Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Excerpt: The Vatican Caper.

Alfetta 159.  (Ericd/Wiki/English)

Zach Neal

The FB-5 was an impressive car. It was also a couple of years out of date when compared to the best European machines. There was no substitute for cubic inches, but you could only do so much with an aging chassis. While he knew his chances of winning races were not too good, he had to try and make the best of the opportunities that presented themselves. It was a strong chassis, which offered its own kind of confidence. The motor was more power than he’d ever had before, especially in terms of pure torque, which took some mastering.
It was a chorus of banshees.
He fell in love the moment he heard it, all those long years ago, standing at the gate of their county fair with his Uncle Phil, long since departed now.
The howl of a high-compression engine at top revs pushing through a set of finely-tuned headers and out of a free-flow exhaust system was a reward in itself, and one of the reasons why he was here.
The sounds of the crowd, the jostling of strangers, it all faded into nothing and he was alone with the sound, even as Phil dragged the bewitched youngster by the shoulder to see his first race, a dirt-track affair that was as eventful as any before or since. With cars spinning, crashing, flying through the air and coming to rest upside down against the guardrail, the announcer shouting and men running in a haze of smoke and steam, orange  tongues of flame licking up from exposed car-guts, young Danny as he was called then would never forget it. The fact that they couldn’t even get near the winner’s circle, where a fellow called Manny Oravic was basking in the adulation and being sun-tanned by photo-flash added to the overall impression, which was a lasting one. Boys look for heroes and these guys were automotive gladiators—it said so right on the front page of the Otumwa Gazette come first thing Monday morning.
“His eyes were as wide as sausages.” Phil was always saying things like that.
When he let off on the throttle, the engine burbled and sputtered, with the high-octane gas and the spark fairly well advanced. He’d had thirty thousandths milled off the head and he had hand-ground the ports, intake and exhaust, and made numerous other modifications which all had one proviso, in that it took only labour, and not a lot of expensive parts or special tools. The car was running all right, and that really meant something when Dan Thornton said it.
They called him the Master of Darkness, or ‘Dunkelheit-Meister’ in the German-language papers, not exactly his favourite moniker, and it was raining now. They said the next couple of seasons would show whether he would become a driver worthy of contending for the World Championship, where races were few and the number of seats limited. That was, if he didn’t kill himself first. Some said he was a talented amateur, and that almost any driver could win races in a superior machine. They said it was a fluke of luck on his part to get a semi-permanent ride last year, with a team that was very much an also-ran, and yet somehow Barrett’s development program over the winter had wrought a miracle.
If Barrett was a joke at first, his drivers were the ultimate non-persons. That was nothing new to Dan. He just let it slide right off of him, and ignored that slight burning sensation in the guts.
American circle-track racing wasn’t that impressive to the European automotive journalists, and they didn’t take much interest in such crudity. If, in the beginning, they had seriously underrated him, it was hard to say if it had any effect on getting rides. At first, he bought the seats using his life savings, or rather the money his grandmother had left him. He was her only heir, and the farm worth a lot of money. After the depths of the depression, things back home were looking up. Even then, the price had been maybe a bit low, but luckily the place was a going concern with no big debts. Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money in anyone’s book, but he had been shocked at just how easy it was to spend it, too.
His first season was a mess, and he really only started learning his way around the major circuits in his second season. This season, his third, was different so far. They knew his name now.
Builder Fred Barrett showed up for his first season with a supercharged Fuller V-8 in the FB-5 chassis, and when Harry Oliver got sick, the first driver who came calling was Thornton. He could speak English and several other languages, he had some experience, and he seemed to understand the machine. Fred was looking to replace second driver Tony Work as he was unhappy and wanted to go back to the States and see what he could pick up there. Harry Oliver decided to go back home to recuperate, and that’s when Thornton signed on. Barrett dropped plans for a second car when the cost of running over here came home to him.
Yes, Barrett knew his name, but then old Fred never forgot a name. Thornton had seen him around, but at the time he was just another racer. They had no great reputation at the time, and they didn’t have much going for them now.
The unknown from Otumwa, quite a mouthful in English, let alone French or Italian, had become something of a sensation by winning his first race, a small, misbegotten little racing club’s hill-climb in the Ardennes, the first season, and then placing in the top three in the next couple of attempts. These were all small hill-climbs and sports car races for the one and a half litre voiturettes. He bought the rides, but Barrett and a few others must have been impressed. Maybe they were reading more into it than was really there, but it was welcome at the time. The prize-money was nothing, but the experience was precious, or so Barrett said.
They were pretty forgettable races in some ways. The Ardennes Classic was typical. The circuit was unsuitable for the big Grand Prix cars, as it was short, bumpy and full of tight turns, and there was no appearance money or major sponsors, so even the big-name privateers stayed away.
The accommodation was abysmal, the people rude and uncaring, out to root for the local boys and see the tall Yanks and their surprisingly numerous Brit counterparts pay the price of their folly. For the winner, there was some grudging respect, and at least they got out of the place intact. There were no poor-loser quibbles about payment, or taking the trophy with them or anything. As far as they knew, the hotel-bill had been paid by Barrett’s tire sponsor and that was all they cared about.
It made him a little cautious about how he defined himself, after reading what other people thought of him. He had learned that much. He was, at least temporarily, a bare eighth in the European hill-climbing points race, and consequently disliked by the fans of more than one nation.
It was too early in the season and all of that could change. As he drove, he changed gears carefully and kept both hands on the wheel as much as practicable. Dan always wore the belts, but knew a few so-called professional drivers who didn’t, not on the track or on a public highway. It was easy to get lost in your thoughts and sort of lose sight of the road.
