Chapter 1 -- Round One: South Africa, January 1
Nothing could touch him now. Before, there had been the crowd pressing him, wanting his autograph, journalists questioning him, and the sickness in his stomach that always plagued him before every race. Now, all that was gone. He was seated inside his machine, cutoff from the outside world, his mind cold, empty, yet sharply focused.
The starter, a man dressed in a trim blue suit, held up the two-minute sign.
Wagner reached out and adjusted the right sidemirror, but otherwise remained perfectly still. It was a bright, hot day in Johannesburg, South Africa, the kind that made the skin sweat from the slightest exertion, but for these final minutes, at least, in the shade of a sun umbrella, it was almost pleasant.
“You gotta win this one,” Hacksaw said, holding the sun umbrella over him. “You probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s a natural fact.”
Wagner closed his eyes. He did not want conversation, not now, not this close to the start, or to think, or to strategize, or do anything but wait.
“Shut up, Hacksaw,” he said quietly.
An engine fired up and began revving, joined by another, and another, in a gathering chorus of throaty growls and shrieks. Wagner looked at the switches on the dash panel, crossed his arms, and waited.
He tugged at his gloves and checked the vision in both sidemirrors. He was ready, really and truly ready. He flipped switches for the slave battery, fuel pumps, and ignition. He stabbed the starter button. He couldn’t hear his engine fire for the rage going on around him, but he could feel it in the pit of stomach, feel it lurch, clear itself of unspent fuel, and come to life.
Hacksaw folded up the umbrella, leaned over and shouted what sounded like “Good luck” and disappeared.
Wagner grasped the small padded steering wheel and watched the starter step out onto the tarmac.
He upped the engine to a steady 8000 RPM and engaged first gear. He looked at the gap between the cars ahead of him--between Evans’ Lotus and Bogavanti’s Ferrari. If somehow he could squeeze through that gap, he would lead right off. It was possible. If he timed it right. If he was lucky.
The starter looked over the field, making sure everyone was set, and then raised both hands. In one he held the South African National Flag. In the other he held five outstretched fingers, and began closing them one after the other--four, three, two, one....
Wagner released the clutch, felt his wheels spin and ... nothing. He was left standing at the grid while the cars in front and beside him burst away. He feathered the clutch as several cars from behind screamed past. Moving now, picking up speed, he upshifted. Two more cars passed him but not as fast. He nailed one of them braking for Crowthorne Corner and passed the other one coming out.
So much for timing. So much for luck. So much for grabbing the damn lead. How far back was he? Eighth or ninth? The cars ahead darted back and forth and kicked up dust negotiating Barbeque Bend and the Jukskei Sweep. He could see Evans’ green Lotus at the head of the pack, before it disappeared into Sunset Bend. A moment later, setting up for the Leeukop Hairpin, he saw it again, accelerating up the front straight already leading by a sizeable margin.
Wagner shook his head grimly. He had to act fast. He passed a car at the start of lap two, passed two more on lap three, another on lap five, and another on lap six. That put him fourth, where he’d started the race. The next car ahead of him was a BRM, driven by Parks, the reigning world champion. Good old Mal Parks, never an easy man to pass. Wagner had no time to waste on him. He made a run on the BRM braking for Sunset, hit the curve too fast and had to back out of the throttle to keep from spinning. Two laps later, braking for Crowthorne Corner, he tried again, got crossed up as the corner tightened, and had to brake to keep from spinning. Before he recovered, two cars slipped past.
Nuts. He was trying too hard. When everything was clicking, speed came effortlessly, at will, but not now. The world was rushing at him in a blur. What else was new? The whole weekend had been one big blur. Driving for Garret-Hawk Racing Enterprises had been a last minute deal, arranged hastily mere days before the race, with details to be worked out later, such as a contract and money. He’d barely had time to be fitted in the cockpit, bed in a set of tires, and qualify, with no time for full fuel-load tests, no time to practice accelerating off the line, no time for all the little things that went into winning.
“Take it easy,” he muttered. “There’s plenty of time.”
He forgot about passing cars and concentrated on driving as smoothly as possible, easing in and out of the curves, feeling the suspension and tires work as he braked, cornered, and accelerated, getting his rhythm. Laps clicked by. The car behind him began to press. He looked in the mirror and smiled wryly. Dan Phillips back there, his ex-boss, trying like hell in an underpowered car to overtake him. Only two days ago, after the morning practice session, Wagner told him he was leaving. It was a rotten thing to do, but Phillips was nice about it. He understood. Repco Brabham was no longer a front-runner. If Wagner had a better deal, go for it.
