A racing team becomes obsessed with a harbinger of death...
DUMB, STUPID LUCK
J. Robert Kane
I've had a hard-on for fast cars for just about as long as I can remember. Some people- and it's not just a man thing, believe me- appreciate a powerful engine the way an art connoisseur appreciates a particularly moving canvass. There's a sly sensuality in the low rumbling of a finely tuned machine; in the barely contained thrum of raw energy eager to meet its potential. Some people don't get it, and that's just fine. I don't get modern art. Different strokes for different folks, right?
I went to my first race when I was twelve years old. One of the guys from our neighborhood had an older brother who was a NASCAR fanatic, and one weekend he took a few of us kids to a truck series competition at the Pocono Speedway. For me it was love at first sight; there's no way to overestimate the impression that afternoon made on my young mind. That day I knew that I would make my living in some aspect of racing; the desire to be around those cars was not to be denied; it pulled at me, a physical force.
If I was smitten, my best friend Andrew Davis was completely over the fucking moon. Andy was uncharacteristically quiet as we drank in our surroundings that day, but there was no mistaking the longing in his eyes From that afternoon on neither of our lives would ever be the same. Do I regret it? No. I miss my friends dearly, but I don't regret it for a minute.
Andy and I cut our teeth working the ranks of the local amateur racing circuit; learning in the trenches, as it were. There was a lot of cleaning up and grunt work in the beginning, but we worked our asses off and our teammates noticed. By the time we were nineteen Andy was driving for our team; I was his lead mechanic and spotter.
Andy was a finesse driver. He seemed to understand the physics of racing on a subconscious level; no matter the track or the conditions he always seemed to know just how to make the most of any situation. For my part I knew his driving style flat, and always kept the car fine-tuned accordingly.
We made a damn good team, too. Andy finished in the top-five every race that first season- something our team had never accomplished- and he even took the checkered flag twice. Now I don't mean to come off as conceited, but honestly it was pretty effortless. We knew each other, you know? From the time we were in the first grade playing STAR WARS figures together in his parent's living room after school. We hardly even used the radios; more often than not we could anticipate what the other was thinking.
We improved on our success the following season, finishing top three in all but two races. People were talking. Sponsors who'd laughed at the prospect of backing our team were suddenly lining up to plaster their logos on our car. I can't remember ever having more fun in my life, and I guess I have Andy to thank for that.
The following season Andy's little brother was offered an opportunity to drive a car sponsored by Circle Fasteners, one of our top competitors. Michael Davis had been with our team for almost three years by that point, and he'd become a damned good mechanic and tire-man. He'd also been racing the go-cart circuit for years- and he was very good.
Andy acted as though the prospect of racing his little brother didn't trouble him, but I could see that it did. Andy liked having his little brother in his corner; he counted on him- hell, we both did. We knew that we'd feel his absence- both in the garage and in the pit.
If Andrew Davis was a finesse driver, his younger brother was a lunatic. Michael Davis drove by the seat of his pants- 'drove it like he stole it' Andy used to say- and he took some terrible risks. He also took top three more often than he didn't that first season- unprecedented for a rookie- and even earned the checkers twice. People took notice.
The rivalry started off of the track, as things like these so often do. People couldn't help but compare the Davis brothers- who was the better driver, the better looking (neither had any problem with the ladies) the more exciting to watch. It was human nature, that's all; and it was mostly in good fun. Eventually it bled onto the track, though, and that's never good.
I noticed the change in Andy before he realized it in himself. He was growing increasingly reckless, driving far more aggressively than he ever had before- had ever needed to before. Whenever the Davis brothers fought for position the crowds went out of their fucking minds- and I died a little.
To this day local race fans talk about "the fight" as though the Davis brothers had climbed out of their respective cars that Saturday afternoon in August and beaten each other half to death. Of course that's not at all what happened. If I had to seat every person who's told me they were at the track on the day of the "fight", I could fill three race tracks to capacity.
The way it went down was like this: Andy cut pretty close in front of Michael's car coming into the final turn, damn near caused his little brother to wreck. Andy swore to me afterward that he didn't realize how close it had been until it was too late, and I believed him. I still do.
When the race was over Andy had finished third and Michael a very close fourth. The younger Davis leapt from his car and made for his brother; I don't think I've ever seen him so angry.
The 'fight' consisted of a little yelling back and forth, and exactly two shoves- one each. That was it. In the end that was all it took, I suppose- but nobody had any way of knowing that at the time.
The Davis brothers never spoke to one another again on this earth. To this day it makes me sad when I think of it. Right up until the end I remained friends with them both- and as far as I know I was the only one who did. Everyone else chose a side. I wouldn't. Or maybe I couldn't.
