Race Weekend Central

Blue Smoke and Burnt Rubber: Chapter 1

Focused on the high bank of Turn One, Chris Weaver continued the endless circular march. Shifting his weight from left to right, he ignored the elbows, shoulders and heads of the other four people watching the race from the top of the No. 74 hauler. He often wondered why there weren’t polished circles on the platform, as he shifted his body another two degrees to his left.

He cringed when Danny’s front bumper eased up on the left rear quarter panel of the unsponsored ride of Bud Shepherd. Would Danny ever learn patience?

So far, the Florida World Speedway 500 had been singularly uneventful. 40 cars still spun around the one and three-quarter mile oval, 80 laps into the event. With not a cloud blemishing the opening race of the season, a light wind teasing the tops of the palm trees that graced the backstretch and the sharp stink of unburned fuel on the air, Chris should simply be enjoying the day.

However, on raceday he could never give himself into mindless bliss. A curious twist of tension invaded his gut with the start of the engines, and for an average of four hours each Sunday, he watched every move of the No. 74 with a mix of trepidation and joy.

The pack flew into the next turn, three wide and the train 13 cars long. They bobbed and dipped, their tires seeking that smidgeon of traction needed to stay straight on the aging, uneven surface. Danny’s ride, painted with the icy ridges found on the label of Blue Peak Malt beverage, danced right smack in the middle of the 180 mph wreck that wouldn’t happen.

Chris rubbed at his temple, his fingers tapping the edge of his headset and hat. He needed a caution… or a pit… or something that would result in a momentary lull of the door-to-door action. Anything to let him break away from watching Danny fight his way to the front. Because, after the previous season watching Danny O’Flynn drive over most of the other competitors, Chris was convinced it wouldn’t take much longer for the favors to be returned.

His blue-tooth chirped, the sound muffled by the ever-present roar of the engines.

“Hello?”

“Weaver!”

Chris winced. Granted, you needed to yell in order to be heard almost anywhere on the infield, but somehow Brad Van Lytton, the owner of O’Flynn’s ride and two other cars, knew how to bellow, even on a cell-phone.

“Yes, sir?”

“Get your butt over to the No. 47 pit. I need you.”

“On my way.” He sighed, still spinning, his eyes glued to the pack as they roared past the flagstand. Maybe he got to follow the GSCA circuit, and had nearly unlimited access within the garage area, but this all happened because Brad Van Lytton hired Chris as a gopher at the track.

Edging towards the ladder, he craned his neck around some girl who must be dating O’Flynn this week. She stood twisting her long blonde hair around a manicured fingernail, chewing gum, and looking down into the garage area. The movement of the blue car drew his eye back to the track. Danny was riding on the bottom, and had dropped to the rear of the field.

Chris switched on the scanner.

“I don’t know what’s wrong! It’s shaking like a bastard! I gotta come in.”

The calm voice of Todd DeLoy, O’Flynn’s crew chief, responded, “Not yet, Danny. We need four more laps. Just ease up and keep her under you.”

Chris stood poised at the top of the ladder. Brad would just have to wait. He had to know… had to see…

“You don’t get it!” Chris heard the panic in Danny’s voice. “She’s coming apart! She won’t turn. I can’t…”

Chris focused on the No. 74. The rest of the field was well ahead now, leaving the blue and white car to wiggle. It wobbled. The rear end jumped to the right and the car began a smoking climb up Turn 3.

In a desperate attempt to straighten the car, and surely in a fit of frustration, O’Flynn gassed it.

Overcorrected, the car turned and accelerated into the wall.

The bang of head-on contact reverberated across the infield.

The crumpled machine slid back down the 26 degree incline.

The voices on the scanner and the impatient chirp of his cell clamored over each other.

“Danny! You OK?”

“God damnit! No! Yes! I’m fine! Shit!”

“How about the car?”

“It’s done. I got nothing… it won’t turn over.”

Chris began a slow climb down the ladder. At the bottom, he pushed the button to answer his cell. “Yes?”

“Don’t bother with me, Weaver. Go get O’Flynn at the medical center and bring him to the hauler.”