“But remember one thing, Johnny,” Phillips said in that twangy, outback way Aussie’s have of talking. “If things don’t work out, I can’t take you back. Business, you understand.”
Wagner understood. He absolutely must win today.
He upped his speed and Phillips’ Brabham faded from his mirror. Four laps later, he repassed the two cars that had overtaken him earlier. That put him in fourth. Again. He felt somewhat better. His fuel tanks had lightened and his driving had settled into a nice steady groove. The world was no longer passing in a blur, but sharply detailed, an ever-unfolding tableau that he controlled.
Only now he could no longer see any sign of Evans. He could see the backside of Parks’ dark green BRM, maybe a dozen car-lengths ahead, and Bogavanti’s blood-red Ferrari, maybe another dozen car-lengths in front of it, but nothing of Evans’ Lotus. Had the Scot dropped out? That would certainly make his job a whole lot easier. Accelerating up the front straight, he checked the lap board hoping, praying that maybe the Scot’s number was no longer there.
No such luck. Number Five was still on top.
The Crowthorne right-hander loomed at the end of the straight, demanding his full attention. There would be no hanging back now. He waited very late to brake, downshifted from fifth gear directly to third, and leaned the Garret-Hawk into the long right-hander. Immediately he felt centrifugal force pull at his head, felt his tires begin to slide. He fed in power and kept his machine pointed deep into the curve. Past the apex, he let it drift outside. Exiting, his outside tires thumped against the low curb that ran along there. Yeah. That was the way to take that curve.
He lifted slightly for the Barbeque Bend right-hander, and again for the Jukskei Sweep left-hander, but after a few laps, if he got it right--if his line was dead solid perfect--he would nudge the curb exiting Crowthorne, upshift to fourth gear, and in a wonderful rush, take these two corners flat-out. He began gaining on Parks’ BRM, and soon had his nose pressed up against the green car’s tail. The Englishman was lifting for Barbeque Bend, so next time around he built up a head of steam through Barbeque Bend and Jukskei Sweep and passed the BRM easily, wondering why he’d had trouble with Parks earlier.
More laps clicked by, and he began feeling the intense heat inside the cockpit. He glanced down at his fireproof coveralls and saw they were soaked through with perspiration and clinging to his skin. Coming up the front straight, he could see heat waves radiating up from the blacktop, and amidst the heat-waves, phantom-like, Bogavanti’s red Ferrari. He still couldn’t see Evans’ green car, but Hacksaw was feeding him information now, and he knew he was catching him. Lap 40--the halfway point--came and went. Bogavanti’s Ferrari drew clearer as it grew closer, until Wagner could see the Italian’s dark eyes in the sidemirrors, every few seconds glancing back at him.
Wagner smiled slightly. “That’s right, Bogo. It’s me, and I’m going to nail your ass.”
The big Ferrari looked twitchy and unsettled rounding corners ahead of him. He moved closer, got a run on the red car through Barbeque and Jukskei, and passed it on the straight to Sunset.
Wagner was feeling much better now. Evans was somewhere up ahead, no doubt aware that his old nemesis was chasing him. More laps passed, and he could no longer ignore the excruciating cockpit heat. On the straights, he braced his knees against the steering wheel and lifted his hands to cool them in the wind stream. He wished he could do the same with his feet, which were mere inches behind the broiling water radiator, and throbbing with pain.
A green speck appeared in the heat haze. Hacksaw signaled the gap was down to eight seconds, with 22 laps remaining. Still plenty of time. The green speck took shape as Evans’ Lotus. Moving closer, Wagner could see Evans’ little yellow helmet sticking up above the injector stacks, bouncing stiffly over the bumps. Closer still, he could see Number Five painted on the Lotus’ flanks. Hacksaw signaled ten laps remained. Still plenty of time. Wagner moved closer. Bearing down on Crowthorne Corner, he thought about trying to outbrake the Scot, decided against it, and followed him around the long curve. Setting up for Barbeque Bend, the Lotus fell back slightly. Wagner nodded to himself. Evans was lifting here too. He followed him through Jukskei, on around Sunset, Clubhouse, and The Esses, up to Leeukop, and back up the front straightaway, confident of what he was going to do. Crowthorne reappeared. He downshifted directly to third and followed the Lotus into the corner. Feeling centrifugal force pull against his body, he eased on the throttle and watched the snake of curb slither around to meet his far-side tires.
