At the track the next morning, Tod, Vern, Mitch and the rest of Vern’s friends who would serve as Tod’s pit crew pulled into the garage area in Vern’s pickup truck with the Bel Air on a trailer behind it. The car was unloaded and moved into the garage stall and the men went to work preparing for the race.

Race time wasn’t until 1:30pm, but there was plenty to prepare for before then. Although the race had a notorious reputation, it was a semi-legit sanctioned race, which meant there would be an inspection of the car prior to the race by an official and Tod was to report to a mandatory driver’s meeting at 11:15 am.

While drivers and crews were busy readying their cars, spectators for the race started filling into the stands throughout the morning serenaded by a live band playing country music near the start/finish line. At the far end of the infield, near turns one and two, several pickup trucks with tag-a-long campers were parked, belonging to drivers and crews who had traveled quite a distance to enter Silas Doyle’s race.

One such GMC truck with a silver Airstream trailer behind it pulled into the corral and found a spot to park. Donnie and Stuart exited the cab of the truck and walked to the door of the Airstream. Donnie opened it and inside, on the floor in front of the bench seat, bound and gagged, was Buz. He looked at them.

Donnie stepped in to check the ropes and found they were still tight. “Enjoy the race,” he said and gave Buz a smack on the shoulder. Buz glared at him. Donnie exited the trailer and shut the door.

 

At quarter to twelve, Tod returned to the garage area after the driver’s meeting. The inspections would begin at noon sharp.

“She’s all set, Mistah Stiles,” Vern said.

Tod nodded. “Thanks, Vern. Now we wait.” Tod slipped his fingers into his shirt pocket, removed his pack of cigarettes and tapped one out.

“Coupla Doyle’s guys walked by here a few minutes ago.”

Tod lit his cigarette and took a drag. He looked at Vern as he flicked out the match. “What do they want to do? Kill me in the garage?”

“Not if we got something to say about it,” Vern replied.

“I just wish I knew Buz was ok, for the time being. If he’s already…  gone then there’s no point of me even going out on that track.”

“Of course there’s still a reason for you to go out on that track,” Donnie’s voice spoke from behind the two men.

Tod and Vern turned around, facing Donnie and Stuart. The other men in the garage all casually gathered behind Tod and Vern.

“Your friend is fine,” Donnie continued. “For the time being.”

“I want to know he’s fine. I want to see him.”

“The inspections will be starting soon. You’ve got a race to get ready for.”

“I’m not getting behind that wheel or going out on that track unless I see or hear for myself that Buz is still alive. As slim of a chance I have to win the race, and even slimmer the chances that Buz and I will see tomorrow, I’ll take. But if he’s already gone, we can forget the song and dance.”

“You have our word,” Stuart said.

“Which means nothing to me,” Tod said. “No Buz, no race. Doyle will have to figure out another way to finish me off.”

Donnie and Stuart glanced at each other.  “We’ll check with the man,” Stuart said. “See what he says.” He and Donnie turned and walked away.

Vern looked at Tod grimly.

“You think he’s already gone, don’t you?” Tod asked.

“Maybe. Doyle ain’t expectin’ you t’ finish the race, he ain’t got much reason to hang on to Mistah Murdock.”

 

Up in the skybox above the start/finish line, Silas Doyle was mingling with about a dozen guests consisting of local Atlanta businessmen and various representatives of racing teams. The telephone rang in the background and was answered. A moment later, Monty came up unobtrusively next to Doyle and spoke softly in his ear.

Doyle paused to listen and his expression remained unchanged. He then smiled at the two businessmen he had been talking with and excused himself. He and Monty stepped away from the crowd and stood near the door of the skybox.

“Stuart says Stiles won’t run the race unless he knows Murdock is still alive. Wants to see him.”

“Murdock’s in the corral?”

Monty nodded.

Doyle paused. “Let him see him. Not like there’s much he can do about it at this point anyway.”

“You still want somebody watching the camper?”

“Yeah. I don’t think any of Mr. Stiles’s friends could try to bust Murdock out during the race, but if they do I want somebody there to stop them.”

Monty nodded. “Ok. I’ll let Stuart know.”

 

A little after twelve, Stuart returned to Tod’s garage stall alone and crooked a finger at the blond.