“Got it.” He peeled his headset off and tossed it into the backseat of O’Flynn’s golf cart, sparing but a glance at the deserted garage area. He turned the key and hit the pedal, slowing down when he almost collided with an inspector wandering by.

It was a funny thing. All those years he spent as a teenager, dreaming about building the fastest car on the planet, sitting in the stands watching his heroes take the checkers and then excelling at all the classes required to obtain entry into a top-notch racing garage were a total waste.

He took the corner around the media center and in-field restaurant a bit fast, grinning at a startled fan.

The fact was Chris discovered that the world beyond the racing garage was far more fascinating than gapping spark plugs, chasing lug nuts or changing out an engine for the fourth time in a day. Thus, he spent his time each week driving Danny O’Flynn’s RV from track to track, moving tool boxes, setting up the pit boxes, shuttling team members around and just about anything else that Van Lytton could dream up. Twisting a wrench he would leave to the others, winding his way through the endless intricacies of the in-field—this he loved.

He spotted the beacons from the ambulance parked outside the medical center. And then he saw the media. Wolves, the bunch of them. Like a herd of besotted wildebeests, they trampled from one end of the track to the other on raceday, chasing the most recent disaster.

He parked the cart and climbed out. Somebody plowed into him, sending him to the cement. He blinked and looked up. “Oh, good grief.”

“Where is he? Is he OK?” The blonde from the hauler hopped from foot to foot, her pretty face stained with tears and Chris generously allowed, worry.

“Uh, Miss? Take it from me, Danny won’t want to see you right now.” Groaning, he stood up and dusted his khakis and team polo off.

Her lower lip pouted. “But he promised…”

Running his hand through his spiked, dirty blond hair, Chris got out his very practiced speech. “I know this will surprise you, but you are his trophy girl.”

“His what?”

“He always brings a pretty girl to the track in case he wins so he has somebody to kiss in Victory Lane. I promise that will not be happening today. Enjoy your pit pass, find the friend you came with and go home.”

Her face crumpled and then she turned away, spied a TV personality and sauntered off.

Chris couldn’t stop himself from muttering, “So very sorry for your loss,” before disappearing into the medical center.

15 minutes later, he walked out of the center and into the mass of waiting reporters. Of course, they had no eyes for his sorry person. All cameras and microphones aimed at the dazzling smile of Danny O’Flynn.

“Hi boys and girls! I’m still in one piece, but that means there’s still only one of me to go around. Who’s first?”

Of course, C.J. Parker, the TV network reporter got first dibs and as the finely polished interview of “So, tell us what happened out there,” proceeded, it fell to Chris to take numbers for the other major media outlets. Danny’s PR coordinator should be doing this. But, it always took far too long for her to saunter down from whatever luxury box she was schmoozing in for her to be effective immediately after a wreck.

Once Chris got the pack sorted into a patient mob, he stepped back and watched Danny do his magic.

Blessed with a perfect smile, dark red hair, side-burns that O’Flynn made fashionable and sunglasses adorned with enough bling to make a rapper proud, Danny loved the camera and it loved him.

“I don’t know what happened. The car just fell apart under me. I’m sure the boys are putting her back together and the Blue Peak Malt car will give it another go.”

The group of reporters waiting for their turn jostled each other for the chance to ask the next question. One question sounded above the others.

“Danny, what’s her name, today?”

Danny winked at a nearby camera. “Angeline! She really didn’t live up to it, today, did she? That car was more of a devil…”

The media chuckled.

Chris looked around and spotted Danny’s erstwhile blonde and this week’s namesake leaning on the fence, batting her eyes at the cameraman from the network. No, Angeline wasn’t exactly who a guy wanted backing him.

The laughter dwindled. Silence settled over the crowd.

During a race, the infield was often considered the eye of the storm, but it was never silent.

Searching for a possible explanation, Chris noticed C.J. staring into the monitor of his camera while he listened to his headset.

He wandered over. “What happened?”

“They’ve thrown the red flag. Harry Garrison blew up in Turn 1 and we got the big one.”

His cell phone began its familiar chirp. “Yes, sir?”

“Get that loud-mouthed driver back to the garage! I want to know why two of my cars wrecked out within 15 laps of each other!”

***
Tune in next Friday for the next installment of Blue Smoke and Burnt Rubber

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