Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Once again, T.J. Wireman manned the starter while Ginger held the exhaust deflector. Having just come off the warm-up cycle it started more easily than usual. Ted kept the warm-up going as they waited for the previous car to get off the track, building the RPM up slowly, then shutting down quickly with a backfire that echoed through the pits and the half-filled grandstand. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Ted got the signal to take the track; the engine picked up speed as the car pulled away, and again they watched him drive down the acceleration lane inside turn one.
“Well, that’s it,” Ray sighed as they heard the car speed off into the distance. “I’ve been so damn busy I haven’t had a chance to see what he’s going to have to beat to make into the field. Anyone have any idea?”
“It’s 196.347,” a nearby official replied for him. “Keyser’s the one on the bubble, now.”
“Keyser?” Wireman frowned. “Shit, talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Shit, he should have been able to get that thing going faster than that.”
Ginger turned to Ray and whispered, “Keyser, that’s his third car, right?”
“Right,” Ray shook his head. “How the hell did that happen? Don’t say anything!”
Neither Ginger nor Ray said anything to Wireman, but a TV reporter with a cameraman did. “Mr. Wireman,” the reporter asked, “how do you feel about the car you’ve been working all afternoon on trying to knock a car you own off the bubble?”
Wireman shook his head. “All I can tell you is that I’m going to be happy and disappointed, either way it turns out.”
“It seems strange that you’ve been working on a competitor’s car all afternoon,” the reporter persisted.
“Just doing what ought to be done,” Wireman replied. “Ask me about it in a few minutes, OK? I want to watch this. You ought to watch it, too.”
Ted had the car going well as he crossed the start-finish line at the end of his first of two warm-up laps. The noise in the pits was greater now than it had been in the morning, and they could barely make out the roaring of the turbo Offy as it streaked down the back stretch. But when Ted brought the Eagle out of Turn Four it was screaming, the highest pitch Ginger had ever heard out of the car. Ray signaled the timer to go ahead and take the time, and in a few seconds the car flashed across the yard of bricks. “He’s really on it,” Ray said. “Mr. Wireman, your turbocharger is a good one.”
“Damn glad of it,” Wireman grunted. “Wouldn’t have wanted to give you a dud and not know any better.”
Again they could hear the screaming rumble of the engine down the back stretch, hear Ted back off for turn three, get on it a little in the short chute and back down again for turn four. By the time he came into view, he had it spooling up again, and he flashed by the starting line again. All eyes turned upward to the scoring tower, which read 201.382.
“Holy shit, he did it! Three more laps like that, Ted,” Ray exulted. “Hold onto that son of a bitch.”
“Backing off on the wings must have helped,” Ginger observed.
“Yeah, but shit, only God knows how he’s keeping it on the track! Hang onto it, Ted!”
Once again they followed the screaming Eagle around the track with their ears. At 200 miles an hour it takes only forty-five seconds to get around the two and a half miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To Ray and Ginger it seemed like they’d held their breaths for an hour before they saw the orange and white Eagle appear in the groove in turn four, still going hard. Again, Ted was on it as the car crossed the line; 200.622 the sign on the tower read.
“Good, good, hang onto it,” Ray said into the radio to Ted, not wanting to disturb his concentration. Again, they watched the car out of sight in turn one, listened to it roar down the back stretch, and watched it come into sight in turn four. 200.784 the sign said as soon as he passed. “Keep it up, one more lap,” Ray radioed again.
“By God, I think he’s going to do it,” Wireman said, his face inscrutable.
“One more lap,” Ray shook his head. “Just one more lap, come on.”
The last lap may have been the longest of all. Once again they could hear the roar of the engine down the back stretch, hear it back off for turn three, rumble down the short chute, and back off for turn four.
When the Offy came into view in the middle of the corner, they could see Ted was pushing it hard – then they could see he was sideways, fighting the wheel as the car tried to snap into a spin. With lightning reflexes at incredible speed, Ted managed to have it straightened out for an instant, but then it snapped around the other way, and this time he couldn’t catch it.