“You can see him,” Stuart said. He then glanced at Vern and a couple of the other boys who were now watching. “But just you.”

Tod turned to Vern, who was giving as bad of a stink eye to Stuart as he could. “Go ahead Mistah Stiles,” Vern said. “We’ll take care of the inspection.”

Tod nodded and followed Stuart down the garage road with Vern watching as they went.

The two men walked to the far end of the garage area and on to the access road to the corral. Not a word was spoken as they rounded a trailer and walked along the path, past more trailers and campers. When they arrived at the parked brown GMC truck with the Airstream behind it, Donnie was already there sitting on the steps of the Airstream.

He stood up as Stuart and Tod approached. Tod looked around the area and could see the top of the banking for turn one and two just beyond the corral. “I see you let Buz have the best seat in the house,” he said.

Donnie smirked. “He’s fortunate he’s here at all.” He pulled open the trailer door.

Buz was still sitting on the floor, bound and gagged. He saw Tod and his dark eyes reflected sudden concern.

Although Tod was relieved to see Buz was still alive, he frowned at the bounds and gag. “Is all that really necessary? You could at least let him watch the race.” 

“He’ll be able to hear it on the PA,” Donnie said and pointed toward one of the speakers set up on a pole not too far away in the middle of the corral. “Besides, why would he want to watch you come in dead last…?” Donnie slammed the door shut and looked at Tod. “Now if you get any crazy ideas to have any of your friends try to come and bust him out of here, you can forget it. Because I’m going to be sitting here through the whole race with this…” Donnie picked up a folded newspaper from the steps and opened it up to show Tod the .38 pistol that was wrapped inside. “I don’t take you for the kinda guy that would want to see anybody else get hurt.”

Tod looked at the gun and then looked hard at Donnie. Yeah, he got the message.

“Now that you’ve seen your friend and know he’s alive,” Stuart said, “you best be getting back and finish preparing for the race, Mr. Stiles.”

Tod glanced at the Airstream one more time before turning and walking away.

When he got back to the garage, Vern and the boys were waiting.

“You’re all passed on the inspection,” Vern said and pointed to the racing association’s decal that had been put on the front fender of the Bel Air. “Mistah Murdock ok?”

“For now. They’ve got him tied up in a camper over in the corral park.”

“He’s here on the grounds?” Vern said. “That’s kinda brassy.”

“Maybe we can get him out of there during the race?” Mitch said.

“There’ll be a guy guarding it with a .38 and I’ve already been warned about not having any of you try to bust him out during the race.”

Vern looked at Tod for a moment. “Are you telling us not to try to get Mistah Murdock out of there?”

“I never said such a thing…”

Vern grinned. “Where is he in the corral Mistah Stiles…?”

 

By 12:30 the stands were a little over half full with folks still coming in. Silas Doyle’s cruiser bruiser race brought out people from all over Georgia and other parts of the South, who came to watch what one Atlanta sports writer had dubbed an ‘amateur monstrosity, nothing more than a high speed demolition derby.’ Nonetheless, there were plenty of people willing to travel the distance and pay the money to watch the speed, side by side racing and, of course, the sometimes spectacular crashes. Gladiator spectacles of Roman times that drew large crowds now simply existed clothed in Detroit steel.

Harold Jepson and his daughter, Maggie, paid for their tickets and made their way into the grandstand along the front stretch, finding seats. Maggie shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the cars as they were starting to line up on the front stretch. She spotted the blue number 44 Chevrolet as it was coming up to the line. “There he is Papa!” she said and pointed.

Jepson looked and nodded. “I see him…” There was a moment of pride seeing the Bel Air with his business’s name prominently displayed on the rear flank, mixed with a shot of fear. 

Down at the bottom of the grandstand at the fence, Atlanta police captain David McGrath stood with two other plain clothed policemen. From behind his Wayfarer sunglasses, McGrath silently observed the cars, the drivers and other individuals who were on the front stretch at that moment.

McGrath and the handful of plain clothes officers he brought with him were not part of the crowd control detail, that function being handled by uniformed officers from Atlanta and other surrounding towns. And although he had a particular interest in the number 44 Chevrolet, he wasn’t there as a spectator either.

By 1pm, the twenty-two cars that would be running the race were lined up on the front stretch, with each car’s driver standing by their machines. Tod’s Bel Air was on the inside of the sixth row and he and Vern stood by the car as the PA announcer did the driver introductions.