The jolt rocked the chassis and bounced him in his seat. He twitched the wheel to steady it, glanced in the mirror and saw a puff of dust rising from outside the corner. What the hell? Had he run over the curb?
Ahead, Evans slowed for Barbeque. Wagner kept his right foot planted. This was it. Nail him. He eased the Garret-Hawk into the fast right-hander, felt the tires slide, and ... oh, shit, he was losing it. Big time. He flipped the steering wheel opposite the slide, hoping to force a spin and not put any scratches in that shinny steel guardrail outside the curve. He was a passenger now, at the center of the gyro, watching the world spin past: the blurred yellows and browns of sun-dried grass, the reds and browns of sun-burned faces watching him from the infield, and the long streak of silver that was the guardrail. Then a cloud of tire smoke descended as his machine slowed and slid to a sudden, jarring stop.
He looked around him quickly. Could it be? He hadn’t hit a thing. He was parked past the guardrail still pointed in the right direction. He spun his tires getting away, hurrying to get back up to speed, back in the race, back in the hunt. But why? Evans was on the other side of the circuit by now. The race, or what was left of it, was over.
So was his career. Garret-Hawk wouldn’t be signing him now, not without winning the South African Grand Prix.
He rounded the lower half of the circuit, accelerated up the front straight, past the pits, and back to Crowthorne, to where it had all gone wrong. Had he gotten off line, or had the corners become too slick to hold him? He didn’t know. It didn’t matter. A great weight seemed to settle on his entire body. He felt utterly drained and depressed. Would the race ever end? Hacksaw signaled that Evans’ lead had stretched to 20 seconds, and that Bogavanti, in third, was 40 seconds behind him. Second place was a sure thing, at least, if it had mattered. He could practically get out and walk and still finish second.
Coming off Jukskei Sweep, a backmarker arrived in his path, spewing a fog of black oily smoke. It was a Lotus, one of several in the race similar to Evans’. He swooped past the green car and looked back in his mirror, stunned.
Driver in yellow helmet. Number five emblazoned on the nose. It was.
“Evans. The poor bastard.”
He accelerated up the front straight, saw the looks of incredulity on the faces of Hacksaw and the crew, as they too realized what had happened. He waved a clenched fist, and in his mirror saw his crew jumping and dancing wildly. The final laps came and went, he took the checkered flag, and the race was over. Today, he had won. Tomorrow, it would sink in. Right now, it was time to celebrate, and to see team owner Edward W. Garret about the little matter of a contract.
Chapter 2 -- Chicago
Susan Jennings grabbed a pencil and paper pad, filled her mug of coffee, and walked down the hall to her boss’s office. The door was open. She entered and walked directly to the window and looked out. It was raining in Chicago, and Grant Park looked as it had all winter--gray, cold, lifeless.
“Good morning, Susan.”
She turned around. “What’s good about it?”
Jeremy Sterns, associate editor at SportsWeek magazine, and her immediate superior, drummed his fingers on the desk. “Well, for one thing, it’s not raining in California.”
She put her mug on the edge of his desk and sat down, suddenly interested. She’d give anything to travel to a warm climate. Her previous two assignments had taken her to merely smaller versions of Chicago--Cleveland and Buffalo. “Is that where you’re sending me, to California?”
Sterns leaned back in his big leather swivel chair. “This is a very special assignment, the kind I would’ve loved getting when I was in your shoes. The guy’s a personal friend of mine. I guess you could say we go way back. My very first byline was a story about him.”
She placed her pad on her knee, poised to write. “Great. Who is he?”
“Who? How come I’ve never heard of him?”
Sterns was a great bear of a man, with light-blue eyes that transmitted sensitivity. She detected a trace of annoyance in those sensitive, light-blue eyes.
“He’s a race driver, Susan. One of the best in the world. He drives Formula Ones and lives in Europe most of the year, but right now he’s staying in California.”
