For about 3 years now I’ve been tinkering with a fictional story about sprint car racing. I thought I would throw out a sampling of the story and see what kind of reaction I get. Feel free to e-mail your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know if you like it, if you think it needs work, or if you want to read more. I appreciate the Knoxville Raceway for giving me this platform to experiment a bit.
Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving!
Knoxville Knights by Eric Arnold
Chapter 1: The County Fair
It was a hot and humid summer day in the middle of July. There is no wind, the grass is brown, so hot that you still sweat trying to cool off sitting under a shade tree. But it was race day and Steve Bennett and his crew made up of his two sons Tony and Todd were at Knoxville on the fairgrounds lot behind turn three, working on their number 42 sprint car in preparation for tonight’s race.
The night before the Bennett team and their driver Andy Zook had raced 75 miles away at Bloomfield and finished third at the county fair special event there. The crew decided to drive straight to Knoxville in time for last call at Dingus and to an after party at the campground. Steve skipped the festivities and slept in his camper on the fair grounds. His two sons were paying the price today for a late night out. Steve was 52 years old, a widower, and grew up in a small town called Lovilia (low-vil-uh), just 20 miles south of Knoxville. Lovilia was an old farming community and coal mining town in its hay-day.
The county fair was taking place at Knoxville this week and the fair board kicked in a little extra for this race, the winner got a side of beef. The crew had been to the car wash in the morning and were now going through their usual checklist of getting the gears changed, tires mounted, and going through the engine to be ready for when the pit gates opened so they could relax and eat some of the fair food before the nights racing began.
As the guys were rolling the car back on to the trailer a pickup drove up, climbing out of the passenger seat was their driver, Andy Zook. Zook had joined the Bennett 42 at the end of last season. The previous three years Steve had veteran driver Scott Williams, with whom they had won the Midwest Dirt Series championship with two years ago, and won twelve features with in that three year span. But towards the end of last season Williams had been hurt in a crash with some leg injuries and was out of racing for good. Andy Zook was a local kid at 25 years of age who had been racing sprint cars for five years in the 360 class and finished second in the Knoxville 360 points a year ago. He didn’t have any 410 racing experience until joining the Bennett team, but he was adjusting well and won two races this year at other tracks, but was winless at Knoxville. Zook hadn’t torn up much equipment this season so far other than one night when they were run over by someone else.
As Andy climbed out of the pickup his crew gave him a hard time. Tony spoke first, “Yep, now you show up since the car is race ready.” Todd chimed in as well, “Who was the blonde driving the pickup? I don’t remember seeing her before.”
“Oh she’s a girl I knew from high school,” Andy said. “We met outside of Dingus on the patio there and next thing I know I’m at her house.”
“I hope you saved up something for the race tonight lover boy,” poked Steve. Steve Bennett was known for his orneriness. “When we said we wanted to race Knoxville for points this year and we picked you as our driver, we thought we would be a little closer than fourth in points and no wins at halfway through the season.” Steve was really digging into the kid now.
“I thought the plan was to race for wins and let the points fall where they may,” said Andy.
“You know I ain’t seen a win yet either here,” said Steve.
“You know that Dad wants to win a track championship at Knoxville pretty bad,” said Todd. “It’s one thing he hasn’t done in his career yet and he’s been racing here for a long time.”
“I’ve heard all this already, what’s got into you guys today?” spoke Andy calmly trying to put out this fire.
“Oh the ol’ man is just giving you some grief,” said Tony. “We’re hot and tired. We slept in a camper with no air conditioning last night, so maybe we’re a little cranky. And we’re all jealous you spent the night in the air conditioning with that blonde.”
Andy had enough of the teasing, “Lets just get to the track and sign in, I’m hungry.”
Once the car was rolling around for hot laps Andy felt a shove from behind, it was his old nemesis Kenny Martin saying hello. Andy shook his head and said to himself, “Why does that guy have to try to rattle my cage?” Martin was the guy who drove his right rear over his left front earlier in the season on an ill-timed slide job, which sent him into the turn two fence destroying the frame of the car.
