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The tracks are faster. The cars, too. But the hunger for speed-and the hunt for the checkered flag-hasn't changed.
Jodell Bob Lee has long since retired from driving, but the love of the sport is still like a fire in his belly. When he spots a talented young driver he can't help remembering his own glory days. It's as if he is thirty years younger and racing the dirt tracks of Tennessee all over again. Jodell has an idea: his old friend and former "wrench," Billy Winton, has put together a racing team, but so far wins have been hard to come by. Billy is looking for a driver who can do more than just chase the checkered flag. He needs a young gun who can tame the superspeedways and take the flag. A new partnership is born. But the Kid has a few obstacles in the way, namely Dale Earnhart, Jr., Adam Petty, Casey Atwood, and the other young guns who are clearly stock car racing's next wave of stars. It's a new generation of drivers, but the prize is the same: the checkered flag!
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Don Keith is an Alabama native and attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where he received his degree in broadcast and film. He has won numerous awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for news writing and reporting, as well as Billboard Magazine's "Radio Personality of the Year" during his more than twenty years in broadcasting. His first novel, "The Forever Season," won the Alabama Library Association's "Fiction of the Year" award.
Keith lives in Indian Springs Village, Alabama, with his wife, Charlene, and a black cat named Hershey.
It didn't take much to send the old driver reeling back through the years. A particular sound, a distinctive smell, just the right flutter of a checkered flag at the entrance to some fast food place, and he was instantly swept away again. Caught up in the memories of a time when he was the one who crawled behind the wheel and steered one of those boom-throated machines around a racetrack, intent on leaving the rest of them choking on his exhaust.
He never had to look for the reminders. They came floating at him all the time.
The hard part was to drag himself back to the present.
Or to find the desire to even try.
* * *
Thunder rumbled in the distance like faraway artillery fire, punctuating the periodic sheet lightning that lit up the western night sky. So long as the rain held off, though, those folks who were gathered in the bleachers that ran along the front stretch of the small racetrack welcomed the wonderful cooling breeze that blew in off the storm front. They cheered lustily at every jagged streak of lightning, every answering grumble of thunder. It had been a brutally hot week already, the final few days of an unusually dry spring, and a threat that a stifling summer likely lurked ahead of them. Farmers had already been praying for a drink of water for their emerging corn or soybeans. But now, despite the need, those who had come to watch the Wednesday night feature at the little racetrack prayed it would hold off for just a few more hours.
"Let them get the race in, Lord," they prayed. "Then send the rain for the crops. If it be Thy will, of course."
It was an unusually large crowd that had gathered, despite the threat of bad weather and it being midweek. Tags on the cars in the gravel parking lot showed visitors from a variety of counties across Tennessee and Alabama. Sure, they were there for the special card of races mat would go a long way toward deciding the track champion for the year. But many were there, too, to meet in person a special guest who had stopped by for an autograph session before the actual racing began.
The lines had formed early at the rickety old gates that led into the track. Many still wore their dusty overalls, their factory uniforms with their names stitched over their pockets, their short-sleeve dress shirts and out-of-fashion ties they had worn that day to the bank or car dealership. They clearly came straight to the races from work.
And most of them dutifully queued up to see the special guest and get an autograph, take a picture with an arm around him or with him holding one of their kids, or simply share a few words with one of the legends of stock car racing.
They noticed that he still looked like an athlete, especially when he stood and moved around the table to stand next to one of them so someone could snap a picture. He was tall, lean, well-muscled; his handshake was was sure and solid, and he moved with the ease and grace of a football player (which he had once been) or a dancer (which he most certainly had not). Only a mix of gray in what had once been crow-feather-black hair, the lines on his face, and a slight paunch gave him away. It was not hard for any of the fans to imagine him crawling into a racecar again and effortlessly guiding it for five hundred miles on the hottest of summer days.
And more than one of them remarked to another about the man's eyes. Those deep blue eyes seemed to grab you, capture you, and pull you in with their clear intensity.
The old driver smiled sincerely at every single one of them as they came by, tirelessly posed with them, signed whatever they thrust in- front of him. It still amazed him that they would want such a small piece of him, that his scrawled signature on a trading card could bring such delight to anyone. This was his eighth such event in seven different states in the last three days, despite the fact that he had not driven a car in a half-dozen years, had not actually been behind the wheel of a car that had won a race in better than eight. Yet they still came, still seemed excited to meet him, still talked animatedly of races and wrecks and wins he had been a part of, including many he himself had long since forgotten.
