Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dale, Me, and the Speed Demon

Story of the Month-April, Mindflights Magazine

"...because the words that come out of your mouth mean something..."

All my life I wanted to race at Talladega. But the night before the Cup race, I sat in my apartment shakin’ like a leaf.

I was Lightnin’ Jack Davis. I was the guy who went around sayin’ he could beat the devil. I had the big promo poster that showed me leanin’ against the side of my car, black number 21, with my catchphrase at the bottom: Speed is my friend.

I was the hottest rookie on the circuit and didn’t mind sayin’ so. A few days ago all I wanted was to win the Cup. Now, all I wanted was a way to skip out on the biggest race of my life.

Some people think my attraction for NASCAR came from me growing up so close to the speedway and spending my summers working there. That’s only part of it.

When I was ten, we visited my grandma, and I loved it because around her house were the longest, steepest hills in all of West Virginia.

First day there, I took my bike out, and with as powerful a push forward as I could muster, I slammed my feet onto the pedals and pumped like I had Satan at my heels. I took a full eighth of a mile to build up speed on the level straightaway as I pushed toward the start of the slope. When I peered over the top, I pedaled even harder. I picked up speed as I raced down the hill and kept haulin’ until my pedals spun freely. The wind whipped my face and at one point I felt the bike leave the pavement. Flyin’. I was flyin’!

Then, I realized I didn’t have a plan to stop. After a brief panic, I figured I had a few choices. I could slam into a mailbox and end up at the hospital, I could try running along the curb to slow down and most likely chew up my tire, or…at the bottom of the hill, a field fenced off by barbed wire waited to welcome me. Now, that would have been one of the bad choices, except I saw a board left lying on the curb. I figured if I hit it going fast enough it would act like a ramp and send me flying over the fence.

Now that was a choice.

I gritted my teeth, aimed the bike and forced every pedal’s worth of power I could pull from the thing. When my front tire slammed into the board, I flew into the air, my bike landed in the barbed wire, but I went on another three feet and crashed down in the nice, soft mud.

I was a mess, but I wasn’t hurt even though my mom got plenty upset. But I stuck a hand on my hip and told her, “Don’t worry, Mom. I could outrace the devil if I wanted to, ’cause speed is my friend.” And being a mom, she repeated that little quote a million or so times, and what can I say? It took. And it was true. I loved speed. For me, that was the attraction.

My fans in the stands even echoed the story. “You’re faster than any devil, Lightnin’ Jack! Whip the devil’s butt!”

I’d laugh and promise to do it.

But wouldn’t you know? During the qualifying rounds for the Cup race the devil called me out. No, he wasn’t wearing a red suit. He came in the form of an old woman. Lots of older ladies come to the track and cheer and yell right along with all the guys and have a good time. So when this old woman, sidled up to me at the track, I didn’t think too much about it…at first.

She looked me in the eye and said, “Lightnin’ Jack, you think you can beat the devil? Well, I gotta message for you, boy. He’s got your number, and you’re gonna die.”

She yanked out a container with red dust in it and tossed it at me.

While I was waving my way out of that cloud, Hank, who heads up my operations team, called security.

“You okay?” Hank peered at me from underneath his #21 ball cap. “That old biddy get any of that junk in your eyes?”

I brushed it off me. “No. What’s her durn problem?”

Hank gave a dry, short laugh. “She sounds like Satan’s number-one fan. Crazy old bird. Takes all kinds. I’ll have the guys make sure she doesn’t get on the track anymore.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

This morning, the old lady made the papers, just not in a good way. The headline read, “Self-described, ‘back-country witch’ found dead after ritual involvement.”

The paper explained how police found the old lady’s body covered in evil markings. No explanation how it happened. My stomach felt like lead, and all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. You know that feeling you get walking past the graveyard at night? Like there’s something with you, except you’re supposed to be alone? That’s what I felt.