That was where the pressure came from. Success brought its own set of unique challenges. He was still an outsider, although he had picked up many acquaintances and even a few friends over the last three years. His innate ability to pick up a smattering of the languages, in a fairly short time, had something to do with that. It was something he had never expected. He had surprised himself with his ability. The racing community was cosmopolitan to begin with, and there were quite a few other Americans around of course.
It was very dark once he was away from cities and towns, in the hinterland where the cold and the night ruled. The warm light in the occasional farmhouse windows were pleasant reminders of home, and food, and comfort. Home is where the heart is. He shook his head with a rueful grin. Glancing at the mirror, shifting his head slightly for a moment, there was the bare suggestion of an intelligent brow and a pair of sardonic brown eyes, with crinkles of humour at the corners reflected back at him.
That’s me, all right. At least he wasn’t repulsively ugly. It was just his way of thinking sometimes. The fellow in the mirror seemed awfully calm, and that was a good thing. He looked like a confident man, even to himself and when he really ought to have known better.
Dan Thornton was shifting at about 4,500 revs, and not stomping the throttle or the brake or anything like that too much, but the car was competent and in this weather there were few other drivers out there. Dan’s left-hand drive MG, high on the miles and bought for a hundred and fifty dollars from a Swiss bus company owner, ready to retire from business and tiring of sponsoring the sport, was old but serviceable. It was better than one or two cars he had driven. It was after midnight, and outside of village or town limits, as a general rule folks in this part of the world went to bed pretty early. Mutt, a slightly-overweight English Bull Terrier, slept soundly on the floorboards to his right, oblivious to the thud of the tires over the railroad crossings and the squeal of the back ones when they warmed up from wheel-spin, a persistent problem he had learned to deal with on wet surfaces. There was a time for caution, as the car didn’t have a whole lot of ground clearance on the back end, and he tried to hit railway tracks and things in a reasonable manner. The way things were going, sooner or later he would have to get rid of the dog, but he knew he would hate himself too much, and so he was putting it off. There were times when it felt like the dog was his only real friend in the world. There was a world of difference between the FB-5 and the MG.
None of that mattered right then. What mattered was the way the road dropped over a rise, with a pale outline of a barn on the left and a lot of trees on the right. There was some suggestion, however tenuous and peripheral, that the road went left. What mattered was that he had a date with Teddy, and he was running short of funds.
The hiss of the tires was a reminder of mortality. Life was such a fleeting thing, and Dan Thornton had never wasted a moment of it.
It was coming up fast, with the low stone wall on his right stark in his headlamps, and then the speck of a reflective marker tended to confirm his intuitive analysis as he let off the gas, touched the brakes, and dropping her down a gear, crunching them just a bit, he let out the clutch again at low revs to bring her out and around on the slick surface. He thought he saw the white form of a goat, leaping up and going nowhere in his peripheral vision and then there were definitely forms moving in the farmyard. So far the night was unseasonably warm, even at this altitude, and there was no sign of snow.
People said he was good, but he wondered sometimes. They knew something he didn’t, maybe, but then he also knew the fear that comes in the night, not so much when he was driving as when he wasn’t. This was his element.
His windshield wipers whispered back and forth, and there was a faint, intermittent creak from the cranks up under the bulkhead. A vehicle coming the other way overwhelmed him with spray for a moment. The only thing to do was to back off and wait to regain visibility again.
The rain glistened under a dim illumination up ahead, and the car steadied up after a sinuous but perfectly balanced skid. He was making good time, and there was no need to take unnecessary risks when he wasn’t being paid to do so. A weekend in Monte would do him some good, and while he wasn’t much of a gambler himself—he always told people that he preferred to rely on skill—the fact was that he enjoyed the company of those who did very much indeed. The next race wasn’t for a couple of weeks. It was good to get away from Barrett and the boys from time to time as well.
Another crossroads went past under the bonnet, and he noted the name. Not much longer now and the road would widen out a bit and get better. This really was the boondocks, with the oasis of light and colour that was Monte just over the next set of hills. It was actually easier to get there from Italy.
It was the sybaritic indulgence of every whim, in the most trivial of pursuits. It was the ruthless pursuit of pleasure, a world where there were no winners, only big-time losers who just shrugged and ordered more champagne. It was what he needed to take him away from the competitive and pressured world he had once hoped to dominate, not all that long ago. Now he knew it would take a little more time. He also knew that if it didn’t happen this year or the next, it would probably never happen. His most secret fear was that he was going blind, although several doctors had so far denied it. It was like somehow he knew better than they did.
He backed off on the throttle and leveled her out at seventy miles per hour on a straight stretch with the lights of what looked like a small village just around a curve of the looming hillside up on the right. He didn’t think she would go much faster anyhow. Dan knew something they didn’t, which was that there were times in the night when he wondered why he couldn’t see better, for he seemed to remember it otherwise just a couple of short years ago, and he wondered if maybe luck had sort of played him foul, in the sense that he had gotten into the game rather late in life. He would have done it sooner if he could, but cars run on money, and racing cars run on bags and bags of it. Most races were short, and ran in the daytime, but the endurance races had more challenge, more glamour, and more recognition, or he might have simply ignored them. They also ran into the night, or at Le Mans, all night.
He wondered if someone somewhere was whispering that he drove like an old man. There were times when he wished they could make the headlights a little brighter, or even the windshield a little cleaner, or that maybe his glasses, which he wore when he was all alone and no one was looking, a little stronger.
He had never discussed these fears or even valid concerns with anybody, not even Barrett, and had no plans to do so anytime soon. He squeezed the throttle a little harder underfoot, a natural reaction to his mood. The biological clock would always be ticking in the background. It was something he just had to accept. He would talk about it when he was ready.
It wasn’t like he had a long-term contract or anything.

END of Excerpt.

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