Whirlwind promotional trips such as this brought back memories for him. Memories of those brutal early times when they would race three or four days in a row, usually at tracks that happened to be hundreds of miles apart. Days with practically no sleep and filled with debilitating work, each one of them a blur of racing, fixing, driving, and racing again.
Things were certainly different now, though. Flying in his own plane, sleeping in luxury hotel rooms provided by his sponsors, and eating in nicer restaurants with cloth napkins and real china plates were all a far cry from the days when the old driver had first been getting himself established in racing. Back then, most of his sleeping had been in the backseat of the car in some parking lot or on the side of the road some where. Vienna sausages and soda crackers had been the normal cuisine. The times and the demands of the sport had certainly changed for him. And he would be the first to admit that it had been mostly for the better.
It had been the needs of the sponsors that had made the biggest difference. Back then, a driver simply had to show up at the track where they were going to race, run hard, and win enough money to get to the next race. Nowadays, keeping the sponsor happy was almost as important as winning the races. Maybe more so. That meant endless days on the road, doing the required promotional work, attending the events, shaking the hands of thousands of customers or dealers or brokers or employees while smiling broadly for the money. For many drivers, the race on Sunday was actually their only chance to relax and get away from the pressures of the business side of racing.
Racing had become more and more about sponsorship money, and it took lots of it to mount a challenge to the other teams that showed up each week. To be competitive, a team had to have cash. It was as necessary as oil and gas and tires. And to keep the money, it was necessary to keep those sponsors happy. Winning certainly helped in that regard. Leading a race got the maximum television time. The winner's circle was the best place to flash the sponsors' logos. But for the driver, there were far more hours spent on stages and platforms, in parking lots and interviews in front of television cameras than he ever passed in the cockpit of the racecar.
Now, as the old racer signed cards and glad-handed the patrons, he occasionally glanced to the west, to where the storm boiled and blustered. He had his plane parked at a strip five miles away and would have to pilot it on to east Tennessee later that night. He didn't relish having to burrow through thunder heads to get home.
But he could also catch a random glimpse of the dusty garage area outside the first turn wall. He could see row upon row of trucks, trailers, and racecars. From the gleaming Late Model stackers to the beat-up old Limited Sportsman cars to a swarm of mini-stocks, there seemed to be racecars lined up everywhere. And people swarmed all around them.
The old driver knew precisely what types would be milling around down there among all the equipment, too. There were the local hotshots with their own sponsor money to play with, their crewmembers in matching uniforms, their cars shined and ready. Then there would be the dirt-poor part-time racers who scrambled for every dime they could get to try to field a competitive car, the money spent for parts instead of paint jobs or polish or uniforms. And then there would be just about every other kind of driver and team in between. Many of them had traveled a hundred or more miles just to race here on this sultry, stormy night.
Had the old driver been able to see more clearly, he might have noticed a particular red car. A young kid, eighteen or nineteen years old at the most, struggled with three or four of his friends to replace the radiator on the battered car in time to run it in one of the late-model heat races. The car was pockmarked with body damage from some previous wars and the makeshift crew had already tried to bang out anything that might get in the way during the race. The number 7, which had been painted on the side of the car, had been almost obliterated in some type of close encounter with the tire of another racecar; someone had hand-lettered it back, so it was almost legible again. Even though it was obviously a challenge to simply get the car into good enough shape to run, they seemed to be doing so with an abundance of enthusiasm.
The young crew attempting to resurrect the red car would have surely brought back more memories for the old driver if he could have seen them. But Jodell Bob Lee was busier than ever, accepting the praise of those who had lined up to meet him, signing his autograph in his sweeping hand. The crowd was excited about meeting one of their heroes, a man who was now the owner of a team on the Winston Cup circuit and a former star driver there. He was in his fortieth year in the game and he still relished every minute of it. But since he had finally parked his own racecar in the early nineties in favor of someone younger, someone with a young man's reflexes, it seemed the demands on his time had only increased. In addition to trying to watch the car he owned run in every race he could, he still did appearances for his sponsors whenever they requested. He suspected there would come a day when they would no longer ask.
Now, here he was, on the last lap of this three-day trip, going above and beyond the call of duty for one of his old friends. He didn't usually stop by small tracks in the middle of nowhere for a Wednesday night feature anymore. Even if he had been so inclined, the pressure of an out-of-control schedule would likely prevent it. But the call had come and he had agreed to do it when he checked his itinerary and saw it was only a quick jag from his preplanned route back home from a luncheon at a manufacturing plant in the Midwest.
He had to laugh when his old friend who had made the request had asked him where he was at the moment.
