The Smell of First Place
Hot Rod and Speedway Comics
Les Crowell looked around Dellington Speedway and liked what he saw. It was a big, roomy track with long straightaways and deep turns. The pits were well located and the grandstand could handle plenty of cash-paying fans. A big league track all right, and it belong to Vic Booker. Booker didn't really own Dellington but it was the same thing. He was the big name there, the driver who drew the crowds and provided the thrills. So when you said Dellington you thought of Vic Booker. Les knew he was taking on a lot by invading Booker's territory, but after being top driver on the Southern Circuit he figured it was time to go after the big money. He had his eye on the 250-lap Special that Saturday and the three thousand in first place money. Maybe he wouldn't beat Booker but he was sure going to try.
Now Les crossed the infield to the pits where sleek stock jobs were being tuned for the qualifying trials the next day. Buddy White, his mechanic, was checking the deep breathing Hudson Hornet Les drove. "How'd she stand the trip?" he asked. Buddy nodded okay. He wasn't much on talking. Then Les saw an old skinny guy in a tattered greasy overalls coming their way. The old guy stopped and grinned at Les.
"I know you," he said. "You're Les Crowell! I heard you were comin' and I been waitin' for you! My name's 'Spokes.'"
"Okay, Spokes, what's on your mind?"
"I figure you'll need an extra mechanic. . . help you get the layout of a new track! I know the ropes and I'll work hard!" Les and Buddy White exchanged looks. The old guy looked harmless and Les decided to humor him. Slipping his new "mechanic" a half dollar, he said: "Okay, Spokes, you're hired! You'll take orders from Mr. White here!" Les turned to go when someone hailed him. He looked up to see red-faced Charlie Willis approaching. The two men shook hands heartily. Charlie had driven the Southern Circuit with Les but had been at Dellington the past year.
"So you've finally come for the big dough, leadfoot?"
"Yeah, Charlie, I figure to make them forget about Vic Booker at Dellington!" Willis looked around fearfully. "I wouldn't shoot off about that, Les! Booker's a big man around here! It's smart to stay in good with him!" Les looked puzzled. "Do you think Mr. Booker'll mind my copping first place Saturday?"
"Guys who want to drive here learn first is 'reserved' for Vic Booker! There's plenty for finishing second so why be greedy?" Les was going to question this surprising remark when Charlie spotted Spokes puttering around the Hudson.
"I see you've been adopted by Spokes! He claims he was a top driver once but he's really an old bum who hangs around mooching handouts! Better duck him—he's a jinx! A couple of guys he's adopted have taken some bad spills!"
"That's real encouraging," said Les dryly.
"Well, see you later," said Charlie as he hurried off. Les watched him go with troubled thoughts. Driving to win was all he knew. He wouldnt' change that for anybody. Vic Booker would just have to accept the competition.
Vic Booker was present when Les burst into the racing secretary's office the next morning boiling mad.
"What's this about a five day waiting period before I can race?" Les demanded of the guy behind the desk.
"It's a rule covering all new drivers on the grounds!"
"Well, it's a crummy rule! That means I can't enter the Special Saturday!"
"If you don't like it why'd you come here, hotshot?" broke in Vic Booker. "That rule is to keep drifters from coming in and overcrowding a field for a one-race shot!" Les laughed harshly at this. "Looks to me like it's used against drivers who might give you a run for first money!" Vic Booker's eyes blazed angrily. "Why, you bush track punk! I could beat you in two wheels!"
"Then prove it by making sure I'm in the lineup Saturday!"
Les left the racing office still mad. An hour later he got word the five day rule was suspended in his case. Evidently Vic Booker did run things at Dellington and was sure Les wouldn't buck him on the track itself. To prove differently Les went out in the time trials that afternoon and turned in a 71.25 mph average, beating Booker's qualifying Mark by .92. The other drivers had purposely stayed under Booker but Les wanted that pole position and now he had it.
* * *
An hour before the Special was to start Buddy White got a telegram about his mother's illness. He had to fly home at once, and that meant Les would be without his ace mechanic in the pit. It was a tough break. After Buddy left Les tried to find a substitute, but all he got were excuses and evasions. More of Vic Booker's influence. Then the second telegram came for Buddy White. It was from Buddy's sister and told how his mother was okay and expressed surprise over Buddy's homecoming. Les got the whole thing in a flash. His mechanic had been suckered away by a phony telegram just before the race. Les was sure who was behind the scheme. But without a pit man he was sunk. Then he noticed Spokes polishing the Hudson's windshield. The old bum had become quite attached to Les and his half dollars. Les grabbed him.
"You want to be a mechanic? Well, I'm giving you your chance today!" In the few minutes before the race Les got Spokes set up to handle the simpler pit routines. Then he joined the starting lineup, grimly determined to make Vic Booker eat dust every lap of the way. When the green flag went down Les gunned the Hornet away into an early lead. After 20 laps he still held it and the crowd, used to seeing Vic Booker set the pace, was puzzled and silent. Then on the 57th lap the crowd let loose a mighty roar and Les spotted Vic Booker's big blue Chrysler weaving up through the field behind him. Les eased up on the gas and let Booker come to him because he had a plan. He was going to show up this fireball by giving him something nobody else gave him—pressure. Booker could dish it out, but could he take it? Les permitted Booker to take the lead and then he began turning it on—tailing Booker like a bloodhound, jostling him on the turns, keeping his foot in the pot and feeding such a hot pace that by the 160th lap the race had become a two car duel and the crowd, sensing this, was roaring at every turn.
Lap after lap Les kept the pressure on. He could have taken a clear lead but he wanted to see Vic Booker crack under the strain. The hot sun and furious pace had forced many cars out of the race with blowouts and overheated motors. So far Les had been lucky. The Hudson was ticking like a clock. For thirty more laps Les kept it up, but Booker showed no signs of weakening. The crowd was going mad. They'd never seen anything like this savage, grim duel.
Suddenly, Les saw his temperature gauge hit 200. He gave the water signal to old Spokes in the pit and prayed the old bum would know what he wanted. Sure enough, when Les gunned the Hornet into the pit on the next lap, there was Spokes, grinning, with a full bucket. Moving surprisingly fast the old guy tore off the steaming radiator cap and sloshed in the cooling liquid. Within seconds Les was back on the track putting the pressure on Vic Booker again. Then on the 219th lap the Hudson developed a flat. Les limped into the pit where, to his amazement, Spokes had a new wheel all set up. Working feverishly the two men slapped the new shoe on and Les tore out after Booker once again. For ten more laps Les applied the pressure. Then he noticed that the southeast turn was breaking up and developing a soft spot. The next lap Les crowded Booker close on the turn so that he hit the soft spot and went into a broadslide. Les saw the big blue car carom wildly off the safety wall and spin to a stop in a whirl of dust. Then he lost sight of it. On the next lap Les passed the Chrysler going at 30 miles an hour. Inside he saw Vic Booker sitting white faced, hands clenched in the wheel, staring straight ahead at nothing as whole field swept by him. Les smiled grimly. He had cracked. Playing it careful on the last laps Lea came home an easy winner. Later, as the photographers snapped him and old Spokes, Les felt pretty good. It wouldn't be a one man track anymore.
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