And in the sixth row, on the inside, a newcomer to the Skull Cracker… hailing from Hartford, Connecticut, driving the Jepson Auto Sales Incorporated Chevrolet, let’s give a warm Atlanta welcome to number 44, Tod Stiles!”

Tod waved and received a polite cheer from the crowd. Other drivers, local lead foots who had more recognition from the crowd, received sometimes raucous applause. Tod looked at each of the drivers as they were introduced and wondered which of them worked for or were otherwise indebted to Silas Doyle. Any one of them he figured would be looking to push him right off the track.

When the introductions were done, the drivers all climbed into their racers.

These twenty-two drivers will duke it out for 125 miles for a shot at a piece of the nearly $15,000 in prize money put up today by Silas Doyle and the Doyle Chevrolet dealerships that have sponsored this event for over the past five years. Only the first place winner walks away with the $5000 top prize with the remaining top five winners fighting for a $2500, $2000, $1500 and $1000 prizes. Everybody else … well, nobody goes home empty handed but winning a few bucks for bus fare back home won’t be anything to gloat about!”

Tod put his racing helmet on and tightened the strap under his chin. He looked at Vern. “Which of these other drivers I should watch out for?”

“All of them,” Vern said. “Most all these guys have run this race before. They’re either gonna look to push you off this track just because you’re the new guy or because they’ve been told to.”

“Great. Any suggestions?”

“Only one. Keep it on the track.”

Tod nodded. “I’ll do my best…”

Up in the grandstands, Captain McGrath still stood watch by the fence. One of the two plain clothes officers who had left during the driver introductions now returned and spoke briefly to the Captain, who nodded.

Up in the skybox, Doyle stood at the window with several of his guests and looked down at the line of cars on the front stretch.

Atlanta, are you ready for these bad boys to tear up the track?”

A roar went up from the crowd.

All right then… Gentlemen! Start your engines!”

Vern waited as Tod turned the key and the Bel Air fired up. With twenty-two other cars roaring to life, the noise on the front stretch was deafening. Tod could only flash a thumbs up to Vern when the needles on the gauges all showed life.

Vern nodded and patted the roof of the car. “Good luck Mistah Stiles!” he hollered. Tod just barely heard him.

Vern headed back to pit road and the front stretch started to clear out of anybody who wasn’t in a race car. The pace car rolled out ahead of the line of cars as one race official stood at the front between the two lines of race cars and signaled with a downward sweep of his hands for the cars to proceed. Soon, all twenty-two cars were moving in a two line parade around the track, following the pace car.

It was a slow journey, even as the cars worked up to fifty miles an hour but fifty miles an hour was a crawl for a race car. Through the open windows of the Airstream, Buz could hear the hollering from the crowd and the approaching rumble of the race cars as they entered turn one. The PA announcer was rambling on about something but Buz couldn’t hear a damn thing over the roar of twenty two cars going by, all spoiling to race.

That noise was nothing compared to what was coming. The cars paraded past the back stretch grandstands where fans were standing and cheering as the cars passed. Spectators in the front stretch grandstands were on their feet as the cars came out of turn four and the pace car pulled off to pit road. The flag man on the platform at the start/finish line held a hand out, the only person with the power to hold back twenty two pent up race cars with just an open palm and he readied his green flag.

And then the green flag was out and waving and the howl that came up from the track was deafening. The two line of race cars picked up speed and the race was on!

Mr. Jepson and Maggie had their eye right on Tod’s number 44. The twenty-two cars all ran tight to start and Tod held on to his inside position, running door to door with the car next to him down and into turn one. They remained side by side coming out of turn two and as the field raced the back stretch it slowly began to break up the two line racing.

The first four lead cars were soon pulling away from the rest of the pack. The middle pack of cars were still fairly bunched up with Tod stuck on the inside, boxed in by a car in front of him, one behind him and one on the outside. The pack raced through turn three and came toward turn four together.

Tod suddenly felt the Bel Air lurch at being bumped and pushed from behind. The car next to him pushed in closer and Tod realized he was stuck in a squeeze play. The Bel Air swerved to the left and Tod hit the brakes as the Chevy slid along the apron of the track and toward the opening of pit road, turning around in a free-for-all spin.

