Swirls of tiny insects danced in the breeze, shoved along by a steady, insistent southwesterly wind. The gentle rushes of air provided little relief, though, in what was already becoming a hot, hazy Midwestern morning. Thunderclouds were already lining up impatiently in formation out across the distant prairie, not even waiting for the heat of the afternoon to give them impetus to begin marching in.
But this particular early August weekend was promising to be a hot one in other ways.
Cars and trucks were already lined up, streaming in from all directions as if answering some kind of homing call only they could hear. The small neighborhood of modest homes seemed almost to be shielding the giant speedway from those who would seek it. But the fans found it all right, tucked there in the middle of the nearly cut lawns, trimmed shrubbery, and towering water oaks. Hundreds of thousands of racing enthusiasts were converging on the facility and its rectangular ribbon of asphalt. Most of them looked on respectfully as they approached its magnificence, gazing in quiet awe at the massive shrine, at its hallowed ground, sacred for anyone who worshiped speed.
What had not actually been visible before suddenly appeared above the roofs of the houses and the mature trees like one of those thunderstorms building out on the horizon. Many of those who were heading her way would unconsciously pause and stare at the massive facility. Others scrambled for cameras. They would literally turn the corner and, suddenly, there it would be, hulking proudly before them. How could anything so huge have been hidden from them until they had gotten so close?
The intricate ironwork of her long, low structure formed an almost natural beauty, as if the speedway had been created by something volcanic, geological, not by the hands of men. The place had a profound gracefulness that seemed lacking in most of the newer, more modern racing facilities. And that’s why even those who had visited often would usually pause reverently for a moment and stare at her, as if in worship, before heading on for her gates and turnstiles.
It was, after all, Indianapolis, a place whose name was synonymous with speed the world over, regardless of the language that might be spoken there.
Inside the place there was already a festive atmosphere, as joyous and high-spirited as could be found at any major sporting event. There were brilliant colors, fluttering flags, all kinds of music, exotic, enticing smells, and, of course, a patiently waiting but clearly excited throng of loud fans. And down there before them, the focal point of all that excitement, were two long lines of multicolored racing machines, stretched along the pit lane like a pair of rainbow-hued snakes sunning themselves while they awaited the command to roar to life and race away.
Soon, the men who drove those machines would duel with each other to determine who among them had what it would take at the end of the day to bring home the victory. Who would head the field for that last time as the cars eventually crossed the narrow strip of bricks that marked the finish line for any event that might be run here? Who would make the strongest case for bringing the trophy home from Indy? The verdict was still several hours from being rendered, and the jury of several hundred thousand people was prepared to witness the testimony.
The race crews were mostly oblivious to the crowd and the prerace ceremonies as they made a series of last-minute checks on their machines. One of the crews scrambled around a sparkling, bright red Ford that rested in fifteenth position, on the inside of the eighth row. The sky-blue highlights of the car’s trim and numbers blended well with the dark blue logo of the machine’s primary sponsor. The scripted letters spelled out “Ensoft,” the name of one of the hotter companies in the computer software business, and the benefactor who paid good money to support this particular racecar and its team.
The vehicle’s improbably young driver wore a bright red driving suit that matched his car perfectly. Despite the nervous anticipation that seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the pit road, the handsome, blond-haired youngster lounged nonchalantly against the side of the car, idly playing with his shoestrings. It seemed he might be about to take a leisurely drive to the corner market instead of climb into the car and race a flock of speed demons for four hundred miles at a breathtaking pace. But anyone who might glance his way knew exactly what this young man was about to do, despite that fact he was hardly halfway through his rookie season at this heady level of stock car racing. He had built a name for himself already. The media had quickly named him “Rocket Rob” Wilder, partly for how quickly he navigated racetracks, partly because he grew up near the “Rocket City” of Huntsville, Alabama.