It wasn’t a fast spin, and he almost caught it. The car only turned slowly as it slid down the track almost going backwards across the start-finish line, and continuing to spin around. Only now was the sound reaching them, the sound of the engine shutting down and backfiring, the screech of the sliding wheels. Incredibly, somewhere past them Ted managed to bring it under control, and got it pointing down the middle of the track; at moderate speed he went out of sight into turn one, just bringing it back to the pits in defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
“Shit,” Ray said flatly.
That seemed to cover it pretty well for Ginger. “Almost,” she agreed, glancing up at the sign: 184.587. A stalwart effort, but not one that would put him into the starting lineup.
“Backed off on the wing a little too much, I guess,” Ray shook his head. “Damn.”
“Mr. Wireman?” the reporter said, having done something else for the last couple minutes. “Can I ask you now about how you feel about helping a competitor almost bump your car out of the field?”
“Yeah, you can,” Wireman replied sadly. “This track was pretty much built on the Offenhauser engines and the Millers that preceded them. The music of an Offenhauser is a sound that’s been heard around this track for sixty years. With everything that’s happened, including some unnecessary rule changes, that was the last Offenhauser to run here and mean it. I hope you listened to the rumble and listened to the roar, because after today you ain’t gonna hear it no more. Ted Hilyard and these kids made sure that an Offenhauser went out trying the last time it was heard, rather than just shuffled off by a piece of paper. They may have been competitors, but that kind of trying deserves respect.”
A few minutes later they were back in the garage. Ted was out of the car, out of his driving suit and helmet, and was very downcast. Ginger thought he had every right to be.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he sighed. “Shit, I knew it was a long shot when I started this, but to get that fucking close . . . well, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“What happened?” Ginger asked gently.
“Oh, shit,” he shook his head. “Loose, just loose as hell all the way. I knew in the last corner before I started that it was going to be too damn loose, that we backed off on the wing too much. I mean, I was right on the edge every inch of the way, and it tried to get away from me in every corner. I managed to hold onto it till the last one, but I guess I didn’t hold onto it quite long enough. Damn.”
“I was worried about that,” Ray agreed. “I was afraid we’d backed off on the wing too much, but we needed it for speed.”
“Yeah, we’d never have got it going like that if we hadn’t,” Ted agreed. “I thought I could hang onto it for four laps, but I couldn’t. Guess we might as well pack up and get out of here. There’s no reason to stay around now.”
“What are you going to do with the car?” Ray asked.
“There’s a damn good question I never thought about until now,” Ted sighed. “I refused to let myself think about it. When you get right down to it, it’s not worth anything now. I knew when I bought it that it was on the ragged edge of being obsolete. The way the CART rules are written there’s no running it on other tracks in the series, not that I have the money to, anyway. And there’s no chance that USAC would allow it to be run here again. So, for practical purposes, it’s worthless. I don’t know if I could get anything out of it. If I did, it wouldn’t be much. Let’s face it, as of fifteen minutes ago it became a museum piece.”
“Well,” Ginger grinned. “I know a museum that probably would like to have it, if he ever gets it built.”
“You know, Ginger,” he smiled, “that’s not a bad idea. Ray, do you think your dad would be up for it?”
“Probably,” Ray shrugged. “He’s talked about that museum for years, but he’s held off on it for a couple reasons. Other than the two MMSA cars and the Old Soldier, which is a roller, he doesn’t have all that many historically significant cars, just cars that happen to interest him. If he had this, well, he’d be more likely to get serious about it.”
“Ray,” Ginger piped up. “We’ve been so busy I didn’t get to tell you, but the Old Soldier may not be a roller too much longer.”
“He found an engine?” Ray’s eyebrows rose.
“No, but I may have found one,” she smiled, and gave him a quick account of the conversation with the fan earlier, about his father that had an engine in Oklahoma that might be for sale.
“That’s interesting,” Ray smiled. “If the guy had it in a sprint car it isn’t the midget version of the engine, there are still a few of those around.”
“He said it was a 255,” Ginger pointed out.