"Tell you the truth, I don't remember," he had said, then reached into the night table next to the hotel bed and looked at the telephone book cover. "Kansas City. Yep, that's where I am. Kansas City."
But not only was this stop a favor, it also gave him a chance to see a bit of real small-track racing, a rare treat for him nowadays. He suspected that his appearance allowed the owner/operator to squeeze in an extra night of racing at his track with the chance of drawing a decent crowd. He knew, too, that such an extra race could be the difference in making money this year or not.
Jodell Lee had known Nathan Summers for better than thirty years. And he remembered the night when the track owner had suddenly decided, on the spur of the moment that fifteenth place paid twenty dollars in prize money after all, simply because he knew a particular young driver who had finished fifteenth needed the cash to buy gas to get back home. Or the time they had shown up hungry and Nathan had fed them all free out of the concession stand. "Appearance food," he had called it, making it up on the spot.
That's one of the reasons that Jodell had not hesitated when the call came. A quick detour and some autograph time would hardly be too much of an imposition to help repay such a debt.
He owed it to his fans, too. He suspected they might not be thrusting programs at him to sign too much longer either. Many of the kids lining up in front of him weren't even born the last time he won a race. His friend, Richard Petty, had taught him the value of signing autographs long ago. Many a race, he and Richard would still be sitting on the back of a hauler when most of the other teams had begun pulling out, still jawing with the fans and signing.
"I seen you and old Bill Elliott get together that time at Charlotte."
"I was there the night you and Waltrip had that race to the finish at Nashville. I was pulling for you, but I guess it wasn't enough."
"I was watching you on TV when you hit that wall at Daytona. My, that was a hard lick!"
Every one of them seemed to have a particular Jodell Lee memory. He acknowledged them all, though most of it was a blur to him now. It went on for over two hours; ultimately, it was the thunder of the mini-stock engines cranking up that caused the line to thin, the crowd finally finding their seats for the beginning of the racing for that evening. With a quick glance at the weather, Jodell tried to rush the last few fans through so he could get back to the plane and head once again for home.
One of the track workers ushered Jodell up to the promoters' box where Nathan Summers stood, happily surveying the big crowd in the stands, the bountiful harvest of racecars down on the track, and the thunderstorm that had so far cooperated by holding back. Jodell shook his hand and examined the catered spread that covered a big table by the side.
"You may as well have a sandwich, Jodell," he offered. "Momma ain't gonna have supper waitin' this late nohow."
If Hollywood had been casting a racetrack owner and promoter, they would have made sure the actor looked exactly like Nate Summers. He was short, dumpy, smoked a cheap cigar, and wore out-of-style polyester slacks, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, a wide tie that ended six inches above his belt buckle, and a fedora with a small green feather stuck in the band.
"You don't have any turnip greens and cornbread, do you?" Lee asked with a grin, already wondering how he could gracefully make an exit and be on his way.
"Naw, but I got some ham and cheese and stuff. Besides, you may want to stay and watch some of these boys run. We got some good cars and drivers for being so far out in the sticks and it being the middle of the week and all."
Jodell was bone-tired and ready to spend a night in his own bed for a change. But just then, a pack of cars pulled out onto the track with a roar, and the crowd stood to show their appreciation of the racing that was about to begin.
Jodell couldn't help it. He pulled a soda from a bucket of ice and stepped to the front of the box to watch the start of the first heat race.
The exhaust smell that rose on the moist wind to the booth was as intoxicating as any liquor. The old driver was quickly drunk with the aroma of it. He could imagine the tickling vibration of the gearshift as he cupped it in his hand, the way the gas pedal throbbed beneath his foot, the hot breeze that spilled through the window with its load of vapors, dust, and tire grit.
And as the green flag fell, it all came rushing back in full force. How stimulating it was to feel the power in the motor when he stomped it and made a beeline for the corner. How the vigor of it shoved him hard back into the seat until he could barely reach the wheel and he had to pull himself forward to grab for the next gear so he could pick off the old boy who lollygagged along in front of him. And how his heart raced as he guided the car to the front, for the lead.
Always straining for the front, for the lead.
* * *
As the mini-stock cars circled the track to start the second heat race he finally turned from the spectacle of it all and walked to the buffet. He filled a plate, and then as he ate he chatted with others in the box who were also enjoying the night at the track. Jodell knew that this was racing at its basic level: where those with a dream of moving up to the highest level of the sport honed their skills and waited impatiently for their big break; where those who had long since abandoned that dream still ...
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Book Description Tor Books, 2000. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110812545060