The following season our team found itself in the extremely unusual position of being flush for cash. We had taken third overall the previous year- another team first- and earned a modest purse for our troubles. Also a nice little line of credit had opened thanks to one of our new sponsors. At a team meeting following a barbecue at Andy's place, we all agreed that a new engine was in order. As lead mechanic I'd championed the idea- we'd been rebuilding the same two engines for a few seasons by that point.
We decided on a beauty of a Chevy big-block, and I dropped it in the day it was delivered. Well, we all thought we'd made the right decision- that engine fucking hummed.
I adjusted the car, compensating for the heavier weight of the new block. We tested it that afternoon and Andy came back grinning like a kid on Christmas. He had a few minor suggestions, but all said he was thrilled- and we were poised to finish well in qualifying.
The night before the first race of the season Andy and I went out for a few beers. I made a mistake, I think.
"You're a better driver than Mikey" I said. "Don't race his race; make him race yours."
My oldest friend wheeled on me, nearly knocked over his drink. "This isn't about Michael." He said finally.
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
"Fuck." Andy said; more to himself I think, than to me.
I emptied my beer; looked at him.
He slammed his fist on the bar, rattling glasses for three or four feet in either direction.
I peered over my shoulder; wasn't surprised to find half the place glaring in our direction.
"Why did he have to drive for Circle?"
I shook my head, because I didn't want to say that I didn't know.
We called it a night not long after.
My best friend died the next day. He left this world the way he would have wanted to, I think- behind the wheel of an extremely fast car, in a supernova of twisted steel and fire.
It was one of the most horrific things I've ever seen. I remember there was a collective gasp from the crowd as the car came shrieking to a stop; and then silence- a terrible, all-consuming silence. Eventually there were the sirens; they struggled to penetrate the noiseless dusk; apparitions clawing their way through a dense fog.
My best friend, I soon learned, had been fused to the wreck that used to be our race-car, and so both were confiscated. We didn't care. Personally I didn't give a shit if I never saw that car again.
I didn't. As fate would have it, though, I did see the engine.
A detective whose name I forget called the garage about two months after the accident. He asked if we wanted any of what was left of our car. I assured him that we did not.
The man on the line had sounded perplexed. "Not even the engine?"
It dawned on me then; the engine had been thrown clean of the wreck. It had landed on the turf and was likely salvageable.
"No, thanks...scrap it." I'd told the officer, on a whim.
Only they didn't scrap it. Maybe the officer, who had seemed like a decent guy, figured I'd regret my decision. Maybe it was just a paperwork mistake. At any rate, that big block Chevy found its way home to us four days later, crated up just like new.
For days I gave that powerful machine a wide berth. To be honest the damned thing gave me the creeps. I knew it was ridiculous to assign it any blame- it was only a machine, after all- but I couldn't help it. Andy had died driving that engine, that was reason enough for me to hate it.
We moved it to a back corner of the garage, where it sat collecting dust and the occasional discarded part or broken tool. It wasn't until Michael started driving for us that anybody paid it any attention.
I wasn't terribly surprised when, about a month after his brother's death, Michael Davis sought me out and asked to drive for our team. It was no favor he was asking- any team would have been thrilled to have him in the driver's seat. I accepted, but on one condition. I told him I would spot for him- if he made an effort to drive with a little more finesse, and a lot less heroics.
If he was surprised by my demand he didn't act it. I remember he hugged me. That night we talked life and racing; we drank beer and we missed Andy.
The next scheduled race was in two weeks and we intended to qualify in the top five. The morning after our conversation we were at the garage talking strategy and making adjustments. It felt almost like old times. In a lot of ways, Michael was very much like his older brother; more so after Andy's accident.
Well, everything was going just as nice as you please until the morning- it was a Thursday, I remember- when Michael inquired as to the mean-looking Chevy engine collecting dust in the back corner of the garage.
I told him. What else could I do? I told him it was the engine that had propelled his big brother to his death. I remember the way he walked over and regarded the chrome beast- he had a look in his eyes that I didn't like at all. He reached out and touched it; caressed it in fact.
Michael Davis would drive that engine; even before he said so I knew it. I could read it in his posture. He would race that engine- for himself and for his brother- and for absolutely no reason at all.
I tried to talk him out of it; you better believe I did. I yelled. I threatened to quit. Mikey just kept telling me was how important this was to him; how I was his only brother now. He actually said that. What could I do? Warriors want to die in battle, the faithful in grace; the Davis brothers, apparently, wanted to die going two hundred miles an hour. And when it came right down to it, who was I to stop them?
My objections noted, I uncrated that engine and- God help me- dropped it into our car. I hate myself for it to this day, though I'm still not sure it wasn't the right thing to do.