The kid had quickly burst onto the scene the year before, almost winning his first big-time race at Daytona, all the time charming fans with his easygoing style, his quiet determination to win, and his Hollywood good looks. Now, midway through his rookie Cup season, the twenty-year-old had impressed even the toughest-to-impress observes of the sport. Although he’d not yet claimed his first win at this level, most of those in the garage and the media fully expected it to come any week and no fan complained if he pulled Rob Wilder’s name in the office pool.
It wasn’t just the car’s talented, good-looking kid driver that indicated imminent success. The owner of his team, Billy Winton, had put together a fleet of racecars and a crew that seemed to get better each week, even as his driver gained valuable experience while racing against the sport’s best.
The critics noticed immediately that Wilder relied more on finesse and a smart, heads-up driving style than he did on the push and shove that made many of his peers famous. Or infamous, as the case may be. Rob Wilder was already developing an impressive following among race fans, attracted by his magnetic personality, his youthful, self-effacing manner, and his skill at handling a machine traveling nearly two hundred miles per hour. And along the way he’d won the respect of those he competed against, too.
But if pressed, Rob would admit that it was all hard for him to fathom. After all, he was still a few months shy of being legal in most states. He found it difficult to understand why people would show up at a computer store or shopping center or at a race event and wait patiently in line for hours to meet him, to have him sign a photo or slip of paper. He had often dreamed of such a thing when he was growing up in Hazel Green, just up the road from Huntsville. But now that it was actually happening, he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He was only a young kid, a racecar driver who had never won a Cup race. A raw rookie who had been running potholed local tracks in a wired-together junker only a short two years before.
Sure, he had done a couple of national television commercials for Ensoft and people were always asking him to deliver his tag lines from the spots for them. Or they would recite back to him something he had said in a radio or television or newspaper interview, or describe in amazing detail some on-track incident he had already filed away in his memory banks.
Yes, it was heady stuff. Someone with a less even keel might have let it turn him. But Rob Wilder had two big advantages.
One was the coaching of his mentor, Jodell Bob Lee. Jodell had been a legendary driver and was now a successful team owner. Along the way he practically adopted the hard-driving, quite-spoken youngster. It had been Jodell Lee who looked on one night as Rob won a feature race at a dusty little bullring of a track where the old driver was making an appearance. Jodell immediately recognized the kid’s talent. He recommended Rob to his friend and former crewmember Billy Winton, who was, at the time, toying with putting together a full-time Grand national team. Along with his invaluable tips on racecar piloting, Lee also helped the kid deal with the pressures off-track commitments and the adoration of fans, as well.
Rob’s other big advantage strolled right up to him at that very moment and slid down to sit next to him on the pavement.
“I don’t think I’ve seen this many people in one place since the last time I sat in a traffic jam for two hours on the Hollywood Freeway,” she said, surveying the huge, colorful crowd that encircled them.
Michelle Fagan. She was a high-level executive, the vice-president of marketing for Ensoft, the Winton team sponsor, but she was also much, much more. Nowadays, Michelle spent far more time following Billy Winton’s race team from track to track, overseeing the sponsorship tie-ins, than she did running the marketing department of the software giant. She could have hired someone to do these chores for the race team but she readily admitted she didn’t want to do that. She had immediately come to love this rapid, loud sport once she had gotten a taste of it, as incongruous as that might sound for a California girl with a master’s in business administration from U.C.L.A. A lady who, up until the car sponsorship deal, had only caught brief glimpses of stock-car racing while flipping between the business channels on her local cable television system. And a sharply focused executive who also just happened to have a high-tech bucking bronco of a company to try to tame.
“You know, Chelle, there’s more people here to watch us run tan there are living in Hazel Green and Huntsville put together?”
“You’re nervous, then.”
“Naw! All these parades and singing and stuffs is just postponing my winning this race, is all.”
“No. I think you’re nervous. I believe I see your little hands shaking and you’ve got dry mouth and I believe you’re on the verge of breaking out in hives. Yeah, Mr. Stock Car Boy, I think you’re as nervous as—”
Before she could stop him, he dropped a handful of gravel down the back of her Ensoft-team racing shirt.