After parking in the pits Steve gave Andy instructions. “Well, we go out fifth for time trials, track seems like it has more moisture in it than usual for a July race, maybe the humidity will hold that moisture in all night. Lets go easy in the time trials since we have the early draw, we don’t want fast time on a narrow track like this, it will be tough to pass in the heat race.” Andy agreed with a nod.
It worked out well in time trials as Andy timed the car fifth quick and the invert drawn was a ten for the feature. Steve was again giving strategy to his driver, “We’re still going to have to start in the third row of the heat, but with only 23 cars here tonight, we won’t have a B-main anyway, so take it easy in the heat race boy.” Getting a bit annoyed by now, Andy once again gave a nod yes.
Before the heat races the push trucks had been out to pack down the cushion, so on the start of the heat Andy took the Bennett sprinter up high in turn one and started passing cars easily. He raced down the backstretch and took the lead going into turn three and started pulling away. After the race Andy rolled to a stop in their pit and waiting for him was Steve. He reached in to the cockpit and he proceeded to rip into Andy, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Andy figured he was in trouble for going high on the start trying to make some passes. “Well sir, I saw an opening up high there and took it, that’s racing.”
“Look, I know you are a driver and a racer, but it’s my car and my money at stake here,” said Steve who was gritting his teeth. “If I say to not be taking any risks, then you need to listen!”
“OK fine,” surrendered Andy. “But the car was just that good. I didn’t try to drive the wheels off of it, or drive over my head, it was just fast. What’s your problem?”
“The problem is that the heat race doesn’t pay anything, and this is the only car we got! You wreck it and we’re done,” said Steve.
Andy was taken back a bit. Was Steve really upset or jabbing him for the fun of it? Steve is a hard guy to figure out at times. So Andy figured to play it safe and be nice to the boss man. “I’m sorry. I had no idea money was that tight. I was under the impression we were doing OK.”
“You win a few races and we’ll be doing a lot better!” Steve said with a long stare.
Andy walked away shaking his head thinking to himself, “Man, I win a heat race and it isn’t good enough?”
The Bennett sprinter was sitting in staging for the A-Main waiting for a push truck. Andy was going to start sixth for the twenty lap feature and he had a moment to collect his thoughts and get himself pumped. The track had widened out but the cushion was a little rough. There was still some moisture down on the inside berm in spots as well. “The humidity this time of year really holds the black gumbo together,” he thought. “Man I would like to win this one, some steaks from that side of beef sure sounds better than eating bologna sandwiches all week.”
Andy and some other drivers had been packing down the cushion before the race hoping to smooth it out a bit and open up a lane on the start, and it was there. Going into turn one Andy went to the outside and had all four wheels over the cushion. “I hope the boss isn’t mad about that move,” thought Andy. He then raced from the third row up to second place in a matter of two laps, and in front of him leading was the veteran, former track champion Hank Lester. He followed Lester for eight laps until they caught up with lapped traffic. As they approached turn three Andy could see some clear track ahead of a lapped car right in front of Lester. Andy drove into turn three high, right on the push bumper of Lester and then feathered the throttle a little, pointed the car down to the bottom to diamond off the turn and dug his left rear into the moisture sitting on the bottom of turn four and rocketed past Lester and the lapped car! He was looking at a clear track when he saw the flagman give him the halfway sign.
With three laps to go there was a caution for someone stopped on the track. During the caution Andy could see the scoreboard and saw Lester was still there in second. He knew he was going to have to block a slide job going into turn one. As Andy drove past the orange cone on the restart he dove to the bottom and hugged the berm around turns one and two. He went back to the top of the track in turn three and never saw anyone come up to challenge and would beat Lester by six car lengths to win!
Zook’s hometown crowd cheered in approval for his first career 410 feature win at Knoxville. As he was interviewed in victory lane he could see Tony, Todd, and Steve were excited as they looked over the car and tires.
