JIMMY PEARSON - AT HIS FIRST RACE
The first chance he got, Jimmy took a walk around the pits. Having arrived the day before, he was pitted right across from the pit-gates. Now he saw that most of the midget-teams that arrived today were set up along the fence flanking the spectators' parking lot, and a few others were pitted in a far corner of the pits. These teams were hidden by battered street stocks, full-bodied racecars called late models, and a horde of what Jimmy thought were the strangest cars he'd ever seen.
They were the modifieds, suggesting they were adapted from some other type of automobile. To Jimmy the cars shared nothing with any other car in the pits or parking lot. They sported high, flat, pitched roofs and equally flat side-panels. The driver's cockpit was surrounded by enough sheet-metal, it seemed to Jimmy, to cover three more modifieds with their scant and strange bodywork.
Past the pack of modifieds Jimmy found what he was looking for, the number-49 midget of Jared Sweet. Jimmy assumed Jared was Fred Sweet's son, though he didn't think the elder Sweet even was married when he was helping Big Jim Pearson. Whomever he was, he and Fred were changing the shocks on the front of the car. Jimmy wondered if he should say anything, but he realized Fred Sweet would recognize his name as soon as he saw it. For that matter, he likely already was aware of the younger Pearson's presence. Fred confirmed Jimmy's suspicions as soon as he saw him.
"Jim Pearson's kid," he said, hardly sounding interested in the fact. "So you're a racecar-driver now."
"I'm here racing," said Jimmy. "My friend and I bought Randy Whitman's car."
"Glad to see him go," said Jared, not looking up from the wrench he was spinning. "You're not going to get in my way, are you?"
"I'm doing my best to stay out of everyone's way," said Jimmy.
"You been racing?" said Fred. "How's your mother?"
"She's good. And no, I haven't been racing. We just got the car. This is my first weekend out with it."
"Oh great!" said Jared, drowning the comment in a wave of sarcasm. Jimmy turned to Fred.
"I hate it when some guy starts showing up halfway through the season," said Fred. "We got a points-race going here. All you can do is screw it up."
Jimmy didn't know how to respond. It was clear he wasn't going to get the benefit of the doubt here.
"Well, good luck, out there," he said.
"Yeah. Whatever," said Fred.
Heading back to his pit, Jimmy was hailed by Bobby Storrs.
"How'd your heat go?" Storrs asked.
"Okay, I guess, but there was no danger of me winning it. I started last. I finished last."
"Hey, you didn't break down, you didn't crash, and you didn't take anybody out. For a first race, that's pretty good."
"Sure. You wouldn't believe how many guys never make it out of the pits. I guess there's more that can go wrong than you realize."
"I'll try to keep it that way."
"You get lapped?" The question came from Doug Boyd.
"No I didn't. I kind of held my own, at least against the slower guys. But only after the start. I stepped on it, but everybody just pulled away. They were on the back-straight before I'd crossed the starting line."
"You can't just mash the throttle," said Bobby. "There's a technique to starting."
"I'm listening," said Jimmy.
He watched Bobby and Doug exchange knowing glances.
"You think we should tell him?" Bobby said.
"I dunno," said Doug. "I kind of like him half a lap behind."
"Yeah," said Bobby, "But I don't want to have to lap him. Who knows what he'll do?"
"Yeah, I already was warned to stay out of one guy's way," said Jimmy.
"Who was that?" Doug said, now looking serious.
"Sweet? That clown? He's the one to watch out for. He'll do anything to get by a guy."
"You know him?" said Bobby.
"I know his dad. Or I think it's his dad. Fred Sweet used to wrench for my father - after my granddad passed away."
"Those two guys are about as friendly as terrorists. And he is Jared's father. He likes to stir the crap up any time anybody even throws dirt on his precious kid."
"Well," said Jimmy, "I didn't like him when he worked on my dad's car. Guess he hasn't changed."
"Anyway," said Bobby. "About those starts. You gotta get your revs up. When you're rolling around under yellow, and the starter shows you the green flag, but it's all rolled up? That's telling you he'll drop it the next lap."
"You'll hear him on the radio, anyway," said Doug. His point drew a confused look from Jimmy.
"You're running a radio, aren't you?"
"You did read the rules on the website, didn't you?" said Bobby. "We're supposed to have a radio-receiver. Instructions are provided from the starter's stand. It backs up the flags. For a guy like you, it avoids a lot of confusion."