“If it proves to be true, the next sound you’re going hear after you tell Dad is going to be the sonic boom as he heads to Tulsa. With this car and the Old Soldier complete, the museum is a lot closer to getting built.” He turned to Ted and added, “I can’t speak for him, of course, but my guess is he’ll jump on it so quick it won’t be funny.”
“Good,” Ted shook his head. “I guess we’d better get loaded up and head back to Bradford, then. There’s no point in spending any more time around here than we have to.”
They were just starting to get stuff picked up and not feeling much enthusiasm about it when T.J. Wireman walked into the garage again. “Sorry I couldn’t get back here earlier, but I had to stick around and see if Keyser’s time held up and make nice for the press guys.”
Ted shook his head. “Mr. Wireman,” he said. “I don’t know how to thank you for all the work and everything you gave us this afternoon. I’m just sorry that I couldn’t quite make it work.”
“You guys are a little bummed out, huh?” he replied. “Can’t blame you. I’ve had it happen to me before. What happened, anyway?”
“It just plain and simple got away from me,” Ted told him, explaining about how they’d backed off on the wing settings for the sake of squeezing a little more speed out of the car. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how I managed to hold onto it as long as I did. It was real, real loose, to the point of being sloppy about it.”
“I know right now it’s not going to make you feel a hell of a lot better,” Wireman told them, “but I think you did a hell of a job with that car.”
“Not good enough,” Ted shook his head sadly.
“Not good enough?” Wireman smiled. “I think it was one hell of a job. That may have been the best driving out there all weekend. Look at it from the bigger picture a little would you?”
“I don’t see what you mean.”
“You started out with what you knew was a tough row to hoe, and you hoed the living hell out of it,” Wireman smiled. “Think about it this way. You’ve got a car there that is several years out of date. It wasn’t even all that good a car last year. No faulting Paul Pieplow, but he was lucky as hell to run twenty-fourth with it, and that was a year ago. You’ve got an engine that, let’s be honest, no matter how much I may like it, is obsolete and just not up to snuff with everything else out there. To top that off, that engine has two years’ worth of testing and qualifications and practice, along with another race on top of it, so the best you can call it is tired.”
“Yeah,” Ted nodded. “I knew all that.”
“Then you take that car with no significant modifications from last year, a tired, obsolete engine, and an even more shoestring effort than Paul had. Then you come within a hair of qualifying it into the field almost ten miles an hour faster than it qualified last year. Until that last lap, you were pretty close to five miles an hour faster than the slowest guy in the field. You did all that in a strange car, on a strange, tough track to drive, on very limited practice. That, my young friend, adds up to one hell of a driver in my book. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
“Yeah,” Ted smiled a little wanly. “That does make it feel a little better, I guess.”
“Then let me make you feel a little better yet,” Wireman told him. “I want you down in my pits next Sunday. The odds are mighty long against our needing a relief driver, but it’s been known to happen. Beyond that, I think I told you that Keyser came with his own sponsorship, but only for this race. If he’d done well here, I could have come up with some sponsorship for him to run in Milwaukee in two weeks. As far as I can see he hasn’t done squat. That car should have been a lot further up in the field; it’s no different from the other two cars, so he’s not going to Milwaukee if you’d rather do it.”
“Mr. Wireman,” Ted replied, almost unable to believe his ears. “You’re kidding!”
“Let me tell you, with all the angling for rides that goes on around this place, I don’t kid about things like that. You want the job?”
“Not just yes, but hell yes!” Ted beamed. “I’ll gladly take you up on it, and you won’t be sorry.”
“Figured you might say that,” Wireman grinned. “If it goes well at Milwaukee, you’ll probably be able to run the rest of the CART season for me, anyway. Next year, well, that’s next year and sponsorships and other stuff gets involved, but we’ll see.”
“Like I said, you won’t be sorry.”
“And Ray,” Wireman said, turning to him. “Ted ain’t the only one who has done a hell of a job down here. I know you were a NASCAR mechanic and a good one, but you were in over your head here, even though you’d spent some time here as a helper in the past. But you knew you were in over your head and weren’t afraid to ask for some help when it was needed. One of the tricky things to remember about these cars is that there’s a tendency to fiddle with them too much. It’s all too damn easy to take a good car and fiddle yourself right out of contention. You seem to have an instinctive knowledge of when to ask for help, and when to leave well enough alone. This car and especially this engine needed a lot of babying, but not a lot of fiddling. For not having anything much to work with, I think you did a hell of a job, too.”