The Chevy stayed grounded and Tod held on, riding it out. The car finally came to a stop at the mouth of pit road, the tail end pointed toward the pits.

Maggie and her father were both standing up, along with the rest of the spectators in the stands, who thought for sure Tod was going to go into the retaining wall. He didn’t, which had gotten a cheer from a few folks in the stands and a sigh of relief from the Jepsons. 

Undeterred, Tod returned the Chevy to the track, now having fallen from 12th place to last before even completing the first lap. Since he managed to not hit anything and no other cars got tangled up, there was no caution flag out. Racing continued and Tod floored the Bel Air to make up what he could.

Vern and his boys watched as the 44 went blowing past the start/finish line, the lone car bringing up the rear. Vern’s expression was grim.

It was only just starting.

By the fifth lap, Tod managed to claw his way up to 15th place and was looking to pass the 14th place car. The two cars that had pushed him off the track in the first lap, were now running up in the top ten. By the end of the sixth lap, Tod had taken the 14th spot.

On lap seven, the car running in 8th suddenly blew a tire. The Ford Galaxie swerved up high on the embankment coming out of turn two, smacked the wall and drifted back down across the track. Smoke from the swerving race car made it impossible to know which way to go. The 9th place car squeezed by while the 10th and 11th weren’t so lucky, both clipping the Ford. Tod stayed high on the outside following the 12th and 13th place cars and rode through the smoke hoping for the best.

He cleared the debris field and saw the flag waver on the backstretch signaling the yellow. Two more cars weren’t so fortunate that tried to pass the chaos on the inside. In total, five cars were now were out of the race.

Tod raced back to the line and then slowed with the rest of the field for the caution. Vern held up the pit board signaling for Tod to stay out on the track. It was too early in the race for fuel or tires.

It also allowed some time for Vern to send Mitch to the corral to pinpoint where Buz was being held and get a survey of the situation. As the race cars paraded at reduced speed around the track, tow trucks worked to remove the disabled racers and a track crew hurried to sweep up debris.

Mitch ran from pit road, through the garage area to the corral section. Based on Tod’s general directions, Mitch located the GMC that was pulling the Airstream trailer and he slowed to a walk and slipped in between two other campers parked near the GMC. Mitch went to the rear of the campers and came around, moving up toward the Airstream.

He remained at the Winnebago camper next to the Airstream and peered around. He could see the side of the Airstream with the door and Donnie sitting right on the steps with the folded newspaper in his lap.  Mitch observed for only a moment and then slipped away and hurried back to pit road.

Buz, meanwhile, was trying to work at the ropes around his wrists. He heard the PA announcer when Tod spun on the first lap. Although Buz knew Tod was back in the race it was only a matter of time before the next attempt to knock Tod out happened.

Mitch returned to pit road, out of breath, but he nodded to Vern and confirmed what Tod had told them.

“It’ll definitely be a two man job, at least,” Mitch said. “Somebody to distract Donnie, somebody to get Buz out of there.”

“Ok,” Vern said. “We gotta watch for an opportunity to get him out and not lose Mistah Stiles on the track.”

That, however, would be easier said than done.

When the race returned to green flag, Tod was up to 11th position. The first ten laps were completed with just over 70 more to go and the aggressive nature of the race soon started to show. The 17 cars now remaining in the race were bunched up again on the restart and there was some bumping and pushing going on as they roared down the front stretch. The car behind Tod, a ’60 Plymouth, kissed the tail of the Bel Air and pushed the Chevy along.

Tod was nearly in the trunk of the Pontiac in front of him.  He held on to the Bel Air as they went into turn one and rode it out through turn two and then went to the high side of the track to avoid bumping the Pontiac and try to shake the car behind him off his tail.

The Plymouth behind him pulled alongside, creating a three wide spectacle down the back stretch. Tod was caught between the Plymouth and the wall, with not a lot of room left over. Not knowing if he was up against merely an aggressive racer or somebody looking to knock him into the wall on purpose, Tod pushed the Bel Air for everything it had to try to outrun the Plymouth heading into turn three.

Tod could almost sense the laughter coming from the other driver.  The Plymouth nudged against the Bel Air, not hard enough to send Tod into the wall but threatening to do so. The two cars traded paint and there was a brief chirp of tires as they pushed at each other heading into turn three.

