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

Chapter 31

As Ginger helped Arlene get dinner on the table she was a little happy with herself. The road trip to pick up the 255 Offy meant two and most likely three nights in a motel with Ray, with a perfect excuse. Of course, she couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Mel had planned it that way, or at least intentionally left the door open for it. By this time next week, maybe with a few extra hours, her virginity would be in the past tense, and she’d been looking forward eagerly to having it there.

There wasn’t any discussion of that particular angle of things over the dinner table, but there was a lot of talk about the 255 engine and what having it in the Old Soldier would mean to getting the museum up and running. “I’m of the opinion we might as well build it a little on the small side to begin with,” Arlene said. “Then we can add on to it as we get some more cars.”

“No, I think we need to build it fairly big,” Mel shook his head. “I can think of several people with cars that we could borrow more or less permanently to fill it out. I mean, nothing particularly special in the way of cars, but cars that are taking up space. Maybe I ought to work the phones a little and see if I can arrange for some of them.”

“Might be such a thing that I could call around and come up with an extra NASCAR show car or two,” Ray commented. “Morgan Holliday used to have a Busch car that he’d show at malls and stores and wherever else he could. It’d been wrecked and really couldn’t be raced anymore, but he’d dolled it up so it looked all right. Now that he’s no longer racing it might just be sitting out in his barn with a tarp over it. He might be glad for someone to get some use out of it.”

“Yeah, sure, give him a call,” Mel agreed. “Let’s face it, if we’re going to do this we need to have something for folks to look at other than the two Indy cars, the MMSA cars, and whatever else we can find that looks like it was once a racer.”

“If that doesn’t work, maybe I can think of something else,” Ray said. “I’ve got a lot of phone numbers, and if worse comes to worst I could head down to Charlotte this winter and knock on some doors.”

“So,” Arlene said, tiring of the discussion a little, “how’s it going on the Mod?”

“Getting there,” Ray said. “Needs paint still, but I think we’re getting to the point where we could stand to run it and see where we are. Ted and I were talking about maybe giving it a try this evening, if nobody else is doing anything so we can have a safety crew.”

“Might as well as far as I’m concerned,” Arlene shook her head. “There’s nothing much on TV anyway.”

“I was kind of thinking that if it seems to run more or less all right, maybe Ginger and I could tow it up to Spartan Friday night and see how it does under the gun. If it runs all right, I could run it over to Keith Henderson’s and let him go to it with his airbrush.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Mel agreed. “I learned a long time ago to just let Keith do my paint work and not worry about it.” He turned to Ted and explained, “Keith has painted every car out in the chicken coop, starting with the 2 car while he was still in high school.” He shook his head and continued, “God, that was almost twenty years ago. That’s hard to believe.”

Thus it was that an hour or so later Arlene and Ginger were in the ambulance, following behind Mel and Ted in Ray’s pickup and Ray in the Modified. Down near the infield concession building they set up lawn chairs in the shade of the ambulance and talked about whatever came to mind as Ray, Mel and Ted worked on the Modified. Ray would take it out for a few laps, then bring it in to work on it for a while before trying another few laps. Pretty soon, Mel came over to join them, again just talking about not much of anything. Realistically, after a while it got pretty boring to just sit there.

Arlene was feeling it, too. “You know, Mel,” she said, “just for fun you ought to dig out the Hornet and ride around with Ginger a little.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to do that,” Mel grinned. “And this would be a good night to do it.”

“Now what are you two setting me up for?” Ginger shook her head.

“Oh, you just need to get a feel for how the other half lives,” Mel grinned.

“What’s this Hornet, anyway?”

“You’ve been in the barn,” Mel grinned. “It’s that red and white Economy Stock. Well, sort of an Economy Stock, it’s actually a two-seater. I often let my driver’s ed kids do a few hot laps in it, or sometimes I’ll take a beginner around the track with it for a little training. Don’t tell me you haven’t wanted to try hot lapping this place. Now’s your chance.”

“Well, yeah,” Ginger said. “But Mel, I know I’ll never make a race driver.”

“Never say never,” Mel smiled. “Arlene, why don’t you run Ginger and me up to the barn in the ambulance?”