“Look out! Spiders! Big old bugs!” he whooped and Michelle jumped to her feet and began a dance around the car, ripping out the tail of her shirt, trying to rid herself of whatever vermin Rob Wilder had dumped down her shirt.
And that little exchange symbolized Michelle’s other primary task and maybe her greatest value to this team. Sure, she kept her hands full, arranging a staggering array of sponsorship activities for the car the team, and the driver, scheduling interviews, over-seeing tie-ins to advertising, setting him up to visit with customers, distributors, journalists, and Ensoft employees. She had to make certain her company maximized its multimillion-dollar investment in that bright red car and its attractive young driver. And all the while, she still tried her best, mostly by cell phone and fax machine and usually at a time offset by two or three hours, to keep up with her other duties back on the West Coast where Ensoft’s corporate head-quarters were located.
But by default, and at her own choosing, Michelle had assumed a far subtler role: that of confidant, co-conspirator, soul mate, baby-sitter, and best friend of one “Rocket Rob” Wilder.
Her relationship with the young man had evolved into more than a strictly business, sponsor-rep-and-racecar-driver association. It was a business relation-ship for sure, but it went far beyond that. Many in the garage and even on the team itself had trouble figuring out what the exact nature of their alliance might be. But they all knew too that it worked.
Michelle seemed to know exactly what to do or say to bring the young man back down to earth on those rare occasions when he got too full of himself. Or how to pull him back up when things did’t meet his own lofty expectations and he would inevitably get down on himself. It had not taken her long to realize that Rob Wilder expected to win every race he entered and that he would be severely disappointed when he didn’t. But she seemed to have the knack to know what to do to get him over those small setbacks and back into a frame of mind to take on the racing world with his usual vigor and confidence.
“What in the world is going on here?” a tall, dark-haired man asked gruffly as he stepped from the other side of the racecar.
“Michelle’s just having a conniption fit, Will,” Rob answered, as straight-faced and innocently as he could manage.
Will Hughes was the crew chief on the Billy Winton car and a man not given to much foolishness. Especially minutes before the green flag was to drop. But at the same time, he, as well as Billy Winton, the car’s owner, recognized Michelle Fagan’s value in keeping their high-strung driver in a condition to race most effectively.
“Well, see that she doesn’t do any damage to the car and try to steer her over behind the pit wall before she passes out,” Will said, as calmly as if he were ordering a crewman to stack up a set tires.
Hughes had first noticed Michelle’s expanded value to the team the previous season when they were running the Grand National circuit. Rob had made the slightest of bobbles one day while qualifying. It was enough of a mistake that they had to start back in the pack even though they all knew they had the fastest car there. His goof-up was enough to send Rob into a blue funk, but Michelle seemed to know exactly what to say and do to get him over it. Sure enough, they notched their very first win there at the historic Nashville track. Now with the more intensified pressure at the Cup level, Michelle’s influence over Rob was even more valuable.
She was anxiously awaiting the start of the race now. Finally, she would be able to sit back and watch Rob circle the track and, for the first time since before six o’clock that morning, relax. She had spent a frantic morning shepherding a flock of guests that Ensoft brought in for the race. Part of that job had involved getting a semireluctant driver to the hospitality tent on time even though he would have preferred staying with the crew and the racecar and concentrating on the task at hand. But she managed to keep him smiling as he met and greeted the guests and posed for countless pictures and signed autographs for everyone there.
And there was another complication that cropped up that morning and threatened to throw the driver off kilter. Rob learned that his girlfriend, Christy, would not be able to make the race. She had planned to fly out from California for the race, the first time they would be able to be with each other in over a month. She was interning in the Ensoft legal department for the summer, taking a break, preparing for her first year of law school at Stanford after completing her prelaw studies at U.C.L.A. But the weather had conspired against them and the Ensoft corporate jet was going to have to stay in the hanger in San Jose until well after sunup. That meant Christy and the group of company executives wouldn’t have time to make the race’s early start.