Buz could hear the PA announcer describing the battle. The Plymouth kept pushing and as the cars went through turn three, there was the sudden crunch and scream of metal as Tod’s Bel Air was shoved into the guard rail by the Plymouth halfway through the turn. The Plymouth pulled away and left the Chevy to slide along the guard rail with the remainder of the field flying by.

The yellow flag came out and the antics earned the driver of the Plymouth a black flag for rough racing, not that this was unusual in the Skull Cracker. Tod, meanwhile, peeled the Bel Air away from the guardrail and the Chevy limped down to the apron of the track, heading toward pit road with a flat right front tire.

Tod made it to the pit stall and Vern and his crew went right to work. A portion of the right fender had to be cut away first to allow the tire to be removed.

The Plymouth, meanwhile, was defying the race officials and was still on the track despite flag wavers around the track signaling the black flag to the driver. The pace car slowed the field to a complete stop along the front stretch and race officials approached the Plymouth.

“…officials have stopped the field in order to direct number 68 to leave the track for his penalty… C’mon Joe, don’t argue with them. Go to the pits and do your penalty…”

Up in the skybox, Doyle smirked. He looked from the hold up on the front stretch to pit road, where Tod’s Chevy was being frantically serviced.

In the stands, Maggie looked at her father. “Papa, I don’t understand. Why won’t that car leave the track?”

“He’s just being a jerk,” Jepson said. “He’s being penalized for rough racing but apparently he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.”

It was another minute before the Plymouth finally pulled out of the line and headed toward pit road. The crowd cheered as the pace car moved forward and the field resumed its caution lap.

The Plymouth’s arrogant delay actually helped Tod. With the field kept at bay by the race officials, Tod didn’t lose any laps and Vern and his crew were able to finish with the tire and fast body work on the front fender.  A quick splash of fuel and wipe down of the windshield and Tod was back to racing, passing the Plymouth that now sat in its pit stall for a stop and go penalty.

Of course, Tod was at the back of the pack again. And when the Plymouth returned to the track, it was at the back of the pack too…and behind Tod.

Tod glanced at the Plymouth in his rearview mirror. “Here we go again…”

Meanwhile, in the Airstream, Buz had managed to get to his knees on the floor of the camper. With legs tied together and his hands bound behind him he didn’t have much to help keep his balance. He leaned a shoulder against the cabinet and pushed himself up off his knees on to his feet with his body weight held by the cabinet. He straightened up and wound up bent double over the countertop near the sink.

The commotion didn’t go unnoticed by Donnie, who got up off the steps and opened the outer door to look in through the screen door. He smirked seeing Buz bent over the sink like he was sick.

“Nice try, Murdock,” Donnie said, coming into the camper. “I hate to tell you after your gallant effort here that if you were thinking to look for a knife or something in the drawers, well, they’re empty. And the propane tank for the cook stove is disconnected.”

Buz just shot Donnie a look. The man laughed. “Now the question is do I leave you there bent over like a green seaman hanging off the stern of a ship or…” Donnie lifted Buz off the counter top by his shirt and held him up. “…do I put you back on the floor…” He kicked Buz’s feet out from under him, sending him tumbling down to the floor in a heap. “…where you might be more comfortable.” Donnie left Buz on the floor and stepped back out of the camper, closing the doors again.

Buz grimaced and rolled to his left side, staying there for the time being to get his bearings again.

Out on the track, back under green flag racing, Tod was playing keep away with the number 68 Plymouth. Tod passed two slower cars ahead of him putting them between himself and the Plymouth. He couldn’t trust anyone on the track at this point, he knew. He may have been better off just running in last place since the odds weren’t in his favor anyway, but he had too strong a competitive streak in him to settle for last place.

So he drove, and raced, and passed what cars he could. Since hitting the wall, the Bel Air didn’t run quite like it had before but he still had a faster car than some others that were on the track.

The Plymouth, meantime, continued to stay within striking distance. After several laps of green flag racing, Tod was back where he started the race, in 12th place, with the Plymouth sitting back in 14th.

A battle between the 5th, 6th and 7th place cars eventually became vicious and culminated in all three cars spinning out all over the track, one car crunching into the guard rail on the high side of the track at turn three with the other two cars spinning out all over the place and coming down across the apron of the track and through the grass.