For whatever reason, Ginger had never taken any notice of the car that sat in the back corner of the barn. It was there, it was a race car, but even though it was sitting under a clear plastic tarp she’d never quite taken in the fact that it had two seats. As Arlene drove back down to the track, she and Mel peeled the tarp off, to discover that the car had a number of dents and a rather crude paint job – obviously not Keith Henderson work, but with the number 66C on the side. “A ’71 AMC Hornet, not the world’s greatest Economy Stock,” Mel explained, “but it’s actually pretty fast and does what I want it to do. It handles better than some other cars of that era, and I managed to buy it really cheap when a high school kid got into trouble and his dad told him no more racing.”

“Mel, is this really going to be all right?”

“Of course,” he said. “If you’d gone through driver’s ed at Bradford you’d have had the chance to drive it already. Well, this or its predecessor, which fell apart from old age a few years ago. People sometimes do crazy things with cars, Ginger. I happen to think it’s a good idea for everybody to know a little bit about driving fast, and this is a good way to teach them. You’ve still got that driver’s suit I gave you to take down to Indy, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s in the dirty laundry.”

“Well, run and get it. I’ll find a helmet you can wear. Don’t worry, Ginger, we’re just going to take a few hot laps and I’ll try to teach you a few things.”

A few minutes later Ginger discovered that it was still race car enough that she had to climb through the window to get inside, since the doors were bolted shut. The inside of the car was totally gutted, to the point of even the dash board being removed, replaced by a small metal panel which included a few instruments. The racing seat had a five-point harness, and Mel had to spend a couple minutes showing her how to hook it up.

A little to her surprise, they started out with Mel driving, just out to the pit gate where they waited while Ray made some test laps. “I want to show you a few things before you try them,” Mel told her on the closed-circuit intercom between the two helmets. “I know you know how to drive and from what I’ve seen you’re a pretty good driver on the street. But there are some tricks to racing that most people driving on the street don’t know about.”

Before long Ray pulled the Modified into the pits, and Mel pulled the 66C out onto the track and stepped on it. They were moving pretty fast right through the first turn; Ginger could feel the side loading on the car. “The first thing you need to understand is the line to take through the corners,” Mel told her as he pushed the car around the track. “What we’re trying to do is to take the fastest way through a corner, which is something like a parabolic curve if you ever passed geometry. That doesn’t mean we’re using all the track. Because if you get down too low in a corner you can get going too slow, and that means you have to accelerate more to get back up to speed. Like most cars, this one brakes faster than it accelerates, so we don’t want to give up speed unnecessarily. The corners on this track are supposed to be alike, but for some reason no one has ever been able to explain the ideal line on one end of the track is about half a lane higher than it is on the other. Just for the sake of going fast, we want to try to do things as smoothly as possible.”

It was impressive to just sit and watch how smoothly Mel drove. Ginger knew that he hadn’t driven a race car to mean it in nearly thirty years, but she could see the smoothness of long practice. This was something that Mel had been doing for much of his life, and even if his reflexes weren’t what they had been thirty years before he was well ahead of the car and what it was trying to do. As he drove her around the track, he used the microphone and headsets in the helmets to teach her quite a bit about how to set up a line, how to choose a braking point and use the brakes, and how to save the brakes by using a proper line.

Once he’d demonstrated for a few laps, they could see Ray waiting at the pit gate to make another run. Mel pulled into the pits and told her, “Let’s switch.”

As they waited for Ray to do his test laps, Mel talked to her some more about how to set the car up, how to anticipate what she wanted to do. Once Ray finished his test, they got back out on the track. Mel had her take it easy the first few laps, just to get the feel of the car and the higher speeds, but soon she was pushing it some, driving it deep into the corner, hearing and feeling the tires working as she made her way around it. Once she’d gotten over the newness of it, the actions seemed normal – she felt as if she had a good feel for what the car would do and what it wouldn’t and was getting a good feeling for where its limits were.

She didn’t notice how many laps she’d run, but she thought she was running them pretty fast, and Mel’s instruction made her feel as if she was improving with each lap. Other than listening to his occasional instructions, she kept her attention on the track, trying to focus on all of the details needed to drive a really solid lap. It was something of a disappointment when she heard his voice in the headset in the helmet saying, “Looks like Ray’s waiting on us again. Why don’t you pull it into the pits now?”

It only took seconds to drift to a speed slow enough to pull into the pit entrance. “You’re doing good, but you need a breather,” Mel told her. “I’ve had a stopwatch on you, and you’re about a second and a half off of the record lap for this car, and that’s darn good for a first try. Let’s talk for a minute about a couple things I noticed, and then I want you to try to run a different line, higher or lower like you would have to do if you were trying to pass someone.”

