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Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen

The Outside Groove (9 page)

BOOK: The Outside Groove
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As the column of cars started flying around the oval, I felt like someone had reached inside and was shaking me. I bit down and focused on the rear wheels of M
AMA
M
IA
25. I ran a lap in line before the field began to shift, the pack loosening as racers made their first moves, sometimes stretching up the banked turns two or three cars across. I stayed as close as I could to car 25.

By lap three, Kirby was coming up hard on my right. I chased him down the length of the Widowmaker, keeping him from overtaking me in one blast. When he was only half a car length ahead, though, he cut hard in front of me—a clear chop. I had to lift to keep from getting clipped.

I was running dead last.

But I wasn't worried. I clung to Kirby's bumper as I entered turn one on lap four. Theo strained toward the outside, but I held him tight to the corner and sped up, slowly but steadily, right up to the point that I sensed the rear tires starting to skid. Lifting a touch, I stayed tight in the turn. Pulling into the straightaway, I hadn't lost an inch on Kirby.

Theo wanted to drift out in the straightaway, but I held him to the inside. I'd get Kirby on the next corner, I thought. Coming out of turn four, I floored the gas. Theo leaped, as if showing off for the Beer Belly Hill crowd.

As I reached turn one again, I backed off the gas. I held the inside track with two car widths between Kirby and me. Again, Theo pulled outside, but I pulled back, pushing him to the brink of control—finding my threshold.

In the second half of the turn, Kirby's truck flew down from the bank so fast that it seemed like he was about to drive across the track apron and into the infield. He chopped me again at precisely the spot where the turn opened into the straightaway. Somehow, he was now more than a car length ahead.

Sweat trickled into my eyes. I blinked, shook my head, and accelerated.

The inside lane belonged to Kirby, but I pushed Theo right up to the truck's rear, close enough to make out the row of Martian-looking men painted on the back end, each little Martian laughing and pointing at me. Maybe Kirby got anxious having me so close, because he drifted outside. When he'd given me almost one car width on the inside, I gunned for the space. It was a tight fit, and I accidentally tapped him. It was just a tap, though, and it didn't push him out much farther.

I lifted going into the turn and held the car as tight to the inside as I could while accelerating again. Theo's rear wheels slid a tiny bit, but I recovered. In the second half of the turn, my forearms stinging from wrestling Theo into our lane, it happened again: Kirby chopped me from the outside, plunging into the stretch. Only now he had a car on his outside and another one close behind him.

Behind him?

I glanced at the lap clock: I was only going into lap nine, but I was on the verge of being lapped.

My whole body was on fire, my head spinning. The numbers didn't lie: The inside lane was the shortest distance around the track. I was driving as fast as I could, in a car presumably as quick as the next guy's. I asked myself a question:
Why am I getting smoked?

In the time it took me to get angry, I had another car on my right and another one on my tail. The car on my right, a midnight-blue Mustang adorned with silver 07s and I
NTERVALE
F
UN
P
ARK AND
D
RIVING
R
ANGE
decals, was simply faster. At least it seemed that way. In one run down the backstretch, Fun Park 07 edged up half a car length. He held his edge in the turn and overtook me in the next straightaway. One more corner, and he dropped in front of me.
Lapped.

For the next few laps, I tailed car 07.1 knew this driver, Dale Scott. He was the only member of Wade's crew who raced, and he got a fair amount of ridicule for running in the lowly Road Warrior division. Despite Dale's obvious speed, he seemed to be all over the track, moving outside and inside, outside and inside. Midway down the stretches, he drifted way out to the wall. At the start of the turn, he began crossing to the inside, shooting down the bank on a line leading to the start of the next straightaway.

Aha.

I tried driving Dale's line for a lap.
Yes.
It suddenly made sense: While hugging to the inside, I strained to keep Theo from going where he wanted to go—outside. Centrifugal force. I'd learned about it in physics class. Meanwhile, drivers like Dale and Kirby let their cars move to the outside in the corners so they could begin accelerating as they
approached
the straightaways. They were making a small sacrifice in the fight against centrifugal-force resistance in exchange for being able to accelerate even
before
they'd reached the stretches. Driving on the inside, I was cranking the wheel hard right up to the moment the track straightened out, delaying the moment when I could get my speed back up.

