Frank had barely brought his truck to a stop when a door at the far end of the building flew open and Alex White bounded out. He grabbed Cash’s door, yanked it open and all but pulled him from the vehicle.
“Cash Douglas,” he said, first thumping him on the back and then pumping his hand. “Wow! This is an honor. If you’re really as big of an asshole as everyone says, I feel like I should get an autograph or something. Come on in and I’ll introduce you to the other guys.” With that, he turned and went back inside. leaving Cash no choice but to follow.
“Hey fellas,” Alex called out. “Come meet the shithead we’ve all been hearing about. Cash, this sorry bunch of losers are your new best friends. Wait; I forgot who I was talking to. I guess we’re your only friends. The less than distinguished gentleman sitting at the tool bench is my baby brother. His name is Dale. He’ll probably give a welcome speech later. The one with the newspaper and all the gray hair is Bobby. He’s old enough to be my grandfather. And the one looking at me like I’ve got six heads is Jason. He’s not related to me but I’m sure he wishes he was.”
“Only if that meant I could have you committed.” Jason held out a hand. “Cash, it’s good to meet you.”
He shook hands with Jason and the rest. “Frank has told me about all of you. I’m very excited to be a part of the RaceTech team. I can’t wait to get started.”
“That’s beautiful,” Alex said, brushing away an imaginary tear. “Somebody get that on a greeting card right away. In the mean time, I’m going to give Cash here a tour of this wonderful facility. Hold all my calls.”
“Really,” Alex said, as they left the room, “there isn’t much to see. As I’m sure you noticed, that first bay is where we do all the work on the cars. They really are beauties. We’ll take a look when we get back. ”
He was completely silent as the two of them walked through the second bay and then the third. Both were in darkness, but Cash caught fleeting glimpses of floor to ceiling shelves, all of them jammed with cardboard boxes of every size. Alex never bothered to turn on a light or offer a word of explanation, and they finally ended up in the small office Cash had observed from outside. It was utilitarian in every way. Maybe eight foot square, it contained a scarred metal desk, two chairs, phone and fax, a standard three-drawer file cabinet and a single desktop computer.
“Pretty fancy, huh?”
“Yeah,” Cash said. “It’s almost as nice as a racetrack men’s room.”
Alex laughed. “Hey, that’s pretty good. The computer is for tracking inventory. That’s really all this office is used for. No point making it pretty.”
“Well, thanks for showing me,” Cash said, wondering why he’d bothered.
“Actually,” Alex said, “I just wanted to get you away from everyone for a minute. He studied Cash seriously. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”
Cash started to respond but Alex held up a hand.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t put a lot of stock in rumors or other people’s opinions. I’ve seen you race. As far as I’m concerned, Frank picked the best man for the job. There’s a lot of money, a lot of knowhow and a lot of talent behind this team. People don’t like us right now and it’s nothing but jealousy. They resent you, but every goddamn one of them would give their left nut to be where you are. Let them say what they want. We’ll make them eat a great big shit burger. And if that doesn’t work, everyone already thinks you’re a jerk so what do you got to lose? Come on, let’s go look at your new race cars.”
Now, as Cash prepared to test those cars for the first time, He wondered if he’d made the right decision. It was an awkward situation, not just for him but for all of them. He was excited for sure, but part of him also felt like he was stepping into the lion’s den. He imagined Alex and the others felt much the same. Cash was hoping to salvage his reputation. Alex, Dale, Jason and Bobby had perhaps unwillingly put their reputations on the line for someone they knew very little about. Like it or not, they were all in this thing together.
He went through his normal pre race ritual: dressing slowly and deliberately, checking and rechecking his equipment and finally saying a silent prayer. He had a good luck charm too. The old monogrammed handkerchief, faded to a dingy grayish-pink from years of use, sweat, and repeated washings, made Cash think of his father and he smiled to himself as he folded the cloth and tucked it carefully inside his fire suit.
“Ready to go?” Frank asked with a smile.
Cash gave him a thumbs-up as he settled himself in the cockpit, adjusting and straightening his safety belts. He secured his neck brace and buckled his helmet, as Bobby and Alex backed the car out of the pit stall and signaled for a push truck.