They did several more sessions of several laps each, broken by Mel having her slow down so he could talk to her without breaking her concentration, or pulling into the pits so Ray could do another test. Finally he told her, “Let’s head in and park it down by the ambulance.” As she drove the car down into the infield, Mel started unbuckling his five-point harness, so when she pulled to a stop in front of Arlene, she began to do the same thing. “No, don’t bother,” he grinned. “Soon as Ray gets off the track, why don’t you do a few laps by yourself? Just maintain your focus on what you’re doing and you’ll be fine,”

Somehow, without Mel in the car it seemed as if she were going a lot faster, or at least that things seemed to be happening a lot more quickly. She barely had the car going straight out of one corner when she had to be setting up for the next, and it seemed like she barely had time to breathe in the process. She drove lap after lap, trying to keep her line, trying to be smooth, trying to drive deep enough into the corners and not brake too soon.

She had no idea how many laps she’d run, but finally she happened to notice someone standing by the back stretch entrance waving a checkered flag, so she guessed that was the signal to bring it in. It was too soon, much too soon! She wanted to stay out there much longer, to really get to enjoy the new thrill. But, being obedient, she ran hard through turns three and four, then backed off the gas and let the car drift down the front stretch and turns one and two before she dabbed lightly on the brake to slow up enough to turn into the pit entrance. She pulled up next to the ambulance and shut the Hornet off.

“So how’d it feel?” Mel asked.

“Wow!” she replied as she peeled off the helmet and got out. “Mel, that was so cool! Did I do all right?”

“Not bad for a first time,” Mel told her. “I don’t think you’re quite ready to be turned loose in Ray’s Modified yet, but maybe sometime I’ll have to borrow someone’s Economy Stock so you can try passing someone.”

“Better watch it, Dad,” Ray laughed. “The next thing she’ll be saying is, ‘Can I race it?’”

“Not here,” Mel smiled. “You got too much else to do on Saturday nights. But get in a few more sessions and you can use your feminine wiles to get Ray to trailer it up to Spartan or someplace that races on Fridays.”

“Mel, you’re kidding!”

“No, I’m not,” he smiled. “You did damn good for your first time out. I have a standing offer to ride with any beginners and teach them the same things I just taught you and do it for free. It makes for a better, more successful racer. As much as it looks like you’re going to be hanging around this place, it won’t hurt you to have a little of the driver’s point of view.”

Ginger let out a sigh. “Yeah, you’re probably right, I guess.”

“The worst part of it,” Arlene laughed, “is that there’s a good chance you’ll get hooked on it, and the next thing you know you’ll be fluttering your pretty little lashes at him and saying something like, “Ray, honey, would you build me a Street Stock?”

“Not a Street Stock, not yet, I think,” she smiled, “but I’ve thought more than once that the Gremlin might make a pretty good start at an Economy Stock. So how’s the Mod working?”

“Pretty decent,” Ray smiled. “I don’t think I have it whipped all the way yet, but I think I’m to the point where I want to run it against something before I get too carried away about taking it over to Keith’s to get it looking a lot better. Would you like to head up to Spartan with me Friday night?”

“Of course, I’d love to,” she smiled back. “Does that count as a date?”

“If you want it to,” he told her. “You know, some time we’re going to have to go to dinner and a movie, just so we can say we did it.”

*   *   *

The rest of the week was fairly busy. Ginger didn’t see a lot of Ray, since she had projects of her own to work on while he was catching up on some things that had been put to the side while he’d been down at Indianapolis. Ted headed back down there on Wednesday, announcing that he wasn’t planning on being back until after the race, whatever happened.

Friday morning, Ray loaded the Modified onto a flatbed trailer, with some tools and spare tires in the back of his pickup truck. The two of them knocked off for the day early on Friday, and started off on the two hour plus trip to Spartan Speedway in Lansing. “Kind of a long haul for a Friday,” Ray told her, “but it’s a good place to try this thing out for the first time. We’re probably not going to do this every Friday night, but it’s always nice to go other places and see how things are done differently, and of course talk up Bradford while we’re doing it.”