Susan nodded. Now she understood. Sterns was the resident gearhead, the guy who was passionate about motorsports. In his lexicon, everyone else at SportsWeek was a “jock-sniffer,” someone who grew up worshipping ballplayers and didn’t have the slightest understanding of motorsports, even questioned whether or not it was a sport. With rare exception, it was the same attitude with sports writers across the land. That’s why motor racing results were buried in the back pages of the sports section, if at all, unless, of course, a driver was killed, in which case it was front-page news. “Never mind that motorsports is the second biggest spectator draw in the country, and the biggest worldwide,” she recalled Sterns often saying, “every damn sports writer and every damn sports editor I know is a bloomin’ jock sniffer. Why is that? Can someone tell me that, because I sure would like to know?”
Susan put down her pad, no longer quite as enthralled with the idea of going to California. “Somehow, I don’t think this assignment is right for me, Jeremy.”
“Susie, please. Hear me out, first.”
“It’s Susan. Listen, Jeremy, I don’t know the first thing about auto racing, and I’ve never even heard of him. What’s his name again? Bob Wagner?”
Sterns nodded patiently. “John. John Wagner. Remember when you begged off covering that chess tournament over in Stockholm, between Bobby Fischer and that Russian, Boris what’s-his name, because you said you knew nothing about chess? That turned out to be the best thing you’ve written.”
“That was different, Jeremy.”
“How was it different? Think of John as just another jock. Ask questions. Let your natural curiosity guide you.”
“Auto racing is a `guy’ thing. He won’t relate to me. Don’t you have a car-guy to cover this?”
“There is no `car-guy.’ I was doing all the motor racing stuff, remember, before I was made associate editor?”
She tossed her head. “Oh, great. Does this mean I have to cover the Indianapolis 500 too? Just what I’ve always wanted to do: hear Jim Nabors sing `Back Home Again in Indiana’ to 300,000 gearheads.”
Sterns chuckled. “I see you do know something about racing after all.”
“You won’t have to cover Indy, okay? I’ll get someone else to do it, I promise. But I do want you to take this assignment. It would mean a lot to me.”
“He’ll think I’m a bimbo, what do you bet?”
“No, he won’t. Trust me on this one. A lot has been written about him. You’ll bring a whole new perspective.”
“A woman’s perspective? You’re patronizing me, Jeremy.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean ... what do I mean? I mean you always uncover little things about people that others miss. You’ll do a really terrific job, Susan, I know you will.” He reached for the candy jar on his desk, removed the lid, and offered it to her, a peace offering.
She folded her arms and shook her head.
“Susan,” he said quietly, helping himself, “it’s true you don’t know much about motor racing, but you do know a lot about people, what motivates them, makes them tick, and how to draw them out. It’s your strength, and it’s all you’ll need to write this story.”
Susan dropped her arms. Jeremy was a sweet man, an unrelenting sweet man. “Do we have a file on this guy?”
“You know we do.” He removed a thick folder from a stack and slid it across the desk to her. “Look, I even pulled it for you. John’s sort of the hard-luck type, and I want you to play it from that angle. He’s with a new team and he’s won the first race of the season. Can he keep it up, can he win enough races to finally win the world championship, lick his history of hard-luck? Those are the kinds of questions I want you to raise in the story. We’ll do a follow-up later, say the Monaco Grand Prix in May, and the United States Grand Prix at the end of the season. You know, it could be kind of exciting, watching him make a run at the title, sort of like watching the Cubbies making a run at the pennant, and maybe getting to the World Series.”
“I doubt if the Cubs will be making a run at the pennant any time soon,” she said, scornfully.
“True,” he said, “but I really think this could be John’s year. He’s due. What do you say, Susan? Does this sound like something you can sink your teeth into?”
She started thumbing through the folder. “You know him pretty well, huh?”
“Hey, the guy flew all the way from England to be an usher at my wedding, a couple years back. John’s sort of the loyal, old-fashioned type; your type, Susan, now that I think about it.”
“You don’t know my type.” She pulled out one of the photos and gazed at it a moment. “He’s nice looking, I’ll say that much for him.”
Jeremy sucked on his candy. “He’s single.”
“He’s too old.”
She closed the file and stood up. “All right. I’ll do it.” She turned to leave but stopped at the door and looked back. “Auto racing. This will be a first. You owe me one, Jeremy.”
Sterns leaned back in his swivel chair, a satisfied look on his face. “You’ll thank me someday, Susan. Oh, and one other thing.”
She eyed him uneasily. “Yes?”
“It’s `motor racing,’ not `auto racing.’“
- END -