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Tony's Playpen

There was three feet of snow in Denver when the ARS transporter departed from the team headquarters on First Street. Three days later, when the transporter arrived in Indianapolis, the team discovered one foot of snow covering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was disheartening, as well as highly unusual. When the roads leading into the Speedway were cleared, the gates opened and the team at last reached its destination--Gasoline Alley. It was eerie-quiet, as no one else had yet arrived. About the time the garage door was unlocked and opened, the phone began to ring. Crew chief George "Hacksaw" Gilbert picked up.

"It's for you, Big Guy," he said, handing the phone over to John Wagner.

"Who is it? Susie?"

"No. It's Tony."

Wagner took he receiver, "Hey, Cowboy, what's up?"

"How do you want your steak?"

"My steak? What's this about?"

"You can't stay there. It'll be days before the Speedway is cleared. Why don't you come down here, so we can have us some fun? What do you say, Jack? Shall I put some meat on the grill?"

"Make mine medium-well, if it's steak we're talking about?"

"Is there any other kind?"

"But let me check with the team first. Can I call you back?"

"Sure, but don't keep me waiting, hear?"

* * *

"What do you mean, you're going to Fort Worth?" said Hacksaw, the veins protruding from his neck. "You're about to become a father, remember? The hospital could call at any time. You can't leave now."

"What's the big deal? I can fly home as easily from Fort Worth as I can from here. I'll be there on time, believe me, so you can just relax, Hacksaw."

"The snow plows are about to clear the track; about this time tomorrow we could be out testing, something we need to do, by the way, having a brand new car. If you expect to win, you had better stay put, that's all I got to say."

"I hear you, but I'm going, understand? I can't wait around here doing nothing. Susie understands that; I gotta go."

"If it hadn't been for that damn shot-gun wedding, Susie would never have married you in the first places And you're about to screw that up, too."

"It's cool between us. You don't have to worry. I'll be back here in a day or two."

"This is Susie, we're talking about it. She walked out on you remember? If you hadn't gotten her pregnant, she never would have married you. Period. I've gotten to love that girl in the past few months."

"Then you go to the hospital. I'm going to Fort Worth."

"You think Tony's your friend? He ain't. He wants you to come down to his Texas playpen so he can humiliate you. First thing he's going to do is get you on one his damn bucking broncos, and laugh like hell when you get thrown on your ass. Tony's no fool. He wants to get chummy with you so he can set you up and beat you on Memorial Day. That's all he cares about--winning."

"And that's all I care about, too. I'm world champion, remember? Look, Hacksaw, don't worry."

Wagner grabbed his coat and headed for the door. "When the baby comes, I'll be there. You can count on that. As far as Mr. Dayton goes, just let him try to beat me."

Wagner took the noon flight to Dallas. When he arrived, Tony Dayton was waiting to pick him up in his brand new, bright-red Ford Thunderbird. In place of the usual numbers-and-letters on the Texas plate was embossed the word, "WINNER."

"Hell of a lot better being down here in Dallas, wouldn't you say?" Tony said, grinning broadly, as he cooly slipped on his aviator sunglasses. "Get in, partner, let's get to Fort Worth."

"What the hell you doing driving a Ford? I thought you were a GM man. Don't you own a couple of Buick Dealerships?

"I do. This here T-Bird was given to me by the Ford Motor Company. Pretty sweet, huh? They want me to drive their Ford GT40 at Le Mans in June."

"You're kidding. You, at Le Mans? I don't believe it. France will never be the same."

"Yeah, I know. I thought it would be kinda neat, you know? Back up my Indy win with a win at the Le Mans Twenty-Four Hour."

"Yeah, yeah. You're running an Offy, remember? Why would Ford be interested in you?"

"Well, I gotta tell you--and don't be too upset now--I'm officially running a Ford, just like you."

"I'll bet GM's really excited about that."

"Hey, they had their chance. When I was out testing at Texas Speedway, that damn car of yours about put me in the wall, the bump steer was so bad. I asked the R and D guys at GM to come down and help me. Know what they said? Talk to our boy Jim Hall, he lives in Texas. So I called up Hall, and he said he didn't know the first damn thing about Indy cars; that I should get in contact with some German engineer at Ford, named Klaus Arning. So, after calling Ford and getting the run around, I hung up. About a day later, guess what? Arning calls me back. A couple of days later he shows up at my shop, measures the suspension geometry, flies back to Detroit, and runs those specs through that whiz-bang computer they have up there. The next day he calls me back, and says all I gotta do is put a skosh of castor in the rear uprights, and that should cure it. A couple days after that, I returned to Texas Speedway, and guess what? The thing drove like a dream. I thanked them, and said what do I owe you guys?"