Tom, one of the pit crew, gave me a whack on the shoulder. “Well, she ain’t gonna be riding her broom anymore. Wonder if the devil got her? Or maybe she summoned Pumpkinhead! Whoooo!”

He wiggled his hands in the air like some dumb kid on Halloween, and I snapped, “Shut up!”

That was the day we did qualifying rounds. After years of driving in starter races, and dealing with ARCA cars, and traveling to Loews and Atlanta, I was doing what we set out to do. I met Hank in Atlanta and he was the one who decided my driving was worth the hassle of gettin’ a car and team together. We had so much riding on that day and suddenly I was so spooked, I barely bagged a starting position of thirty-second. Thought I’d be sick.

Everything startled me. That’s the best way I can explain it. It ain’t smart to be twitchy in a stock car.

The guys were all cool about it, even Hank. But, dang, I could’ve done better.

That night, I’d close my eyes, and I could see that old woman, one gnarled finger pointing at me. She kept calling at me in a dead croak, “You mocked Satan! Nobody beats the devil, boy. But he is going to beat YOU!”

The only reason I got up and went to the track the next morning was because I still couldn’t figure a good way out of it. Even if I died, there were people I couldn’t let down. The witch cursed me, and I knew it. But I sucked it up and went to Talladega.

The raceway did make me feel a lot better, though. The smell of exhaust alone cheered me up.

I got dressed in my coveralls, got together with the team, went over the strategy, got my car in my crummy thirty-second position, and when the white flag waved, I realized…I was okay. No headless horseman had showed up to haul me away, or Pumpkinhead, or Freddy Krueger. All of a sudden I felt like the dumbest kid on the block for lettin’ some crazy old lady scare me so bad. With the sun up and the engines roaring, I was ready to go.

I heard Hank’s voice over my radio. “How ya’ doin’ out there, kid?”

I hit my intercom. “Remember all that mess with the old lady?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“Well, forget it. It’s time to get to work.”

“Now yer talkin’!”

I gripped my wheel and focused. I always said every race was mine to win, and this one wouldn’t be any different.

Johnny Fizbin and Mike Raider were both driving and on my team. Our plan was that when we had five laps to go we’d make our moves, earlier if the game changed a little, but at the latest by then. We were counting on each other to ride our drafts for better placement. This many cars back, I surely hoped neither of them would get greedy.

I held my position, lap after lap.

Some people think it doesn’t take much to drive in NASCAR, but let me tell you, try taking one hundred and eighty-eight laps around a track doing close to two hundred miles per hour, while the track temperature itself sits at about one hundred and thirty degrees. Yeah, it takes skill and focus.

It’s also why, when I first heard the roaring sound, I thought maybe my lack of sleep was getting’ to me.

See, I made it all the way to lap 178 when stuff started getting weird.

In my mind, I started wondering, Should I pull over? Get some water tossed in my face? What?

No reason not to keep going.

Then I heard it again. Wasn’t anything strange about hearing an engine on the speedway, but this sound practically filled my car. It didn’t sound so much like a stock car as it did an oncoming tornado. The kind of loud, ongoing roar that tells you anything in its path better get out of the way. Right at that moment I saw it. A car so fast and dark, it whipped past me in a black blur.

My heart leaped into my throat.

Hanks voice came over the radio right away. “Jack! You’re swervin’ awfully bad! You got a problem?”

“I—I—I...” That’s when I heard a voice in the seat next to me say, “Quit stammering and answer the man. But watch what you say or they’re gonna think you’re crazy.” And when I glanced over, I dang near lost control of the car. I didn’t know whether to scream or puke or what. A guy sat there wearing racin’ coveralls, with a red ball cap on his head. He had mirrored sunglasses and a reddish mustache that twitched a little when he talked.

I’d been lookin’ at that guy all my life. My heart skipped a beat ’cause I’d even cried like a girl…when he died.

“Dale Earnhardt?”

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