Ten drivers held their breath as they came flying through the smoke filled turn.

Buz was holding his breath too, as he listened to the PA announcer rattle of the car numbers involved in the altercation. He released his breath when he did not hear number 44 mentioned.

Tod cleared the area and saw the yellow flag waving at the stand as he came down the front stretch. From the pits, Vern was waving his arms, signaling for Tod to come in on the next pass.   

Tod came in, along with most of the rest of the field, and the entire dynamic of the race now shifted focus to the activity on pit road. Positions would be gained and lost at this point and Vern and his crew knew this. Like Tod, they knew the odds were slim with this race but they weren’t going to just settle either. They worked fast to change the right side tires and then came around to the left side, while Vern helped with the gas can.

Fresh tires on the left side were placed on, lug nuts tightened and the Chevy was lowered back to all four again. Tod anxiously watched his rearview mirror, still seeing the gas can. There were cars starting to pull back on to pit road.

Mitch quickly wiped down the windshield while the tank was filled. The can was pulled away, a small amount of fuel splashing on the concrete. “Go! Go! Go!” Vern hollered.

Tod pulled out of the pit box and on to pit road, two other cars ahead of him and three more behind. They returned to the track and met up with the pace car.

The PA announcer rattled off the new race leaders and sorted through the rest of the field. Tod was now in 7th place with the number 68 Plymouth ahead of him in fifth.

There were now fourteen cars left in the race and they were all bunched up again when the green flag dropped and the race resumed.

There were several laps of good green flag racing. The Plymouth pulled up to 3rd place and Tod managed to take 5th place although he was bumped and pushed along the way. Up in the stands, Mr. Jepson and Maggie weren’t sure whether to cheer or fear. Vern and his crew weren’t sure either.

Up the skybox, Doyle watched the race, looking through binoculars as the field went around to the backstretch. He lowered the binoculars and turned to Monty standing next to him.

“Tell the 22 to let Stiles pass, I’ll make it worth it. Then tell Joe to finish it this time.”

Monty nodded and turned to leave the skybox. Doyle resumed watching the race.

It took some time for the message to be relayed and the crew chief for the 22 was a little put out by what Monty was telling him.

“What?! We’re in fourth place, best shot we’ve had all day!”

“Just do it. Mr. Doyle will make it up to you.”

The crew chief lowered an eyebrow at Monty. “It’s that Stiles kid isn’t it? He’s been pushed all over the track all day.”

Monty ignored the comment. The crew chief of the 22 knew the score. “Call him in,” Monty said.

The crew chief sighed. He walked over to the pit board and wrote the message and then held it up when the field came back around again.

PIT.

Tod was surprised when the 22 pulled away from the field and headed to pit road on the next go around.

Buz heard the PA announcer say that Tod was now in 4th place. He rolled off his side and struggled to get back to his knees again.

On pit road, Vern was watching the 22 car in its pit box, taking on a quick drop of fuel and left side tires only. The driver had an arm out the window, waving it with agitation to his crew chief. Vern wasn’t so sure about the pit strategy either.

Out on the track, the first four cars which included Tod and the Plymouth, were in a race now by themselves, with the 5th place car running several seconds behind. Tod rode the bumper of the Plymouth, trying to decide when and if he was going to pass. He knew enough to stay away from the high side after having already been pushed into the wall once. As they raced around to the back stretch, the Plymouth moved to the outside going into turn three, opening the door wide for Tod to pass.

Tod stayed on the inside but held off on the pass. The two cars raced through the turn, the Plymouth staying high with the Chevy running only to the back quarter panel of the number sixty-eight. Out of turn four they each remained in their racing lanes and the spectators in the stands cheering on what they thought was an opportunity for Tod to move up to 3rd place.

Jepson noticed the 44 was holding pat on the inside lane. Maggie glanced at her father, having a pretty good idea why Tod wasn’t trying to pass, after what happened before with the 68 car.

Vern and his crew watched too. Mitch shook his head. “He could pass him! He could easily pass him!”

The PA announcer noted the Chevy seemed to be glued to the back quarter panel of the Plymouth too and not willing to make the pass.

…not sure folks if we have a battle going on for third place or not. The number 44 doesn’t seem to want to take the spot even though the door seems wide open. Joe’s so high up on the track he’s almost into the grandstands…”

Buz’s eyebrows furrowed. Joe? Wasn’t the name of the driver of the car that pushed Tod into the wall earlier and was black flagged?