"Arning said, 'Get rid of that damn Offy, and run our engine'. I said, okay, but don't expect me to pay the $30,000 a pop, you're charging everyone else." Tony winked. "Figured I'd call their bluff; you know, put your money where your mouth is."

"What did Arning say?"

"Arning said he had to check with the brass first. A week later this big Ford truck pulls up at my shop loaded with three Turbo Fords. A couple days after that, this guy named Leo Bebee shows up here in that shiny-new T-Bird you see outside, and says, those engine are yours no charge, but we want you to display our Blue Oval Badge on the nose of your racecar, and drive our GT40 in June at Le Mans. Deal?"

"I put out my hand and said, 'I'll probably have to give up my two Buick dealerships, but what the hell, Deal.' And this guy Bebee says, 'that car out there at the curb is yours'."

"Nice guys, those Ford folks. You know, my daddy was a dyed-in-the- wool Ford man-- 'Flatheads Forever', and all the crap--so I'm actually kinda okay with this. And my daddy? He's one happy fella."

"Sounds good."

"I'll be honest; I'm one ornery sumbitch, but everyone wants to give me stuff. That's what winning will do for you."

They were cruising along I-35 in Tony's T-Bird, when a rad light flashed in the rear-view mirror. "Awe hell," said Tony, pulling off to the side.

The motorcycle cop stopped behind them, dismounted and walked up. "Do you know how fast you were going just know?" he said. "Ninety miles-an-hour."

Tony removed his aviator shades, smiled, looked up, and said, "Is that so?"

"Yeah that's so, smart ass. Hey, wait, I know you. You're Tony Dayton, aren't you? I should have known when I saw that plate of yours. I can't give you a ticket--my boss will kill me. I'm just going to have to let you go, here? But first, give me your autograph."

"See that?" said Tony, as he accelerated back up to speed. "People I never met before, give me stuff. That there ticket could have cost me fifty bucks, easy. The cop recognizes me, and just lets me off the hook. That's what winning will do for you. By the way, you're a Ford runner aren't you; what are they charging you to run their engines?"

"Not a dime."

Dayton smiled. "Good for you. Like I always say, winning changes everything. Everyone else waits in line and pays retail, while they put us at the front of the line, and waive us through, no charge. Don't seem right, somehow, but who are we to question it? We're the poor slobs who put our asses on the line, every damn weekend."

Tony turned off the expressway, and after about five miles, stopped in front of a palatial ranch house. In back were several barns, a horse pasture, and what looked like a rodeo ring. "This here's my place. Before I put the steaks on the grill, I want to show you what we done to that racecar you were kind enough to give us."

Tony led Wager back behind his house to a barn that had been converted into a car shop. The shop was cluttered with various dirt bikes, go-carts, sprint cars, champ cars, and several Indy cars, including the one that Dayton had driven to victory at Indy in 1967. In the center of the shop, under a single bright light was the new ARS Indy car, newly repainted a color that Tony described as 'Warm Poppy Red.' "That's the color Ford used on the sixty-five Mustang, if you can believe it." On either flank was lettered "The Texaco Star".

"I see Texaco's still sponsoring you," said Wagner. "Although I got to say I hardly recognize this as the car we shipped you."

"You know," said Dayton, "Hacksaw's still got it, he can still design a decent Indy car, although he missed big time on the suspension. Without Ford's involvement I don't think we'd make the show this year."

"I see you've already replaced your Offy with a Ford."

"Oh, yeah," Tony said, "anything to make the suits happy. Now, how about that steak. How you want it."

"Medium well, but first I got to check in with the hospital, to see how Susan's doing."

"That's right, you're about to become a daddy. Congratulations, and congratulations on your marriage to that journalist girl. Word was, she dumped you."

"She did."

"How'd you win her back?" if you don't mind me asking."

"I don't. Let's see, oh, around Christmas last year, I boarded a plane bound for Chicago, ready to get down on my knees and beg her for forgiveness, if I had to. But you know what? She was glad to see me. I couldn't believe it, until she told me she was pregnant."