That also meant more work for Michelle, entertaining the dignitaries all by herself. Besides, she had been looking forward to visiting with Christy, too. In addition to being Rob Wilder’s girlfriend, Christy was Christy Fagan, Michelle’s baby sister. Michelle had introduced Rob to her sister early in Ensoft’s sponsorship of the red racecar and the two of them had hit it off immediately. They did make a striking couple, as the television camera crews had discovered immediately. They usually sought out the photogenic couple before a race and often trained the cameras on them, or fought to focus on Christy late in any race in which Rob was a contender.
Michelle had finally shaken the gravel from her shirt and was throwing Rob a mean look.
“If my sister was here, we’d gang up on you and whip your tail.”
“Ooh, I’m so scared.”
“You better be thinking about that car and how you’re going to driver it.”
“Shoot fire! The way this thing was running yesterday evening, the rest of them might as well head on home. Unless they went to race for second, that is.”
Rob slapped the roof of his racecar for emphasis. He was about to say more when Will Hughes stepped around again from the other side of the car.
“Well, Cowboy, it’s time to go racing.”
Will had always called the kid “Cowboy,” though he really wouldn’t say why. The couple of times Rob asked him Will only shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject.
“It’s about time!” With that, Rob stuck out his tongue in Michelle’s direction, zipped up his driving suit, and slid one leg through the open window of the stock car. Michelle suddenly leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, then squeezed his hand. Rob felt the softness of her hand in his and he squeezed back. He allowed the grasp to linger before he finally let them go.
Rob slung the rest of his long lanky frame in through the open window and settled down into the custom-fitted seat. The padding hugged his body, leaving him little room to twist around in the contouring that was purposely designed to match his frame. He reached down and pulled the safety belts up between his legs, slid the padded shoulder belts into place, then snapped the center catch, fastening the belts together. Finally, he gave each belt a solid yank, making sure they were tightly fastened into place.
Rob inserted the earpieces for the radio into each ear, grabbed the short pieces of “one-hundred-mile-per-hour tape” off the dash, and used them to secure the tiny earphones in his ears. His helmet hung off a small hook attached to the roll bar. He reached for it and pulled it on, adjusting the chinstrap so it fit snugly but comfortably.
Outside the car, Will barked last-minute instructions to the rest of the crew, using his microphone and the radio net to make certain he could be heard over the noise of the crowd and the music and chatter from the speakers that lined the track. He glanced at his young driver as the kid slipped the steering wheel onto its column.
There was more than a little confidence in the young driver’s manner, an assurance that sometimes bordered on cockiness. Will grinned. The young’un had every reason to be confident. He had a good, strong car beneath him. The engine, prepared especially for him by Jodell Lee’s first cousin and longtime engine builder, Joe Banker, was capable of producing the power necessary to take the car to victory lane. This was the kind of track on which Rob felt most comfortable, wide, flat, with long straightaways ending in Indy’s sharp, distinctive corners. And Rob Wilder was as gifted a driver as Will Hughes had ever seen. Sure, he still had lots to learn, but with the guidance of Billy Winton and Jodell Lee, he couldn’t miss. If he continued to keep his head on straight, he would someday be a superstar.
That’s why Will was here. He had worked with Jodell Lee’s team when he first broke into racing, fresh from engineering school. But he had dreams of heading his own team, of applying his technical background, of winning lots of championships. His father had been a promising racer himself, but that promise was never to be fulfilled. Will Hughes saw his best chance to live his and his dad’s dreams as the crew chief of Billy Winton’s emerging race team.
Back inside the racecar, Rob was having his usual prerace thoughts. He knew he could take this car to the front and keep it there. The only question was whether or not the racing gods would bless them long enough today so they could bring home the victory. Rob figured that as long as he did what he was supposed to do, only those things that were out of their control could keep them from being first to the checkers, from claiming their first Cup win.
He was so deep in thought that it took him a moment to realize the buzzing in his ears was Will Hughes calling him, asking for a final radio check before the command to start the engines. Rob reached his gloved thumb fro the mike button on the steering column and held it down.
