by Eric Arnold
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback so far on this story. I hope you enjoy the third installment. Feel free to e-mail your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_EricArnold. I appreciate the Knoxville Raceway for giving me this platform to experiment a bit. If you want to read more, please let me know.
If you haven’t read Chapters 1 and 2, here is the direct links to those.
Car owner and mechanic Steve Bennett was ready for the 360 Nationals. The team had struggled in the beginning of the season, but had performed well in recent weeks. His black and white #42 with young driver Andy Zook in the seat had won three consecutive weeks in the Knoxville 410 class leading up to the 360 Nationals. It had been a couple of months since the team had raced with their 360 engine which had 19 nights of racing on it, but Steve thought the engine had enough left in it to make it a couple of more nights.
Andy took the car out for hot laps on their qualifying night and he could feel that something was wrong. He could see smoke coming from the left side of the engine so he pulled the car in before his hot lap session was over. After arriving back to the pit area, crew members Tony and Todd Bennett removed the hood from the car and their father Steve was looking around the engine to see what the cause of the smoke might have been. After five minutes of surveying the situation Steve couldn’t find any obvious warning signs. “I’m not sure what is wrong,” Steve to Andy, “It must have been a little oil drip on the headers is all.” Andy wasn’t convinced it was something that simple causing the problem. “Steve, this thing just didn’t want to go out there, it felt like I was really slow and I was pulling an anchor behind me.”
Steve didn’t seem too concerned and tried to put his driver’s mind at ease. “You know, maybe it’s just the feel from getting used to the speed of the 410 car this year, and now the 360 just feels slower to your reflexes.”
Andy rolled his eyes back at Steve. “Maybe… but I’m telling ya it felt weird.”
When Andy took the car out for qualifying it felt about the same and their lap time was slow as they qualified 22nd putting them on the front row of heat two. The car was obviously lacking speed. As the crew stood around the car they were perplexed what might be wrong with the car. “Maybe this engine isn’t fresh enough to keep up with these guys Dad,” said Tony. Steve couldn’t argue, he was surprised they qualified so poorly, which was big with the Nationals format and scoring system. Maybe he had underestimated the health of his engine. “Well guys, everyone stay positive here, we will start on the front row of our heat so let’s win that and see what we can do in the feature.” Steve was trying to keep his team’s spirits up.
As Andy pushed off for his heat race he felt the pressure mounting, he knew he would have to win this race and get all the points he could to still have a chance of making the championship feature on Saturday night. Andy took the green flag and drove the black 42 hard into turn one and leaned on the cushion. A couple of cars were racing underneath him and they were three wide briefly in turn two, but Andy kept his foot in it and his momentum carried him off the corner and into the lead down the back stretch. The car still tight in the corners and a little slow but the track was widening out as the field behind him stayed in single file. With two laps to go he heard a car closing in behind him and as they came off of turn four he could see a nose peak under him. Instinctively Andy went low into turn one to block the car from attempting a pass, but the car was back again the following lap as the white flag came out. He tried to block again in turn one but this time the car went high into one, and then as Andy slid through the middle of turn two the car passed him for the lead with a criss-cross move underneath him. Andy lost his momentum and didn’t have the power to keep up with the leader and he settled for second place in the heat race, but was safely in a transfer spot for the feature. Andy brought the car in the pits and Steve was under the hood once again.
Andy decided to find a spot to watch the remaining heat races and keep an eye on the racetrack as the crew worked on the car. After the heats were completed he waited at the center tower for the lineups to be posted, but his confidence was wearing out in the 360 car they had to race with. The lineups began being written on the chalk board and he saw the #42 in the eighth row. Andy sighed and walked back to the Bennett pit area.
“Row eight or nine I presume,” said Steve.
Andy looked up at Steve and nodded back, “yeah, row eight.”
“No problem kid, get your elbows up!”
Andy looked at Steve and saw a smile and a wink. He perked up a bit and asked, “Did you find anything to make this thing faster?”
“Of course I did! I just played with the fuel settings, and we changed the gear, I think you can wheel this thing towards the front. The track is slowing down so that is always an equalizer when you don’t have the horses under the hood.” Steve was trying to pump his driver up, but in reality all he had done is put fuel in the car. “Andy you have the talent to keep up with these guys and pass them, I’ve seen you do it before so go get us a nice paycheck and all the points you can. A top three finish might get us enough points to make the A-Main on Saturday night.”
Andy wasn’t so sure Steve could tweak this wounded duck of a sprint car. He figured the engine was a ticking time bomb, but was willing to indulge the old man. “Alright boss!”
The green flag fell and the car did feel better to Andy, not as tight, but he could see the cars in front of him pull away. After five or six laps Andy could feel the car getting better and he passed a car on the low side. Most of the cars in front of him were up high on the cushion and with the bottom lane open it’s where he had to be to move up through the field. At halfway he had passed a couple of more cars and was closing in on the top ten. The car was feeling better as the race went and he burned off some fuel. Andy was thinking that Steve may have actually figured something out for the last half of the race and his confidence was coming back.
There was a red flag on lap eleven for a couple of cars crashing toward the front of the field. As Andy sat in the car he could see Tony and Todd by the infield guard rail cheering him on with raised fists and a thumbs up. In his ear he could hear on the one-way radio from the scorer’s booth that he would restart ninth with nine laps to go.
The green flag came out and as they raced to the orange cone he noticed that a few cars up ahead someone had stumbled a bit and there was an accordion of cars coming to the cone and a car in front of him turned sideways. Andy didn’t want to trash his car so he went below the cone to avoid the mess and as he went into turn one he could see the red light was back on again. As Andy rolled to a stop on the backstretch he figured he just gained a couple of more positions. Three cars were involved in the incident and Andy would restart sixth with nine laps to go.
