Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Southern racing novel chapter 4

Today we return with the fourth chapter of a racing novel written a racer who wishes to remain anonymous. You can find the first three chapters in the Archive section to learn about with the cast of characters and locations.  

When I arrived at Standard Speedway about a dozen miles east of town, I immediately noticed a dramatic difference from Union Speedway. Although Standard also had a dirt parking lot, I noticed that the cars in the lot were nice late model cars, many with out of state license plates.  I followed the signs and parked off the backstretch near the pit gate, and after giving the ticket lady my name, she pinned a cardboard 'official' tag on my t-shirt (glad I wore a clean shirt). I then passed through the gate and got my first look at Standard Speedway.

Standard Speedway was nestled in a natural tree-lined valley with a small creek running alongside turn two, the small covered grandstand was built into hillside overlooking the banked 3/8-mile paved track.  Unlike Union Speedway, the pit area was located behind the back stretch. With all the trees, and the light breeze, the temperature in the grandstand was at least 10 degrees cooler than it was in the parking lot.  

After I crossed the track and skirted the pond in the infield, I reached the pit area. As I wandered through the pit area, I saw that all the teams brought their cars on trailers – no flat towing for these guys.   I was surprised by the high quality of the twenty or so shiny late model stock cars, some accented with chrome wheels.  I now understood what folks meant about Standard being a huge step up from Union Speedway; the cars were all well-prepared and for several teams, all of their crew members wore matching uniforms. 

I asked one of the passing white uniformed officials to point out John Johnson, and as he pointed I followed his finger and saw a man wearing a seersucker sport jacket and porkpie hat talking to another uniformed man. I walked over and introduced myself, and the man in the suit said “Welcome Yank! My brother told me all about you- the Hoosier boy who knows a lot about auto racing.” At a loss for words, I shrugged and said, “I’m no expert.” He smiled and said “I was just kidding! Seriously though, we are shorthanded with a man out tonight – could I ask you to help us out?”

“Gee Mr. Johnson, I’ll be glad to help but I don’t have any officiating experience” I said. “Call me John” he replied “I’d like you to meet our Chief Steward, Bennie Benning.”  The tall dark curly haired man next to him stuck out his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you Yank, and thanks for the help. All I need you to do is keep an eye on the schedule and lineups posted on the pit board, walk that far line of cars over there, talk to the crews and keep them moving – sort of like herding sheep. Anyone gives you any guff, come get me or one of the other officials.”   “Okay” I stammered, as I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  

There were 10 cars in the area that I was responsible for, so I walked over to introduce myself.  As I met the crews and drivers, it turned out that they were all from Memphis and raced together most weekends.  The most eye-catching entries were a pair of 1950 Ford coupes, the metallic blue #22  and a metallic red #55 I quickly learned that these beauties were driven by a pair of brothers, Ned and Ed Ramsey. Watching their performance through warm-ups and qualifying, I began to believe that the Ramsey brothers would be top contenders for the victory in the night’s 30-lap feature.

There was the expected amount of banter about a Yankee coming down South and ordering around the Southern racers, but all the teams were easy to get along with and kept the program moving quickly through qualifying and the heat races. My earlier judgments were proved correct as the Ramsey brothers, Ned in #55 and Ed in #22 each easily won their 8-lap heat races to transfer to the feature,  and as they did so, I noticed that the brothers had a fair-sized cheering section in the grandstand.

After the heat races were completed, the loudspeaker in the pit area crackled to life and directed the two top finishers in the heat races to report to the main straightaway to draw their starting positions. The Ramsey brothers, a fun-loving pair of stocky blonde farm boys, invited me to walk with them up front. I hesitated, but I agreed when they promised to buy me an ice-cold Coca-Cola from the concession stand.

Once all the drivers were gathered together under the flag stand, a red Cadillac convertible with a pretty brunette who wore a short blue dress. The girl was perched on top of the back seat as the pulled out of the infield and slowly circled the track as the girl waved to the appreciative crowd before the Cadillac came to a halt in front of the flag stand. Like moths to a flame, all the drivers crowded around the car, but I caught the girl’s eye and offered her my hand as she climbed from the car.

“Thanks darling” said the green-eyed beauty “You are such a gentleman! I don't thin I've seen you before. My name’s Janet- what’s yours?” After I told her she giggled and said “So you’re the Yankee boy I heard about. Charmed to make your acquaintance I’m sure.” 

As the flagman led her away, she looked over her shoulder and gave me a little wave and mouthed "later."  Ned elbowed me, laughed and said “Wooo-ee, Yank! You work fast- not only you tell us how to run our races, now you gonna come down here and take all our best looking women?”

The Ramsey brothers drew starting positions on the front row with Ned’s Ford on the pole position. All the drivers hustled back to the pit area and climbed into their machines for the feature. I was standing behind the Ramsey pits when they started their engines, and the exhaust fumes made my eyes water. 

It seemed clear to me that someone had added some additive to their fuel. I ran across the pit area and grabbed Bennie’s arm. “Bennie! The Ramsey brothers are cheating! They added nitromethane to their fuel.” Bennie looked me in the eye and repeated my accusation. “Yank, that’s a serious charge but it’s too late now- the cars are on the track. We’ll have to talk about this after the race.”