever else happens, I’m starting to think beyond the race. It’ll be nice to have the Mod finished up. I’m starting to get an itch to get out with it.”

*   *   *

Saturday was another madhouse around the track, this time with motorcycles on the scrambles course at the little track, and the karters out on their track while getting ready for the weekly show at the big track. The one saving grace was that the track crew only had to give limited support to the bikes and karts; those were club events with their own officials. The track only had to have a safety crew available along with doing concessions and cleanup, but with everything it added up to a long day and a lot of work.

Things were busy enough that it was hard to think about what might be happening down at the Brickyard, and for the most part Ginger didn’t have time to worry about it much. However, she happened to be in the track office late on Saturday afternoon when Ray called. “Just thought you’d like to know,” he said. “What with all the delays, Ted didn’t get to run today. He’s supposed to be like the third one out in the morning, though, so if you want to catch it you’d better be here early. There’s a few people who are hangovers from yesterday and get to try, like us, then it becomes first come, first served, like always on bump day.”

Once again, then, Ginger ducked out on the late night work on Saturday night to try and get a few hours sleep before she headed down I-67 again. She got to the Speedway early enough that things were still getting started, but already the preheaters were going on Ted’s engine. There was time enough for a quick kiss and a few quick words about how things had gone the night before. Again, Ginger didn’t tell him how well the “Miss Marston” gag had gone this week; even she had trouble keeping from laughing when she and Frank pulled it off.

By ten in the morning they had the engine warmed up, the race plugs in and the car sitting out in the pits, ready for the qualifying attempt. While Ted jawed with a couple of people hanging around, Ray talked quietly with Ginger. “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” he said. “I don’t know exactly why. It’s early, the track is going to be cold, and that isn’t going to help with the handling. I wish the hell we could go later, but we pretty well have to take what we can get.”

They talked quietly for a few minutes, until it was close to time for their qualifying run to get under way. Ray broke away from Ginger and went over to Ted, and said, “OK, time to get saddled up.”

“Right, here we go,” Ted said, apparently relieved to be getting down to business after the long wait. “Boy, we’re getting down to the nut cutting, aren’t we?”

“That we are, my friend, that we are,” Ray agreed as the two of them walked over to the car.

Ray and Ginger spent a few minutes helping him get in the car and get strapped in. Ray went over a couple last minute instructions, and very soon it was time to get the car started. As was almost inevitable, T.J. Wireman showed up out of nowhere to run the starter for them again, while Ginger held the exhaust deflector. As they had come to expect, the engine started relatively easily, growled and faltered a couple times, and then settled down to run comfortably as Wireman pulled the starter cart back out of the way and Ginger removed the exhaust deflector. Ray checked the exhaust header; and noted that all the cylinders were firing as Ted warmed up the engine.

Finally, an official gave him the hand signal to go; Ted let up on the brakes, came down on the throttle, and headed slowly down pit row, then sped up as the car went down the acceleration lane. Even though the noise level in the pits was relatively high, they could hear the thrilling roar of the turbo Offy as it picked up speed going down the back stretch. The car appeared out of turn four at a moderate pace, still warming up, but after Ted crossed the starting line he picked up speed.

Ray, Ginger, and Wireman stood listening to the sound as Ted roared down the back stretch and backed it off for turn three, building speed for his first qualifying lap. Then, all of a sudden, the sound died back to where they could barely hear it, then stopped completely.

“Oh, shit,” Ray said. It was all that needed to be said, but he added, “Now what the hell?”

More eyes than theirs looked toward turn four, where they saw the Eagle pull into pit lane and coast down it, the engine shut off. Ted was still rolling along pretty fast when he came to the turn into Gasoline Alley; with the last of his speed he made the turn, and rolled to a stop not far inside the gate.

Ray, Ginger, and Wireman raced over to him. “Ted,” Ray yelled as soon as the driver’s helmet was off. “What happened?”

“The turbo quit,” Ted said sadly. “No fucking boost at all, just out of nowhere. I played with it some, ran it up and down, but nothing.” He sat there, looking at his lap for a moment, and said, “Well, I guess that’s that, unless it’s something really simple.”

“Let’s get this thing back to the garage and give it a look,” Ray said hopefully.

Several people helped push the car back to the garage and drag the starter cart along. In a few minutes, Ray had the engine cowling off and was trying to figure out the problem, with Wireman and Ted right at his side. “The waste gate is completely open,” Ray finally announced. “It doesn’t seem to want to close. Got to be something internal, I don’t know what it could be.”

Wireman shook his head. “Odds are that it’s a cam drive for the waste gate controller,” he said. “I had several of them let go at one time or another over the years. It’s probably the weakest point of the turbo.”

“Well, shit,” Ray stood up. “I guess that’s that, then. I know damn well we don’t have a spare for it. I don’t suppose that’s something that we could jury rig in a hurry, is it?”

“No, the real problem is that you just about have to tear the turbo apart to fix it,” Wireman told him. “Once you get there it’s nothing much to replace. Any half-assed machinist can turn you a replacement in half an hour, but it would take all day to tear it down and put it back together.”