The green was out again and Andy went to the bottom of the track entering turn one and he made his way around two more cars to fourth. He kept the car on the bottom and continued to make gains on the cars in front of him. He easily made his way to third and when the white flag was shown he was gaining on second. He went low into turn three but the car in front of him cut him off and Andy had to get on the brakes a bit to avoid him. It felt as though he nearly came to a stop in turn three but stayed on the bottom and as the car that cut him off slid up the race track to the cushion. Andy smashed the gas pedal and had the left front wheel on the ledge of the inside berm in turn four. He pulled alongside the second place car and they raced down the front stretch. Andy beat him to the line for a second place finish! But as he let off the gas he felt something vibrating severely. After hitting the gas hard at the end he figured it must have been the engine. He shut it off and coasted to a stop before he could make it back around to the turn four pit entrance.
As Andy was pushed to the tech area and across the scales he jumped out of the car and was greeted by Steve Bennett and his sons, who were excited! Andy was dumbfounded what Steve had done with the car after the heat race, but knew this engine was shot. “I think the engine let go at the end there Steve. But what the heck did you change on this car to make it so much faster?!?!”
“Ah a little turn here, and a little of nothing there is all,” said Steve with a grin.
“A little of nothing? What does that mean?”
“I just had the car set up tight thinking the track would get wide and slow is all, the track finally came to the set-up and you did one heckuva job driving it kid!”
Steve figured his 360 engine would be OK, but figured wrong. His focus for the past several weeks had been on his 410 equipment. A four year old 360 engine that needed some freshening up wasn’t on his radar. But he thought what he lacked in resources his driver was good enough to make up some of the difference, and he was right.
As Andy walked around to the trophy platform he congratulated the winner Wayne Johnson who won from the second row and was clearly the faster car. The third place driver was Nick Webber who tried to cut off Andy at the end. Andy feared that Webber might be upset with him, but instead he put his arm around Andy and told him, “You got me at the end there buddy, good job.”
In the press conference everyone was asking Andy about his drive from the eight row. Andy hadn’t been thrown into the limelight much like this and was uncomfortable to say the least answering questions like this. As he started to walk out of the media room he saw his girlfriend Kate Graham waiting for him in the back of the room. She had grabbed a point tally sheet and showed it to Andy. “453 points tonight, that should be enough to get into the A-Main on Saturday!”
Andy was grateful that Kate was upbeat, but honestly he knew his engine was gone, and even if they did somehow get in the race it was going to be tough to win.
As Andy and Kate made their way back to the Bennett pit area he could see the guys working on the car with the hood off. “Looks like the engine is done,” said Steve to Andy. “We better get to work to find an engine to race with. I’ll make some phone calls, surely we can find something for one night.”
Later back at the campground Steve had his campsite set up for the week and his camper was parked next to his good friend and sponsor Marion Graham. The two men sat at the picnic table with a cold drink and a cribbage board trying to figure out their engine dilemma. “I’ve called three different engine builders, none of them have something ready they can loan to us on this short of notice, and none of them have the parts on hand to rebuild our current engine right away,” said Steve. “I didn’t plan ahead well at all for this week.” Marion seemed calmer than Steve about the situation. “Well surely we can find a friend that has an engine on hand they will loan to you, I’m sure we will figure something out tomorrow.” Steve didn’t understand how Marion could always stay so cool and collected. But it was good on this night that Marion was able to give him some peace of mind that it will all work out somehow. As Marion won the cribbage war the two men called it a night and went to bed.
BANG BANG BANG!!! Someone was pounding on Steve’s camper door, he looked at his clock and it said 5:24am. “Who in the world is that,” thought Steve. As he opened his door it was Lloyd Jensen, a guy from Nebraska that owned a car.
“Hey Stevie! You are Stevie Bennett right,” said Jensen in a slurred tone.
“Yeah I’m Bennett. Jensen, what the heck are you doing up so late, or early, or whatever?”
“I have a proposition for you Bennett, you wanna talk business?”
Suddenly the cobwebs cleared from Steve’s head and he realized that Jensen’s car had crashed in the feature.
“Are you in good enough shape to talk business Jensen?”
“Of course I am! Can I come inside to talk?”
As Steve invited him in to his camper to sit, Jensen asked if he had something to eat. “All I have in here is a box of cereal at the moment. You want that? I don’t have any milk though.”
“Sure! Get me a beer as well,” Jensen exclaimed. Steve poured a bowl of cereal and as he placed it on the table Jensen proceeded to pour his beer in the bowl and start to eat it.
“I’ve seen some weird stuff in my day, but I have never seen anyone eat cereal like that before,” laughed Steve.
Finally Jensen got to the point of this early wake up call. “I’ve got an engine, and no car. I hear that you have a car and no engine. I have a good engine, we qualified fifth with it. Let’s make a deal, I’ll let you borrow my engine on Saturday for a flat fee of $1,000. Sound like a deal?”
“$1,000? The race only pays $600 to start are you nuts? How about $300 up front, and then I’ll give you 25% of the winnings,” replied Steve.
After thinking it over a bite of his beer cereal, Lloyd reached out his hand and said, “You have got a deal Stevie!” The men shook hands and discussed details of when to work on the cars later in the day.
As Steve showed Lloyd out, he looked outside and he could see that the sun was starting to come up and there sitting at the picnic table was Marion Graham with a smile on his face. “See, I told you it was all going to work out.”