Testing proved shitty. The engine ran erratically- that's the way Michael put it. We went over every inch of that beast with a magnifying glass; took most of the damned thing apart. Now I've built engines- and I mean from parts I've machined myself- and I couldn't find anything at all wrong with this one. Not for the life of me.
Michael shrugged it off. Racing that engine had become a damned obsession with him. It went beyond slaying the dragon that had killed his big brother; I wonder to this day if he suspected what I did- that this engine would mean the end of him as well.
On race day I was at the garage two hours before anyone else. If that engine was going to kill another one of my friends, it was not going to be because I missed something. Again I studied every component as though my life depended on it. In a way, I suppose it did.
We qualified like never before that morning. Michael didn't gloat, but he gave me a look that said 'trust me; I'm not Andy.' and I resent him for it to this day.
Race day dawned bright and beautiful; the kind of day that you realize, as you get older, is a gift. The sun shone plentifully and a cool breeze stole through the trees surrounding the track. As start time approached, I could feel myself relaxing. Surely I'd built this whole situation up inside my head- the same way Michael had become obsessed about his brother's engine, I had become frightened of it.
Michael was in a great mood; and he was ready, too- I could see it in his eyes. He meant to win, and damned if I didn't believe that he could. Just before start time we shook heartily and he pulled me into a tight hug.
"Thank you." He said into my sleeve.
I didn't say anything. I squeezed tighter and clapped him on the back.
The drivers started their engines; I felt the familiar pulse and thrum of thirty high-performance engines springing to life. And then the green flag fell and they were off with that mighty roar that always sets my pulse to racing.
It was a short contest; fifty laps- and I knew that we would finish top three. Michael 'drove it like he stole it', as his brother had been fond of saying, and few cars could keep up. What's more, he drove with a bit more finesse I'm happy to say. Maybe he'd even listened to me...
We knew that we had a chance at number one. With three laps remaining, Michael was running on two new tires and nearly a full tank of fuel. If only he could only pass Davey Striker in the number eight car, we had this thing in the bag.
Now you have to understand- we didn't get into this life because we wanted to, Andy and I- and then Michael. We lived to race. It was a vocation- a spiritual experience; the tracks so many open air cathedrals, the growl of the engines our choirs of angels. There was never any real choice, not for us. We would race, and we would race to win- always.
I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't some small part of me that wanted to hold Michael back. I hated that he was driving that engine- the engine that had killed my best friend and then found its way home in order to taunt me. Because make no mistake, that was what I'd come to believe- that that damned engine was taunting me. Crazy, yes; but then crazy is a relative term, isn't it?.
Number eight was holding tight to first place- no matter where Michael attempted to pass there he was, closing the lane. And then in the final stretch it finally happened. Rusty Daniels in the number three car put on a wicked burst of speed, threatening number eight on the inside. Number eight eased to the middle of the track, anticipating Daniel's pass. My headphone radio crackled.
"Outside...?" Michael asked.
I hear him ask that in my mind every day; sometimes in my dreams. I remember looking very carefully; remember thinking it looked tight. Calling him off may have been the right thing to do- God knows I've received enough hate mail telling me as much- but there was no way I could have known. Truth be told, I'd have thrown Andy through that hole; it was tight but not impassable. I never ever took unnecessary risks with either of them- or with any of the drivers I've spotted for that matter- but hell, you sign on for some risk every time you suit up in this business.
I swallowed hard; don't ask me why but I remember that like it was yesterday. I wonder now if maybe I was giving number eight an extra second or two to close the small lane that had opened on the outside.
I held my breath another fraction of a second; let it out. "Go." I said.
He nearly made it. I actually thought that he had- and then number eight's nose brushed Mikey's rear panel. Michael fishtailed; I thought for a second that he was going to get it back under control, but it wasn't meant to be. The car flipped and was hit immediately by Stacey Burns in number ten; I doubt Stacey even had time to touch his brakes.
It was the worst accident I've seen in my career, and I've seen my share. There's no need to recount the details. Michael Davis and Stacey Burns died; instantly I like to think, but how can anyone ever be sure?
I left racing that day and I haven't gone back. For a long time I couldn't help but blame that fucking engine, that Chevy big block we'd all drooled over. It wasn't the engine of course; it was only dumb, stupid luck.
I mourned my friends; I pitied myself. I drank and I grew bitter; I got sober and I stayed bitter. Gradually the anger is fading, but I still mourn my friends. I guess I always will.
Three or four nights a week I dream that I come home from work to find a makeshift wooden cage waiting for me at the end of my driveway. I can hear it calling to me. I pull my car up to the curb in front of my house and kill the engine, but I won't get out; not ever. Because I know what's suspended inside those ribs of two-by-four pine.
Oct 2013/East Northport, NY