“That’s gonna take some getting used to,” Bobby said.
“What’s that?” Cash asked.
“Push trucks. Where I’m from, pickups have gun racks not push bars.”
Cash laughed. “I guess they are kind of different. But supers don’t have a transmission or ignition system. Pushing them is the only way to get them started.”
“I know. I’ve just never seen it before. Seems kinda weird.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
Cash allowed Bobby to help him with his arm restraints, then tugged on his shoulder straps again, getting them as tight as possible. This was a step he would repeat whenever he had the chance. He could hear the push truck approaching from the rear. A moment later, Cash felt the familiar nudge of the push bar. He couldn’t actually see anything behind him because supermodifieds have no mirrors, and the molded racing seats and other safety equipment limit peripheral vision. He checked to make sure the fuel and kill switch were off, then pulled the lever to put the car in gear. Cash took a breath, lowered his visor and nodded to the pit steward. The truck’s engine roared, tires squealed and he was moving. Cash watched the oil pressure gauge carefully. When it read 60 psi., he turned the fuel on, gave a slow two count and pulled the kill switch. The RaceTech #1 came to life.
He felt a sudden rush of adrenaline equal to the eight hundred-horsepower pulsing around him. His fingers tingled as he gripped the steering wheel. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. The car felt sluggish at first, as Cash knew it would. At slow speeds,huge right side tires and a ridiculous amount of left side weight make supers difficult to control. Cash had to fight the wheel to keep the car pointed straight. He didn’t mind. He was getting to know his new ride. Like a powerful dog at the end of a leash, the RaceTech machine pulled and strained to be let free. But Cash was in charge and he was loving it.
He drove a few laps slowly to build oil temperature and get some heat in the tires. Gradually however, he began to pick up speed, using a warm-up technique he’d learned years before. Without using the brakes or lifting his foot off the gas, Cash increased speed a lap at a time. He did this until he felt the car start to break loose in the turns. Once he knew how fast the car would corner, he knew how much he’d have to slow coming in.
As Cash got more and more comfortable with the car, his laps got quicker and quicker. Jason had positioned himself in turn one with a stopwatch and was signaling the lap times:17.5, 17.3, 17.2, 17.0…. Cash didn’t need the signals to know the car was fast. It was responsive, powerful and smooth as silk, leaping down the straight-aways, gliding into the corners and making Cash feel like he was just along for the ride. .
Off the gas, Cash eased into turn one, the left front tire mere inches from the inside wall. The slightest contact would send the car into an uncontrollable spin, undoubtedly ending with a hard crash. Cash wasn’t worried; he knew exactly where he was on the racetrack. As he worked through turns one and two, he let the car gradually drift to the outside. Midway through the turns, he was on the throttle again, setting the car up for the back straight. He shot out of turn two, this time with the right side of the car nearly brushing the solid steel wall. When he let off the gas again, just seconds later, he’d had the car over one hundred fifty miles per hour. He slowed smoothly, low into three, high out of four, down the front straight and across the finish line. All his reactions and his movements were expert and fluid.
Cash returned to the pits after several laps between 16.7 and 16.8 seconds. No one had gone any faster. Right out of the box the new RaceTech team had put on a show.
Frank was there before Cash even had the chance to remove his helmet. “How’s she feel,” he asked, unable to hide his enthusiasm.
“Good,” Cash said, smiling. “Real good. If I was really pushing it we easily could have knocked off another tenth or so. She’s perfect. ”
“Fantastic,” Frank grinned, rubbing his hands together. That’s just fantastic. We’ve got the ISMA car ready to go if you’re ready to give her a try.”
“Sure,” Cash said. Let me grab a bottle of water. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Cash could hear Alex and Frank talking excitedly as he made his way toward the infield concession stand. He couldn’t help but smile. It was a good car; a car capable of winning a lot of races. And Cash knew he was capable of winning a lot of races too. And if the ISMA car was just as strong, they could all look forward to a very good season.
“So,” Bobby said when Cash got back, “you ready to get back out there?”
“Let’s do it.” Cash grabbed his helmet.
“Hold on,” Jason said, jogging over. “Someone just hit the wall up in three. I couldn’t tell who it was. Must have been a blown engine; there’s oil all over the place. It will take a while to clean up.”