By the time Bobby made his point, Doug was thrusting a small yellow box into Jimmy's hands. An earplug-wire hung from the box.
"Clip this to your shirt inside your suit. Put the earplug in before you put on your helmet. Use some goose-tape to tape it to your ear or it'll come out when you put your helmet on. Then just flick the switch. It'll help, I tell you."
"Plus, if they find out you don't have one, they'll black flag you," said Bobby.
"I'm out of the race."
"Exactly. Anyway, when you get on the back-straight, start to give it some juice. Stand on your brake to keep it in line. By the time you see the green fly, you should have the hammer pretty much down already. You step off the brake and it's like you're unleashing your car. It'll take off - if you've got enough rear weight and the tires don't just spin while the car sits there."
"Gee, it sounds difficult. I don't want to lose it."
'You're still lining up last," said Bobby. "If you want, fall back a little before you start to wind it up. But you gotta figure it out. Every midget here will be in the feature, and the fast guys will be on you real quick. Keeping up with the pack is the best way to stay out of everyone's way."
"And this is short-track racing," said Doug. "If you can't get a good start you'll be out to lunch every night. There's no way you can recover in 25 laps."
Jimmy took their advice in the feature. He was lined up on the inside of tenth row. In fact, he was the tenth row. It was clear by the time he rolled out that some cars already were done for the night. When he saw the starter point to the cars with the rolled-up green flag, he also heard the words "Green next time by!" in his ear. He slowed his car to fall back a bit. Then he started to push down on the throttle-pedal. The car rushed to fill the gap he'd just created. He pressed gently on the brake, and then harder, and was relieved to see the gap open again down the back straight.
Jimmy also noticed the driver in front of him already looking across the track's infield at the starter's stand. These guys were way ahead of Jimmy before the green even fell. He fed in more throttle and brake. This time he was determined to avoid being left in the dust.
The field began to speed up as they entered the last set of corners before the start. Then Jimmy heard "Green! Green! Green!" but he already was flooring the throttle, nipping at the heels of the car in front of him. The field roared under the starter. Jimmy still was last, but he was last in a solid pack of racing cars. He forced his car low into the first corner and was surprised to catch and pass two cars that were high in the turn. As he hit the back straight, he found himself inside a bright orange car, but as he again put the throttle to the floor he was surprised again. His car shot forward, and the orange car disappeared behind him.
As soon as he congratulated himself for being in the thick of the action, he realized what that meant. Cars seemed to be bouncing around everywhere, directly in front of him, just off his right shoulder, and darting in and out of sight from behind him. He couldn't just run a line. He found himself reacting to cars that threatened to run into him. He was bouncing around, too, including off of at least one other car.
Suddenly the words "Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!" came through his radio. He instantly got off the throttle and coasted around to see the 49 of Jared Sweet sitting backwards on the track. A blue car sporting the number "44" was stopped next to it. Jimmy wasn't sure whose car it was until he spotted the helmet as he passed. He'd noticed it before. It was painted like the planet Earth. It was Doug's.
"Line it up," came through his earplug. "Single file."
Jimmy fell in line behind the number 37 car. Then he heard "Number six. You're in front of 37."
A track worker standing at the starting line waved his hand at Jimmy in a circular motion as he passed, signaling him to go around the number-37 car. Having no idea what place he was in, Jimmy was happy to follow the instruction.
Jimmy idled along with the rest of the midgets as Jared and Doug were untangled, restarted and made their way to the back of the pack. He gave his car some throttle as he headed down the frontstretch and was shocked to feel the car insistently dart toward the infield. He found himself using every bit of his strength just to keep the car going straight. Jimmy already knew that oval-track racecars were designed to turn left much more eagerly than right, but he now was discovering what that meant when these cars weren't at racing speed. He hooked his left elbow onto an extension of the seat designed to contain his torso and hung on the steering wheel for dear life with his left hand. This was harder work than driving full-speed.
A lap later came the furled green flag and the notice "Green next time by!" Jimmy tried to duplicate what he'd done on the previous start. This time he was farther back from the leaders due to the single-file restart. Still, he was able to hang onto the tail of the field.
Jimmy worked to stay there. Another car drifted back and to the outside of the track. Jimmy slid under him without effort. After 25 laps, that's where he wound up at the finish. He brought the car back to his pit and began to unhook himself from his restraints as Danny arrived from his spot in the pit-area grandstand.
"You were flying!" he said, barely containing his excitement. "You got a great start! And you passed a couple of guys. I didn't expect that."