“I tried,” Ray shook his head. “To be honest, I kept myself from fiddling with it because I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did what I knew had to be done.”
“In this case, that was just exactly the right thing to do,” Wireman smiled. “A good many other mechanics would have tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and would have just come up with a badly mangled sow’s ear in the process. You just helped that sow’s ear be all it could be, which is more than I figured it could be. Look, I don’t have any positions open as chief mechanics, or even car chiefs. You really aren’t quite ready for those jobs anyway. But I can use regular line mechanics to travel with the show, and in a year or two you could be a car chief or a chief mechanic, if you’d like to come along.”
Ginger looked at Ray, not knowing what to think. She knew better than to say anything; it would have to be his decision, after all. This was just about the offer he’d been working toward for nearly two years – but it would take him away from her, unless she was willing to follow along. As much as she liked her new job at the Bradford Speedway, she knew she’d follow him if she could.
She watched Ray turn it over in his mind. “Lord knows I’d like to take you up on that, Mr. Wireman,” he managed to say finally. He glanced over at Ginger, and then continued, “But I’ve got a couple other things on my plate right now, and I’ve been gone from the track enough as it is the past month, so I think maybe I’d better give it a pass.”
Ginger tried to stay silent, but didn’t know whether to give a sigh of relief, or one of disappointment. She knew she’d just seen Ray give up a dream he’d held for a long time, and knew that she had been a part of the decision, for better or worse.
“That’s fine, Ray,” Wireman smiled. “We gotta do what we gotta do, and traveling like that is a hard life. I’d still like to use your hands once in a while, and I always need extra help down here in May. If nothing else, maybe you’d like to come down here with me next year, and we can see what happens then.”
“I’d like that just fine,” Ray smiled.
“Good enough,” the old car owner smiled. “Now, you and Ginger had better plan on being down here in my pit box next week. If nothing else, I’d kind of like her to see what race day is like. They don’t call it the greatest spectacle in racing for nothing.”
This is, of course, a work of fiction. For the sake of non-race fan readers, I’ve tried to simplify the technicalities, probably to an excessive degree, and I’ve had to heavily mangle the sacred history of the Indianapolis 500 to do it. Characters and happenings, especially in the year presented, are totally fictional.
That much said, everything written here on the history of the Offenhauser engines beyond the events of this story is as real as it can be. The engine’s original design dates back to 1920, and for not less than sixty years it managed, in one form or another, to be present at the Indianapolis 500, and a lot of other premiere racing in the United States as well. There were times it was overshadowed a little, but always it hung on and clawed its way back until the early 1980s.
The car the characters call “The Last Mohican” is fictional. But there was a last Offenhauser to attempt Indy. It was in 1983 rather than 1984; I moved the story ahead a year to avoid confusion. The last Offenhauser to attempt to qualify at Indianapolis was owned and built by legendary car owner and builder Rolla Volstadt; it was orange and white, and was numbered 17. Driven by Mark Alderson, it was running more than fast enough in practice to have made the field, but a rain-shortened qualifying session meant that it didn’t get the chance to qualify.
I don’t know if the car still exists today. It was a landmark car in a way and deserves recognition, so I hope it’s sitting quietly in some museum or collection somewhere.
Offenhauser engines have been a memory at Indianapolis for over a quarter century as this is written, and for a number of reasons we may be poorer for it. At least as a fiction writer, I get to allow the Offy to go out with the roar it deserved, rather than the whimper it got.
If I may be allowed an editorial comment: The Indianapolis 500 today is in my mind no longer the premiere auto sporting event in the country, as it still was in 1984. It plays a distinct second fiddle to NASCAR. The reasons for this are many, but many of the forces that drove the Offy down also served to drive the race down. Big money has been allowed to overrule skill and ingenuity, so those days when the latter counted for as much as they once did have passed, and have left us poorer for their passing.