They raced on to turn one and Tod remained on the inside. Since the Chevy wouldn’t pass, the Plymouth forced the issue and slowed down quite a bit going into the turn and slid in behind the Bel Air coming out of turn two.

Tod glanced at his rearview mirror and frowned at the car. The last thing he wanted was for that damn Plymouth to be behind him. He set his sights on the tail of the Pontiac Catalina that was in 2nd place and raced to try to put that car between himself and the Plymouth.

Up in the skybox, Doyle’s expression as neutral. The crowd in the back stretch grandstands were cheering and Buz heard the PA announcer say that Tod was now in 3rd place and roaring up on the 2nd place car. Even with knowing the efforts could prove futile in the end, Buz couldn’t help but be amused at his buddy’s audacity. Tod sure as hell wasn’t to going to go out with whimper.

Of course, neither was Buz. Despite his wrists becoming raw from his efforts, Buz kept at it, trying to stretch the ropes enough to get a hand loose.

On the track, the other ten cars in the field were more or less forgotten at this point while all eyes were on the top four cars and the dimpled and crinkled Chevy that had been shoved around all afternoon that was now threatening the race leaders.

The 2nd place Pontiac was only interested in losing its current position one way, and that was by taking the lead. The four lead cars came out of turn four and raced down the front stretch with the Catalina looking to make a move to try to pass the leader.

The crowd was hooting and hollering, in stark contrast to the grim looking face of Captain McGrath watching at the front of the grandstands.

The Pontiac couldn’t get in under the leader before the turn and fell in behind. The four lead cars snaked through turns one and two single file and came out on to the backstretch. The Catalina went to the outside and pulled up alongside the leader, the two cars running door to door down the backstretch.

The Catalina could only manage to pull about a quarter length ahead of the leader but couldn’t finish the pass. The two cars remained door to door going into turn three and came out of four together.

Meantime, Tod was still running single file with the Plymouth drafting behind him. The two lead cars continued to race each other and the Pontiac finally overtook the leader just before turn one and attempted to move down to the inside and in front of the leader. The race leader apparently wasn’t going to give up that easily and pulled up just enough to touch the left side rear quarter panel sending the Pontiac into a spin.

When Tod saw the Pontiac make the move to the inside, he moved the Chevy to the outside and it was good thing. The Pontiac spun out in front of the leader, who never let off the throttle and pushed the Catalina out of the way. The leader fishtailed as Tod and the Plymouth passed but straightened and remained in the race.

Until the flags flew, one yellow for the caution, one black for the now former leader of the race. Racing on the backstretch, Tod now found himself in first place.

The crowd was going nuts for all of it, the two former lead cars were both popular local drivers with a known rivalry and now this newcomer Yankee kid was in first place with about 20 laps to go. 

Up in the skybox, Doyle was not as enthused as some of his fellow spectators were.

“Wow, did you see that?”

“Them two always tangle up in this race.”

“That was something else! Now who’s in the lead?”

“That 44 car is the new kid right?”

“Some Yankee. Gotta give ‘em credit though, he’s done pretty good in this for his first time…”

Doyle kept his comments to himself. He raised the binoculars to see Joe in the number 68 Plymouth was drafting right behind the 44 Chevy as the cars raced back to the line to meet up with the pace car.

In the stands, Maggie turned to her father. “Papa, I don’t know whether to cheer or cry!”

“Me either!”

Buz almost couldn’t believe what he heard when the PA announcer described the tangle up between the first and second place cars that knocked both out of their places and allowed Tod to take first place. Despite the gag, there was a smile, more easily seen in the dark eyes. Go get ‘em tiger!

Vern and his crew were fired up too and they readied themselves for Tod’s next pit stop. As soon as the yellow flag had come out, Vern had put the message on the pit board to show Tod when the 44 came racing back to the line. There were seven cars on the lead lap and when the pace car brought them around turn four, the 44 Chevy pulled away toward pit road, with six other cars behind him.

Tod raced to his pit box, Vern flagging him to slow down so that he didn’t over shoot the stall. The Chevy came to a stop within the box and the crew went right to work to change right side tires while the gas can nozzle was shoved into the back of the Bel Air.