Jimmy climbed out in the customary way, up through the top of his car's rollcage. As he sat on the cage getting ready to swing his legs over it and onto the right-rear tire, he noticed the white, red and blue midget of Bobby Storrs flash through the corners closest to him. The checkered flag fluttered next to him. It was his victory lap.
"Bobby won the race," said Jimmy.
"Yeah," said Danny. "Not a bad guy to have in your corner."
Jimmy was tired. He knew driving a racecar, and especially a dirt-racecar, could wipe a guy out. Now he'd experienced it.
He swung his legs out of the car and stepped out onto the right-rear tire. Then he dropped himself to the ground. He also was hot. He stripped his suit down to his waist, tying its arms together to keep it up.
"Let's go congratulate Bobby," he said to Danny.
"No hurry. He's still on the track."
Pulling off his helmet, Jimmy suddenly heard Bobby's voice booming over the loudspeakers, talking about his victory.
"So, how was the car?" Danny asked.
"Fine, I guess." Jimmy laughed. "How the heck do I know?"
"I'll tell you one thing. That thing puts the power down! When you and the 7X were side by side coming out of two you just motored away from him. I could almost see it respond to you."
"Was that the orange car?"
"Yeah, the 7X. You didn't catch the number?"
"No, I'm not really out there trying to get their numbers."
"Yeah," said Danny, a grin of recognition crossing his face. "I'm sure you have better things to do."
Danny reached into the midget and checked to make sure the fuel and power both were shut off.
"So let's take a stroll," he said.
When they got to the pit Bobby and Doug were sharing, they found Doug urgently checking suspension and the other spindly pieces of his car.
"What I tell you about that tool?" he said as he tugged on arms connecting his car's wheels and axles to the chassis. "I obviously had position on him, and he just pulled down into me. Idiot."
"Hey Boyd. Where'd you learn to drive?" Jared Sweet marched into Doug's pit and up into his face. Jimmy actually could see veins pulsing in his neck. "That was my race! I had you beat, so you just figured you'd run me off the track."
"Run you off the track?" Doug repeated. "Run you off the track? Bobby pulled away, and I followed right on his tail. There was never room for a car between us. There wasn't room for an RC car between us. But you just drove down into me, anyway. And you spun. Your front wheel hit my back. So how you figure I cut you off? "
"Listen, you get in my way again, and I'll run you out of the state."
Jared now noticed a silent Jimmy eavesdropping on the conversation.
"What, you got a couple of new fans here, eh?"
He turned to Jimmy.
"Trying to get a new autograph for your collection of losers?"
"What are you on my case for?" said Jimmy.
"You just stay out of my way, too," Jared said before turning and marching off.
"That's another Christmas present you won't be getting," said Doug, laughing.
"Man," said Danny, "What's up with him?"
"Some guys are just jerks. I guess it runs in some families, eh, Jimmy?"
"What?" said Danny, looking at Jimmy.
"The guy's name is Jared Sweet," said Jimmy.
"Remember when I told you about my dad racing, and the guy who wrenched for him after my grandfather died?"
"His name was Fred Sweet?"
Danny looked at Jimmy, puzzled. Then his eyes opened wide in realization.
"That's his kid?"
"Yeah, that's his son. And he's as bad as I remember his dad being. And his Dad's still just as bad."
"You saw him here?" Danny said.
"Yeah. I already talked to him."
The conversation was interrupted by Bobby's car getting pushed back into his pit by his brother. He climbed out after handing a shiny trophy to Doug. The two exchanged high-fives as Mike parked his truck and started attending to Bobby's car.
"What happened to you and our little friend?" Bobby asked.
"He came down into me. Classic Sweet. You got some traction out of one and I was right behind you. He was high and just drove down into me. And then he came over here and got in my face."
"That's a scary proposition," said Mike as he poked around in the midget's cockpit.
"Doug didn't back down a bit," said Jimmy.
"No, young man," said Bobby, exaggerating a tone of authority. "Dangerous for Sweet. You wouldn't want to mess with Doug Boyd."
Lincoln Park Speedway was a four-hour drive from Oak Grove, and its setting could not have been more different. Where Oak Grove seemed to have sprouted from the flat farmland surrounding it like the trees that shared its name, Lincoln Park Speedway was nestled on the banks of a river that wound through the hill-country it called home.