Though it privately shamed me, I had to acknowledge my error: A Demon's Run race wasn't about traveling the shortest distance around the track. There was a more complicated equation at work, one combining geometry
and
physics. How could I have been so stupid?

Fifteen laps into the twenty-five lap race, and I'd been lapped so many times I'd lost count. On lap sixteen, when the yellow caution flag came out, signaling a wreck somewhere on the track, the field slowed to about twenty miles per hour and stayed in position—a track rule. I tried to cobble together a revised strategy, but with the race volume diminished a bit, I could unfortunately hear Bean's voice over the speaker system: “And bringing up the rear is car six, Casey LaPlante, evidently sponsored anonymously by the high school Driver's Ed Department. That's some good, cautious driving, Casey.” So much for my focus.

As I rounded turn two on the caution lap, I saw the reason for the yellow flag. Kirby's aggressive driving had apparently earned the F
RENCHIE
'
S
F
IREWORKS
truck a trip down the turn-three embankment. The Hook zipped along the shoulder of the track, three guys in jumpsuits riding on the bumpers.

Kirby must not have gone down that hard. As I rounded turn three, I saw that his truck was still upright. “And Kirby Mungeon makes Demon's Run history, folks,” Bean said with a chuckle. “He's the first one of the season to get the Hook. Congratulations, Kirby.”

As the line of thirteen remaining cars—twelve of them ahead of me—crossed over in the backstretch and then passed Beer Belly Hill, I glanced at the crowd. I regretted it an instant later. Unless I was hallucinating from body heat, people up there were having a blast, many of them laughing and pointing. At me. I was the life of the party.

That's it,
I said to myself.
No more “cautious driving. ”
After the Hook had hauled Kirby's truck back to the pits, I set a new goal: Pass someone.

When the pace car darted off the track and the green flag dropped, I yanked Theo to the outside and gunned it.

Running alone far outside, I technically passed a few cars, but dropping down to the inside lane on the straightaways, I never seemed to get ahead of anyone.

I kept trying. Evidently, F
UN
P
ARK
Dale Scott didn't care for my strategy, especially after I nearly tagged him as I flew into the backstretch out of turn two, lifting but not soon enough to avoid tapping his rear bumper. His rear tires spun to the inside, he overcompensated by turning them back out, and in the process he lost a position to the white Mustang, M
AMA
M
IA
25, which took him on the inside.

I went back to running the inside track, but that didn't work any better than it had initially. By lap twenty, I was physically and mentally drained. I'd pushed Theo as fast as...
I
could go. I'd found my threshold, and it wasn't good enough.

During a moment of self-pity, as I stewed in my firesuit, I lost focus long enough to get pinned to the Widowmaker by Dale coming out of turn four. Expecting him to drop down into the middle of the lane, I turned into him. I gave his car a smack—door to door. He must've smacked back with a strong pull on the wheel, because Theo scraped the last piece of Widowmaker before turn one, sailed off the top of the turn, and plunged toward the berm and fence fronting the pit.

I instinctively threw my car in neutral and took my foot off the gas, slamming on the brake and gripping the wheel with what strength I had left. I fishtailed in the grass, spun three hundred and sixty degrees, and slid to a stop facing the tire compound. Fortunately, thanks to the high-banked turn, I was invisible to the spectators. Unfortunately, I was perfectly visible to Wade and half his crew, including Fletcher, who were standing around car 02 on the other side of the fence. Wade smiled and waved.

As I stepped out of the car, I heard Bean say, “...car six, newcomer Casey LaPlante. Spotters say she's fine, folks. Sugar and spice, but she may be thinking twice.”

What I was thinking about, in fact, was going up to the announcer's booth and feeding Bean his microphone for lunch. Until I saw Theo's right side. My ride along the Widowmaker had peeled back the front panel like the lid on a tin of cat food.