"Really? Wow. So you ended up getting married? I'm happy for the both of you. I didn't know either of you that well back then, but I could see you were in love. By the way, don't let me stop you from leaving, but let's first see about those steaks. After that I'll drive you back to the airport."

"You don't have to do that; I'll call a cab."

"What do you mean, 'you'll call a cab'? We're teammates remember? Ford teammates. And I got that wonderful T-Bird waiting at the curb, just itching to go. You know, this might be the start of a beautiful friendship."

"'Casa Blanca,' right?"

"That's right, one of them commie Hollywood movies; but don't stop my train of thought just now, hear? Diane's baking us some beautiful russet potatoes, and I got some of my famous chili, sitting in the fridge, just waiting to be heated up. And wait 'till you see those gorgeous cuts of beef. Once I feed you, you won't want to leave."

"That's just it, I will have to leave--at some point."

"Right. While there's still time, let me take you out back and show you what I really care about--my horses."

Tony started a fire under the grill, and led Wagner to the corral where he kept his prized broncos. "I didn't really get good racing dirt cars until I got good riding these here bucking broncos. It's all about balance, whether riding one of my broncos here, or driving a sprint car on some dirt oval. If you can ride a bronco without getting thrown, why, you'll be good as gold driving a sprint car. I guarantee it. They don't call these small dirt ovals 'bullrings' for nothing."

"Wait, Tony, you're not suggesting that I ride one of these bucking horses today?"

"Naw, after dinner. Come on, let's get back to the grill and see about them steaks. I got all kinds of stuff I want to show you. But first, let's eat. I also want to show you the right way to grill a good steak. This here beef I'm about to serve is prime; it should never be cooked medium well, uh-huh, no. Not this beautiful meat; it'd be a crime. Let me grill yours medium rare, okay? If it's too red for you, I'll grill it to your liking; I may cry. but I'll do it."

"Fine, but let me check with Susie first."

"Good idea, Jack."

* * *

"Susan's not due for another couple of days," Wagner announced walking into the kitchen. "Mmm. What's that's smell?"

"My world famous chili. It's spicy, but I think you're man enough to appreciate it. It's got my homegrown Texas chili peppers, that I've added to brighten up the taste a bit. You'll love it."

The chili was spicy hot, but with enough chopped onions piled on, and lots of grated cheese, Wagner managed to enjoy it. He also enjoyed Tony's median-rare prime cut steak (not too bloody), as well as the fresh salad Diane prepared; a mix of sliced tomatoes, avocado, crisp greens, all coated with chunky Roquefort dressing . He particularly relished Tony's fresh keg of beer, beer that Tony served in frosted German steins.

"That may have been the best meal I've ever had," Wagner said, rising.

"What's your hurry? Sit down. Diane's about to serve her world-famous apple pie. Just thinking about it makes me wanna cry."

Diane winked at Wagner. "People think Tony's such a tough guy, but down deep inside he's really a big softy."

"That's right, Diane, give Jack some hope that he can beat me."

After dinner, it was decided Wagner would spend the night. Afterwards, the pair competed on Tony's go-cart track, where Tony beat Wagner handily. Before turning in, Tony beat Wagner again, this time on the pool table. After that, Tony beat him at a game of darts, as well as a game of "Texas Holdem", where, betting nickels, dimes and quarters, Wagner lost $38.50.

"It's just not my night," Wagner lamented as headed off to bed.

In the morning, after a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage paddies, and a stack of Diane's buttermilk pancakes, Wagner tried his hand at riding one of Tony's prized broncos. He hung on grimly for about half-a-minute, and was unceremoniously thrown on his butt.

Tony laughed, "I'll say this, Jack, you never give up."

Wagner felt battered, bruised and defeated, but he said emphatically "You're right, Tony, I never give up, and don't try and stop me, but I'm giving that horse of yours another chance to try and throw me."

This time, Wagner managed to get his bearing, lean back in the saddle, and hung on until the horse stopped bucking.

"Not bad, Jack," said the Texan. "By the way, while you were riding, Diane got a phone call from the hospital. The baby is expected some time this afternoon. After lunch, I'll run you out to the airport; what do you say?"

"I say, what's for lunch? More chili, I hope."

When Wagner arrived at the hospital in Denver, he learned the baby had already been delivered. He rushed to Susan's room, and was surprised to find his crew chief, holding his infant son.

- END -

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