They got there just as the gate opened for practice. The two of them rolled the Modified off the trailer, and Ray took it out for a test run while Ginger set up some lawn chairs and put a cooler full of pop where it could be reached. It was a nice late spring afternoon, and there were already several cars there with more pulling in regularly.

It felt a little strange to Ginger. She had become used to being involved in a short track race night from the track side of things, but to sit out in the pits and be part of the racing crowd was something new. Surprisingly enough, several of the people she talked to were moderately familiar, having talked with them at Bradford in the previous weeks, although she’d never gotten to know any of them very well. Now, she discovered it was fun to just sit back and gossip with people, to hear stories and to tell a few – and her experience of being down at Indianapolis with Ray and Ted gave her a couple to tell.

Ray went out, gave the Modified a few hot laps, then came back in. “Gear ratios will work for tonight,” he announced. “It could be better, but I’m not going to be upsetting anybody’s applecart. Didn’t expect to the first time out with it, anyway.”

His prediction proved to be right – the Mod wasn’t the fastest car out there, but at least it wasn’t the slowest. While Ginger watched from the stands in the first turn, he ran fifth out of eight in the heat race, but did better in the feature, sixth overall – out of the money, but a good test. After coming off of the track from the feature, he drove the Mod right up onto the trailer while the Late Model feature was getting set up. “So what do you think?” Ginger asked.

“It’ll be all right,” he said as he peeled his helmet off. “I never expected this to be a world beater anyway. I didn’t want to put that much effort into it, since I’ve got too much else to do. I guess maybe next week I’ll run this over to Keith’s and let him play with it for a bit. Guess we’d better get loaded up. If we can get out of here before the Late Models wrap it up maybe we won’t have to deal with the traffic jam in the parking lot. We’ve got a long day tomorrow and a longer one Sunday, so we’d better get back and get some sleep.”

It was indeed late when they got back to Bradford, and once again they spent the night together, just sleeping. Only another few days, Ginger thought, and it was going to be even better.

Saturday went about like usual, which was to say busy. One of the things that had been put off by the decision to go racing the night before was to get the mowing done around the track, and as soon as things dried off enough Ginger was out there mowing, along with Bob, Lonnie, and Ray. That turned things into a rush and they barely had things wrapped up before Ginger had to leave to run the back gate office for a while as racers pulled in – some of whom she’d talked to at Spartan the night before.

Just before the front gate opened, she got in the golf cart and raced around to the grandstand area, where she helped out with ticket sales there while the rush of spectators showed up. With the Indianapolis 500 being the next day, she was surprised at how well tickets sold. When she headed up to the scoring box later she was as pleased as any Austin to see that the stands were pretty full, considering that it was a more or less routine weekend show without anything more than the normal special attractions planned.

After intermission, she went down to the office, and once again changed into the “Miss Marston” outfit. Along with Mel and Arlene, they’d done their best to keep the secret of the gag from Ray and as far as she knew he didn’t know a thing about it. Once again, she got the exaggerated hip motion going as she and the tall teenager who was again the top ticket salesperson for the evening accompanied Frank as they walked across the track. She knew that Ray was down in the infield pits, and hoped that he was watching.

By now she and Frank had the routine down pretty well although they both admitted that they were running out of ideas and that it was running its course. “Mr. Blixter,” she told the announcer, “something is terribly wrong with the 50-50 ticket sales tonight.”

“What is it now?” Frank sighed.

“The money and the number of tickets sold come out exactly right,” she pouted. “I can’t find any errors or shortcomings.”

“Well, that’s pretty good, isn’t it?” Frank deadpanned.

“Yes, Mr. Blixter, that’s the point. There are always errors! If everything is right, then something must be wrong!” Somehow they managed to drag the exchange out for several minutes, getting several good laughs out of the crowd.

After the drawing was over with, she headed back into the office, got out of the costume – which is what it had become – got back into her regular clothes, let her hair down, and headed back up to the scoring booth, hoping that Ray had seen the little skit.

“You know, Ginger,” Ray said as they lay in bed together after the racing was over with and they’d gotten done what they could considering they had to be up before dawn the next morning, “you clean up pretty good! You look awful sexy in that outfit, but you look just a little scary, too.”

“Scary?” she smiled. “What do you mean?”

“God,” he shook his head. “If you were really like that I think I’d have to turn you over my knee sometimes.”

“Oh, it’s just in fun, and we’ve had some real fun with it,” she smiled. “We have to get it where we can, you know.”

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