The Hook crew ran around my car, unspooling cables and cranking winches. A lanky guy with a black buzzcut and wraparound sunglasses asked if I was OK.

“I'm fine,” I said.

I looked at Theo again. He wasn't fine. The crew was already hooking him up. “Find a spot for yourself on the bumper,” the guy said. “There's four laps left to go. Looks like you're done for today. ”

“Looks that way,” I said.

As I approached the truck, a short, beefy guy with a goatee offered me a lift up. I ignored him at first but, realizing I could barely lift my arms, took his hand.

***

Back in the pits, Jim watched me jump off the back of the Hook. “You all right?” he said.

“Fine. Don't know about the car, though.”

The Hook crew lowered Theo into my slip and then jetted back to their position inside the pit gate at turn one.

Jim tossed his crowbar onto the flatbed, got a hammer and some work gloves from inside the cab, and walked over to the car. As he started banging away, trying to make the front end look like a car again, not a piece of modern art, I heard my mother call my name from over by the pit gate. She was standing on the spectators' side of the fence because each driver is only allowed so many pit passes, and Wade LaPlante Motorsports was carrying the maximum crew, and I hadn't signed her in as my crew. “Are you OK?” she said, and I felt the blood rush to my face as the drivers around me witnessed the spectacle. I gave her a silent thumbs-up, since I couldn't imagine saying anything that wouldn't make me sound like a bratty kid who simply wanted to be left alone. It didn't seem like a good way to act if I wanted the other drivers to take me seriously. She looked toward Wade's pit, and I turned too, seeing Big Daddy standing there, watching me. His expression was a little harder to read, but it looked more like annoyance than anything. I didn't bother to give him the thumbs-up. I figured Mom could do it for me.

The family reunion kept growing. When I turned back to my ride, Wade sauntered by, flanked by Fletcher and Lonnie Snapp.

“Where'd you get that tin can, Case?” Wade said. “You raid somebody's recycling bin?”

Lonnie laughed.

“Just kidding,” Wade said. “Welcome to the world of short-track racing. Short track and a short
race
for you.”

Lonnie laughed again, and as they walked away, he added, “Your sister's ride looks like my grandmother's car on the day they made her give up her license. She kept running over shopping carts in the parking lot at WalMart. ”

I looked away, watched the other Road Warriors—the survivors—file off the track and back into the pit. “And car seven, Dale Scott, takes the checkered flag in this, our first Road Warrior feature of the season,” Bean said over the loudspeakers. “Congratulations, Dale.” A track official took the flag from the flagman and ran it over to Dale's window, and Dale began driving it around for his victory lap.

When I turned back around, I was startled to find Fletcher still standing in my pit. Jim flipped his chin at me from over by the wrecker, but I waved him off.

“How'd it feel out there?” Fletcher said.

Wade and Lonnie cast glances back, and Wade pointedly cleared his throat, but Fletcher ignored them.

“Things move a lot faster than I expected,” I said.

Fletcher nodded. “Everybody says that, first time out.”

“And you sit so low you can't see the front end. Weird.”

Fletcher eyed Theo's front end as Jim ran a winch line from the wrecker. “Know why you bit the wall?” Fletcher said.

“Because it was there?”

“No. Well, yes and no.” He pointed toward the main straightaway, where Dale was “returning the colors,” as Bean said—in other words, bringing the checkered flag back to the flagman. “Coming out of four, Dale pinned you up high,” Fletcher went on.

“I rapped him before that. I deserved it.”

“Saw that. Point is, you didn't have to keep pushing with him. You could've lifted, dropped in behind.”

I looked toward turn one, reliving the moment when Theo snacked on the Widowmaker. “Should I have? Lifted?”

Fletcher shook his head. “You said you were surprised at how fast the field moves. Seemed to me you were trying to keep your speed up. Thing is, you're not going to beat a racer like Dale by slamming at him for a lap or two. Guy is not new here, no offense, and he's a tough competitor.”

“I learned that the hard way.”

“Sometimes you need to just drive a good line for the better part of a race, improve your lap speed, and seize an opportunity if you see one. If.”

“And if you don't?”

BOOK: The Outside Groove
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