“Well,” Bobby said. “Since we’ve got a few minutes, tell me about ISMA.”
“What do you want to know?” Cash asked.
“Whatever. I know as much about ISMA as I do about push trucks.”
“ISMA stands for International Supermodified Association. They compete all over: Ohio, Michigan, Florida, New England, Canada… some other places as well.”
“Have you run many ISMA shows?”
“Not really,” Cash said. I like to stay closer to home.”
“So what’s the difference between an Oswego super and an ISMA super?”
“Mainly the wing.” Cash pointed at the car and the barn door sized wing mounted over the roll cage. “That thing provides about two thousand pounds of extra down force.”
Bobby whistled. “That’s amazing.”
“It’s because of the way it moves. Those front struts,” Cash said, pointing, “go up and down. On the straight aways, the front of the wing goes up so the whole thing is flat. In the corners, it drops back down again. That’s where the down force comes from.”
“Amazing,” Bobby said again. “I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.”
Once the track was clear, Cash again started going through his numerous pre race motions. This time it was Jason who helped with the safety belts and arm restraints. Alex and Dale backed the car out of the pit and signaled for another push truck.
Cash ran several extra slow laps, trying to adjust to the very different feel of the new car. The wing made it so much more stable it almost felt like it was glued to the track. Ironically, it was that added stability that made him slightly uncomfortable. He’d always preferred to race without the wing because he felt like he had a much better feel for what the car was really doing. The wing could trick you into a false sense of security, making you believe the car was handling better than it really was. It made it too easy to go too fast, and that could get you into trouble. He’d seen it happen so many times before.
Cash took his time getting up to speed. As he ticked laps off one by one, he gradually got more comfortable and familiar with the new machine. Because of the wing, he had to drive the track a little differently. On the straights, there was so much drag that it felt like the wing was actually slowing him down, like walking headlong into a strong wind. But, as he entered the turn and the front of the wing dropped down, that energy was suddenly transferred, pressing the car against the track and almost pushing him forward. With the ISMA car, Cash could stay on the throttle longer on the straightaway, maintain greater speed through the turn, and accelerate more quickly exiting the turn.
Once he felt like he was turning consistently fast laps, Cash looked for Jason who had again taken his position in turn one: 16.5, 16.4, 16.35. The car was strong. Cash knew it would be. And the faster he went, the easier it got. As he drove, he thought of all the things he could accomplish in the coming year: wins on the ISMA circuit: wins at Oswego, another Classic victory, maybe his first-ever track championship. Lofty goals for sure, but with equipment like this, maybe not that far out of reach. His thoughts then turned to some of the great ones, the true legends of the sport who’d, in their time, all turned laps at Oswego: Jim Shampine and Richie Evans, 16.3, 16.2, Geoff Bodine and Mario Andretti 16.0, 15.9, Mark Martin, 15.8, Darrell Waltrip, 15.7, 15.65, Gordon Johncock… It was an impressive bunch. Cash knew he’d been given a great opportunity and he felt like he had something to prove. He had few friends among drivers and even fewer fans. He hoped that could somehow change. Maybe….
Cash was suddenly shaken from his reverie. In the fraction of a second, he sensed something had gone wrong. He immediately tried to brake but it was already too late. The car made a slight, almost imperceptible twitch to the right. Cash instinctively steered to the right but it did no good. Just like that, he was out of control and knew he was going to crash. He also knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. It was like he’d suddenly driven onto a sheet of ice. He pumped the brake and worked the steering wheel in vain, all the while rocketing toward the wall at well over a hundred miles an hour. Cash thought about the brand-new race car, the countless hours the entire crew had put into it, working nights and weekends to get everything just right. He thought about Frank and how heartbroken he would be. He thought about how much the wreck would cost, and how much it would hurt. Then, there was no more time to think. The car pounded the wall at nearly full speed. The noise and pain were awful as Cash was hurled against the restraints, the whine of the engine nearly drowned out by the shriek of tearing, grinding metal. Cash closed his eyes upon impac, or maybe he’d blacked out for a second or two. When he opened his eyes again, everything was an intense white, brilliant, painful and horrifying. Oh my God, he thought. I’m blind!