This time Vern took care of wiping down the windshield after handing Tod an ice cold bottle of soda. Tod gulped down a couple of quick drinks as he waited for the tire change. The cool bubbling soda was a welcome reprieve inside the hot interior of the Bel Air. The right side of the car was lowered and the crew came around to the left.

Before the left side was done, Tod handed the half empty bottle back to Vern. “Get Buz out of the corral!” he said. “I’m going to finish this race, in first place, whether Doyle likes it or not!”

“Damn right Mistah Stiles! Just stay away from the sixty-eight!”

“I will!”

The Bel Air was returned to all fours and the gas can was removed from the back. Vern slapped the roof of the car. “Go! Go! Go!” Tod peeled off on to pit road.

He returned to the track maintaining his first place position with four other cars directly behind him. The Plymouth was in third.

Monty was at the pit box for the number sixty-eight. He looked at the crew chief after the Plymouth pulled away.

“Joe got the message?”

The crew chief nodded. “He knows what to do.”

“Good.” Monty looked down pit road to Tod’s pit crew who were cleaning up their pit area.

When they were finished, Vern turned to Mitch. “You and Jimmy here go get Mistah Murdock and bring him back here. And be careful!

Mitch nodded and turned to Jimmy, who followed Mitch out of the pit area.

Monty saw the two men leave and he followed. When he realized they were heading toward the corral, he took a different direction to get there ahead of them.

One more caution lap folks and then we’ll return to green flag racing and see if this new kid, Tod Stiles, can hold off the rest of the field and hang on to that first place spot for the next 15 or so laps to win the race. I don’t reckon that’s going to be an easy task…”

On the road in the corral, Mitch and Jimmy walked casually, trying not to look obvious as they scoped out the GMC truck. Long before they got to it, however, Monty stepped out from between two other parked pickups brandishing a switchblade knife.

“Pit road’s back that way,” Monty said with the click of the blade. “With your boy is in first place that’s really where you should be…”

Mitch glanced from the knife to Jimmy. “Wha… we were just takin’ a walk...”

Monty shook his head. “You’re part of Stile’s pit crew. He was warned about trying to pull any tricks. Now if you want, you can watch the rest of the race from the same seats Murdock is, or you can go back to your pit box and I’ll forget you were here.”

Mitch held his hands up indicating no argument. He and Jimmy took a couple of steps back before turning around to head back toward the garage area. Mitch looked over his shoulder once, seeing Monty still standing there.

“Damn,” Jimmy said. “These are the guys that killed Cecil ain’t they?”

“Yeah. I dunno if it was that guy but he works for Doyle so it’s all one in the same,” Mitch replied.

“What do we do now?”

“Get to the garage. We’re gonna need a little leverage.”

While Mitch and Jimmy were heading toward the garage, Monty went to where the Airstream was parked.

Donnie looked up.

“Couple of fellas from Stiles’s pit crew were on their way here,” Monty said.

Donnie shook his head. “He was warned. Kid don’t listen.”

“I persuaded them to go back to their pit stall.” Monty waved his closed up switch blade. “But I’m gonna hang out here just in case they come back.”

Inside the camper, Buz heard Monty arrive and he paused from his struggle with the ropes to listen.

“They’ll be back,” Donnie said. “You know who Stiles has in that crew don’t you?”

Monty shrugged.

“Vern Tate.”

“Cecil’s brother?”

Donnie nodded. “If he ever knew it was you that baited his brother into that fight…”

“Cecil was a punk. He had it coming.”

“Doyle never said to kill ‘em.”

“Doyle wasn’t exactly upset about it.”

“He wasn’t exactly happy about it either.”

“So what?” Monty said. “I took care of it, kept the heat off and he got over it. Now shut up, they’re going back to green flag here…”

Inside the camper, Buz’s dark eyes were sober with what he’d just heard. He resumed his pull and struggle with the ropes, now with even more reason for he and Tod to get out of this mess.

Out on the track, Tod hit the throttle wide open at the green flag and kept the Chevy out in front, leading the pack of cars into the turn.

From the skybox Doyle watched through his binoculars, his expression dour. The number 68 Plymouth was running in third and had eleven laps to get back close enough to Tod’s Chevy to finish the job.

Eleven laps wasn’t a lot of time…

 

Chapter 9