“Well, shit,” Ray sighed. “Sorry, Ted. I guess that’s all she wrote. We just don’t have the time to deal with it. I guess we might as well pack it up. A two-bit part shoots us in the foot. That isn’t the first time that’s happened around here, is it?”

Wireman stood back and looked at the car, the driver, and the abbreviated crew, obviously thinking hard before he opened his mouth again. “Shit,” he said. “This leaves me in a spot, what with my third car two spots up from the bubble, but damn it, this is the last of the Offenhausers. I think I’ve got a spare turbo from years ago sitting in my shop over on Grande Avenue. It probably wasn’t as good as the one we had in the cars, so it was a spare. It hasn’t been off the shelf in years and I have no idea of how well it would work, but if you want to try a fast turbo change, it’s yours.”

“Jesus, Mr. Wireman,” Ted said. “I’m willing to give it a shot if Ray is, but I don’t know how I could pay you for it.”

“Hell, it’s junk to me, I have no use for it anymore,” Wireman snorted. “I said I think I have it. It may have been thrown out. I’d have to go look and see.”

“We’ll give it our best shot,” Ray told him. “Ginger, take Mr. Wireman over to his shop right away. Ted, let’s get this thing rolled out and into the qualification line. I’ll get my tool box and start ripping out the old turbo.”

“Ginger, let’s take my truck,” Wireman offered. “That’s one of the perks of having as much seniority as I have around this place, I get to park closer.”

Only a couple minutes later Wireman and Ginger were rolling out the Sixteenth Street tunnel and onto the streets heading south for his shop. “Mr. Wireman,” Ginger said, still amazed, “I don’t know how to say this, and I don’t even know if I’m the one who should say it, but I have to thank you for this incredible show of sportsmanship. You have the reputation of being a very hard competitor, and to do something like this for Ted and the rest of us . . . well, I just don’t know what to say.”

“Ginger, I think I’ve told you this before,” Wireman said. “That car and you guys are special, trying this on a shoestring and a dream. I’ve heard that car called ‘The Last Mohican’ and it is. I think that, after all these years, the last of the Offenhausers deserves a chance to go down swinging, rather than stove up by a two-bit part.”

*   *   *

It proved to not be just a case of going in and grabbing the turbocharger. Wireman’s shop was fairly big and had a lot of stuff in it, some of it dating back a while. It took half an hour and Wireman’s special knowledge to find the needed equipment; the two of them loaded it onto a dolly, hauled it out to his truck, locked up and headed back to the track. “To tell you the truth,” Wireman told Ginger, “I’m amazed I still had that thing sitting around, and even more amazed that I found it that easily.”

“I’m just amazed that you did,” Ginger told him. “You wouldn’t by some odd chance happen to have an unblown 255 Offenhauser sitting around, would you?”

“No, I’m sure I don’t,” Wireman told her. “And, yes, Ray has already asked me, even back last year. I’ve asked around some people I know, and nobody has any idea of where to find one anywhere other than the Speedway Museum. That’s something from long ago and far away, Ginger. I can’t even believe just how long ago and far away it is.”

They got back to Gasoline Alley to see a strange sight: the Eagle was sitting in the lineup of cars waiting to attempt to qualify, or to bump previous qualifiers out of the field. The cowling was off, and Ray, Ted and a couple of other mechanics from up and down the line were tearing into the engine section. Ray’s pickup was parked alongside the car, and they were using the tail gate as an improvised workbench. Wireman braked his truck to a stop alongside the affair, and Ginger hopped out and yelled, “He found it! We got it!”

“Great!” Ray yelled back. “I need to look at it to see what I’ve got to rip out.”

Within minutes, the turbocharger was in the back of Ray’s truck, and there was an extra set of experienced hands helping him wrestle with the unfamiliar chores: T.J. Wireman himself, glad to be getting his hands dirty and using experience dredged up from long before.

It wasn’t the first time there’d been a desperate rebuild of a car going on in the waiting line for qualifying on the last day, probably not the hundred and first over the years. It wasn’t even the first time that T.J. Wireman had been involved in such an effort. But to have him doing it on a competitor’s car – this was a sight that was just about unbelievable, and it drew a lot of attention from people who knew him and what was going on.

Normally, it would have been simpler to take the whole engine out of the car to replace the turbocharger, but there wasn’t the time for it, and this wasn’t the place. About all they could do was to do it where they were, and hope for the best. Every few minutes they had to push the car ahead to keep their spot in line.

Ginger knew there wasn’t much she could do to help in the process, other than do the best she could to stay out of the way, so she decided that’s where she could be the most use: trying to keep the crowd back. The crowd had a good many crewmen and media people in it, but there were also spectators that had garage passes to check out the back-shop action on this, the day that many people familiar with the race consider the most exciting except for the race itself.