“I got a good copy on you, Will. Reading you loud and clear.”
“What about you, Harry?” Will queried, glancing up toward the platform atop the grandstands where their spotter, Harry Stone, Stood watching.
“Got you both five-by-five. You got me, Rob?” Harry asked.
“Any louder or clearer and you’ll blow me out of this seat,” Rob called back. He knew it would be much harder to hear the radio transmissions when the car was out there among the rest of them, yodeling at full song, but he would have no trouble understanding the commands they would pass on to him.
“Good. We’re ready, then. Robbie, go out there and show them what we brought up here. I’d like to be drinking a little of that cold milk in victory lane when we get done this afternoon.”
“I’am looking forward to that, too,” Rob answered, then allowed the radio to go silent as he awaited the command to fire up the engines.
A renewed wave of excitement began to sweep the speedway as the national anthem’s last strains echoed around the huge plant and the rest of the preliminary ceremonies wound down. All around the speedway the crowd stood, cheering and waiting. Many of them had been in this same place earlier in the year, in May, for the Indy 500. It was a different kind of racing but they didn’t care. They had returned to admire the skill, the during, the competitiveness of these men and their machines.
All the miles traveled, the price of the tickets, the endless wait in traffic, the search for one of the precious parking spots, the heat, hunger, and thirst were all about to be worth it. It would all be forgotten when the cars finally thundered to life and rolled away from a dead stop to get this relatively new racing tradition under way.
“Gentlemen, start your engines.”
All the tension and type of the last few days melted away along the pit lane as the scores of engines noisily came awake. It was finally time to go racing and everyone in the pits had a job to do, from the tire changers to the gas men, the crew chiefs, and the drivers. Most of them had been working full days since mid-week anyway, but all that was forgotten, too. All that toil was about to culminate in four hundred miles of superclose racing.
The crews scrambled around in their pits in what looked like total chaos, but they all knew exactly what they were doing as they made certain everything was prepared and ready and in its proper place. Behind the pits, the stacks of fresh tires sat stacked and mounted, ready to be bolted onto the racecars when needed.
Along the pit lane, the colored flags waved gently in the breeze. The fans lining the track stood already, cheering wildly, successfully drowning out the restrained grumbled of the poised racecars. The cars and their drivers impatiently awaited the signal to move down the pit road and out onto the racing surface, trailing the pace car. Pictures, were snapped, scanners set on the desired frequencies, and the headset radios dialed in to the radio broadcast. The fans with the scanners were treated to the last-minute checks between drivers and their crews before the cars rolled away to take to the famed speedway.
Before the command’s last words were even finished, Rob Wilder reached over and pressed the starter switch with his gloved left hand. Without hesitation, the powerful Banker engine responded. Rob scanned the instrument cluster, making sure the amps came up as they were supposed to, then watched the oil and fuel pressure begin to register.
Nervous anticipation ran through his body as he studied the rear bumper of the green Pontiac sitting in front of him. With four hundred miles around the two-mile rectangle awaiting him, Rob was confident, sure he had what it took to drive this car to the front of the field. He pictured in his mind how it would look to the crowd when he sailed beneath the checkered flag, how it would feel to stand atop the car and take big, thirsty swallows of cold milk while the confetti flew all around him in the hot breeze.
The cars at the front of the line began to slowly move away. All the pageantry was now over. It was time to see who had the fastest car and who had the courage necessary to put it up front as they crossed for the final time the strip of bricks marking the finish line.
“Okay, Cowboy, Let’s head ’em up and move ’em out. Time to get this show on the road!” Will called over the radio as he stepped back over the pit wall.
“Ten four!” Rob’s voice crackled back as he eased off on the clutch, setting the Ensoft Ford loose, following in the green Pontiac’s tire tracks.
Rob Wilder was about to compete for the first time on the storied asphalt of “The Brickyard.” Right now, he wasn’t sure what was pounding harder, the pistons in the Ford’s engine or the heart inside his chest.
Copyright © 2000 by Kent Wright & Don Keith