The track announcer welcomed Andy to the victory platform. “Welcome to victory lane Andy Zook!” Andy could feel the adrenaline pumping through his chest. “Oh man, this is awesome! Since I was a kid watching in the stands I have dreamed of this! I have to thank Steve and his boys for giving me a good car. It was perfect tonight!”
“This has to be a special win for you after the way last year ended and to end up in the seat of the 42 car,” said the announcer. “Oh yeah, my family owned team folded at the end of last year, we just didn’t have the money to keep racing. Steve needed a driver and we worked out a deal. I hope this win is the first of many for us and we can make up some ground in the points. So where do we pick up this side of beef anyway!”
Afterwards the team was in the pit area all smiles after a long hot day working on the car, and the cold victory beer tasted good! Andy was busy signing autographs and taking pictures with all his young fans. It felt good tofinally get a win at Knoxville and Steve was hoping that maybe tonight was the turning point for his team.
Steve was talking to an old friend of his, Marion Graham after the races. “We needed that win bad Marion,” said Steve. “We are down to one car and one tired engine.”
“It looked like you were thin on parts in the trailer when I saw you and the boys working at the campground this afternoon,” observed Marion. “How are you managing financially?”
“Our equipment is most of the same stuff we ran last year other than the engine, but we ran the best we have all year tonight. I think the kid is improving behind the wheel.”
Marion then asked Steve to step inside the trailer to talk. “Steve we’ve been friends a long time. You have treated myself and my family well over the years, letting our kids help clean the car, sit in the car, you have helped fix the kids bikes at the campground, and we’ve helped pay for some fuel once in a while along the way. My company has been doing well the past few years and I would like to help your team out.”
“Wow,” said Steve. “I don’t know what to say.” Steve knew Marion was in the metal stamping and farm equipment business, but didn’t have any idea he was financially in a position to help out with a race car. He certainly never flaunted that he had money.
“I’ll stop by your shop this week and we can discuss details and whatever you need. You order it and I will write the checks.”
“Are you sure about this Marion? We are talking about some serious money here,” said Steve with a concerned look.
“I’m sure, lamented Marion. “I’ve been wanting to help a race team for a long time and I’m finally in the position to do that. This Zook kid can drive. I’ve watched him the last five years and he is a good shoe, and he doesn’t tear up cars either. Aggressive but smooth ya know. He made a great move going up high in his heat race! He is a hometown kid that one of my daughter’s went to school with, and I’ve always heard good things about him.”
“Well OK, if you are sure. He is a good kid for the most part. I am surprised how well he has acclimated to the 410 car this year. That’s a bigger learning curve than you would think,” said Steve.
“All my life I have wanted to give back to racing and feel like I’m part of a team, so I want to help get you guys through this season and then we’ll talk more after the season about what to do from here. I don’t have the kind of money you need to go out on the national tour, but I can you help some.” Marion reached into his pocket and he pulled out a small roll of cash and stuffed a couple of hundred dollar bills into Steve’s hand discretely. “Use this to get your boys and your driver a nice dinner and a couple of cold beers and I’ll talk to you this week.”
“I can’t thank you enough Marion, I’m speechaless.” Steve said. “Hey Marion, stop by the camper later, you can take some of this beef home with you. You grill some steaks for your family. You still have a couple of kids at home for the summer don’t you?”
“Sure do, the youngest has been a terror for us lately. Turned into a party girl the last year or so at college,” said Marion shaking his head. Steve turned and looked out to the end of the trailer and standing next to Andy Zook was a blonde, the same blonde in the pickup truck that dropped off Andy at the track this afternoon. “Marion, is that your youngest Kate standing out there with Andy?” asked Steve.
“Yeah, that’s her, the party girl. But Janet and I are proud of all our kids.” beamed Marion.
“Marion, your youngest might be a good luck charm for my driver,” Steve said with a chuckle.
Marion gave him a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?”