Thus it was that Ginger spent a lot of time explaining what was happening, that the turbocharger had given up on them, and T.J. Wireman had found a spare from his own shop and was helping with the change. She also talked about Ted, how his father wanted to see him at least to attempt to qualify for the 500, how he and Ray had babied the old car to try to get it this far.

Surprisingly often, she found herself responding to the comment, “That’s a turbo Offy, isn’t it? I didn’t realize anyone was running them anymore.” She knew a little bit about the history of the Offenhauser by now, and she had to explain over and over again that while it was still a strong engine, it was technologically dated and virtually obsolete now.

Still, her ears perked up when she heard a guy about her age or a little older say, “You know, with the turbocharger off that looks a lot like the old unblown Offy my dad has out in his shop.”

“Your dad has an unblown Offy?” she said, scarcely unable to believe her ears.

“Yeah,” the guy said. “One of the old 255s they used to race here, oh, twenty-five or thirty years ago. He must have had it for fifteen years, now, just gathering dust out in his shop.”

Ginger desperately wanted to call Ray over to talk to this guy, but now was not the time for that discussion and she knew it. All she could do was ask conversationally, “Do you think he might be interested in selling it?”

“Probably,” the guy shrugged. “He don’t have no use for it no more. See, back, oh, fifteen years ago he was running in a sprint car series with mills limited to 270 inches. The rules said that it could be any American engine. Well, Dad had the chance to pick up that old Offy cheap since they weren’t using them anymore. It was an old one at that, but it still run pretty good.”

“Did he do at all well with it?” Ginger asked out of curiosity.

“Pretty good, for one race,” the guy laughed. “American engine or no, they changed the rule book on him so quick it wasn’t funny.”

“I’ll bet,” she grinned. “Hey, I know a guy who’s got an old Indy car from back in the fifties. It’s a roller, and he’s looking for one of the unblown engines to put in it, just as a museum piece, maybe do a demonstration run once in a while if the engine is good enough to run. Could I get your dad’s name and address?”

“Sure thing,” the guy said. “He had to take it out of the car, and it’s just sat in the shop ever since without having been run. He was saying last winter that he’d like to get rid of it, but he didn’t want to just throw it out if someone could use it.”

Ginger had to go over to Ray’s truck for a pencil and piece of paper, but in a couple minutes she had the guy’s name and address, along with his father’s, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It could be tonight or tomorrow before I can get this to the guy who’s looking for the engine,” Ginger told him. “But I’m sure he’ll call.” Ginger did the best she could to thank the guy, mostly by giving him a detailed account of some of the trials and tribulations they had gone through to get Ted’s car this far. Even so it still was about all she could do to keep from running to the phone booth in the Gasoline Alley cafeteria and calling Mel with the news.

The line kept edging forward as Ray, T.J., Ted, and the others worked on the car. Ginger counted the cars, checked the clock again and again. At the rate the line was moving, there was still a chance for them to get the Eagle out on the track before qualifying ended – if they could get everything done. It looked like they were making it; things were going back together on the engine now. Finally, Ray called, “Ginger! Run back to the garage, start hauling the preheaters up here! We gotta start getting this thing warmed up again!”

“On the way, Ray!” she called. “Come on,” she said to her newfound friend whose father had the unblown engine, “I need a couple extra sets of hands.” He brought a couple of his own friends along with him, and soon they were hauling the preheaters and all the extension cords they could find up to where the rebuild was going on.

“Get ’em going,” Ray told her. “You know how. You’ll have to keep moving them as the line moves ahead.” Ray turned back to T.J. without a pause and said, “We need to take the pop-off valve off the old turbo. It’s legal, but I think it pops higher than it tests.”

“Oh, one of those, huh?” she heard T.J. grin. “Those were mighty useful around here a few years ago.”

The line was getting awful short when they finished the turbocharger change. The preheaters had been going for a while, off and on – they lost time when they were moved, and several times they had to find new outlets in various garages to be able to reach the car at all. “Not quite as warm as I’d like it,” Ray said. “But I guess we got no choice. Get the preheaters off, let’s get this thing warmed up.”

Once again, they went through the long checklist of starting the engine, cutting corners where they could. They pulled the car crosswise in line so the flames of its backfire wouldn’t roast the car behind them. It was a little crankier about starting than it had been earlier, but it started, and they managed to get the warm-up going pretty well. While it was warming up, Ray turned up the boost as much as he dared, just to check that the turbocharger was working. It was hard to tell for sure, but it seemed all right. It would have to be – there was no time to do anything else if it wasn’t.

By now, the line was getting really short, although it was clear that chances were good that they were going to make it onto the track again. T.J. was still working the engine to warm it up while Ray and Ginger helped Ted get into the cockpit and get strapped in. Finally, there wasn’t much choice – they shut the engine down, and while wearing heavy gloves around the hot engine Ray made the fast change to the race plugs. A couple minutes later he was done. “All right, Ted,” Ray told him. “This is it, go for broke, do or die for dear old Offy. Drive it like you stole it!”

“I’ll damn sure try,” Ted told him.

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To be continued . . .

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