Lincoln Park Speedway was part of an amusement park. The track was some distance from the midway and separated from it by a stand of pine trees and a giant screen of black mesh strung from utility-poles, meant to catch the dust that cars racing on dirt send flying. Still, the screams and laughter spilling out from the thrill-rides never let up the entire time Jimmy and Danny were there.
There would be no separate practice-day this weekend. They arrived early Saturday for the show that evening and took a spot in the pits among the still-arriving fleet of midgets, which was afforded prime pit-space near the racetrack's entrance. Danny pulled their rig into an open spot right next to Bobby Storrs and Doug Boyd.
As it was on raceday at Oak Grove, the midgets would get one practice-session before having to run their heats. Then everyone would run the feature later in the evening.
As soon as the car was off its trailer, Danny opened Randy Whitman's notes to his pages for Lincoln. This track was a quarter-mile, seemingly the same size as Oak Grove, but Danny noticed the setups suggested for it were quite different.
"Let's go with these," he said to Jimmy. "He's running springs wound tighter than what's on it, plus he's putting in more stagger. Way higher tire-pressures, too."
Mike Storrs was listening from his spot next to the young rookies.
"You're gonna find this track's a ton harder than Oak Grove," he advised, "especially this time of year. Not to drive. I mean the surface. You're almost running a pavement-setup."
"Which means it's faster, too?" said Jimmy.
"Exactly. But you also won't feel like you're hooking up as good. They get some great sideways- racing here."
"Sounds like more than the surface is harder," said Jimmy.
"You'll get used to it."
"You ever take your brother's car out?" said Danny, suddenly curious.
"I used to race. For years, actually. We started out in karts together, and I raced a couple of years in a midget. But we didn't have the money to keep running two cars, and I kind of like the wrenching more than the driving, anyway. Besides, Bobby's just way faster than I was."
Jimmy thought the track actually was easier to drive - until a couple of cars passed him in practice as if he were standing still. He resolutely increased his focus, making an extra effort to drive deeper into the next corner he faced in an attempt to reel the cars back to him. Now he found his car sliding as if it were on ice, every wheel breaking free of the black groove of dirt made shiny by tire-wear. Still, he tapped on the brake and steered the car to the right as its back end threatened to pass him. The car turned into the corner even though Jimmy could have sworn there wasn't a tire finding any traction anywhere on the rock-hard dirt.
The car slid sideways all the way through both corners before reaching the front straight. Now Jimmy pressed the throttle down and felt the car straighten itself out and shoot forward down the track. He repeated the process into the next corner and found himself again flying out of it.
"The car is perfect!" Jimmy shouted to Danny as soon as he shut the car off in their pit. "Don't do a thing to it."
"Randy always went well here," said Doug Boyd, who - curiously - hadn't even taken his car out for the session.
"It's like running on ice!" said Jimmy, stepping aside as Mike Storrs pushed his brother into the spot between Jimmy's car and Doug's.
"Well, that didn't look so hard," said Mike to Jimmy, hopping out of his truck. "You looked good."
"I was just saying. It doesn't feel anything like it did at Oak Grove. I never felt like I was getting any traction. But then I swear I was going faster."
"You were. I put a watch on you. You were half-a-second faster than last week. But this place'll do that."
"You timed me?"
"Of course. You don't have Danny putting a clock on you?"
"How will you know if the car's any faster?" said Bobby, now out of his helmet. "You just learned that how it feels can fool you. The stopwatch is the only way to know for sure. Didn't Randy leave you one?"
"I didn't find one in the stuff he gave us," said Danny.
"Go see Dick," said Bobby. "He's got the parts-truck over next to sign-in. He'll have some. Buy one."
Dick Dulude evidently pulled his trailer of parts and supplies to every track where the Tri-State midgets raced. Jimmy had noticed him at Oak Grove, but, needing nothing, hadn't given him a thought.
He and Danny took the walk to Dick's trailer and introduced themselves. The trailer was filled to overflowing with wheels, shocks, springs, and other suspension-pieces as well as supplies such as duct tape, in every color in you might find in a box of crayons, and a ton of safety gear.
Dick had three different stopwatches for sale. Danny chose a digital one that was built into a clipboard.
"Randy never used a stopwatch," Dick informed the two young racers. "He was a seat-of-the-pants sort of guy."
"I was just informed that's a bad idea," said Jimmy.
"Well, I wouldn't recommend it," said Dick, smiling, "but I want to sell stopwatches, so what do I know?"
"More than us," said Jimmy.