It wasn't that he didn't like going fast. Mitchell Baker had been driving fast cars all his life. It was just that, sometimes, he really wanted to take things slow. To stop and smell the petunias, his Nana had always said, even though Mitch didn't exactly know what petunias smelled like.
The random phrase popped up at weird times, like now, when he was trying to finish his qualifying round. Mitch knew he should be concentrating on how the number nine car was way too close to his left bumper. That was Danny Abrams. Mitch could see the bright red car with white sponsor stickers splashed all over it.
"Let me in, fucker," Mitchell muttered, forgetting his mic was on and his crew chief could hear him.
"Whassat, Mitch?" Jarvis squawked in his ear. "You got two more laps, buddy."
"Got it. I know." For a minute, Mitch considered turning his radio off altogether, but knew what kind of fuss Jarvis would make. It wasn't worth it. Mitch would just remember to shut up until qualifying was over.
Danny stayed where he was, of course, because it gave him the advantage of drafting off Mitch's car as well as staying close to the inside. Mitch would have done the same thing if he'd managed to snag the spot.
It was forever a competition between him and Danny Abrams. Mitch pretty much hated the guy after ten years of racing with him. Danny had come by his status and his money the easy way: he'd inherited it. It had gotten him a spot on a good race team, a house on the Carolina shore, and a wife that looked more plastic than real. Mitch could stand the guy less and less with each passing year.
And the years were definitely passing. Mitchell's father had emailed him an article last year titled "ASCRA's Battle of the Ages." Mitch had known what it would be about before reading it, but had tortured himself with it anyway.
The American Stock Car Racing Association was about money. Oh, it hadn't always been that way. Mitch had listened to plenty of retired drivers talk about the days of stock car racing when it was about the actual competition. The thrill of the win, the agony of the loss. Those things were still present, but made much more palatable for owners and teams and drivers by the simple fact of cold, hard cash.
And who were the ones responsible for bringing in that cash? The young, good-looking, bright drivers. That's who the sponsors wanted and that's who they got. Hand over a big budget and a reasonably talented driver to a team and just watch the money roll in.
Mitch sighed inwardly and tried to refocus. The fact that he was getting on in years--thirty-five used to sound young, but now it sounded ancient--coupled with the fact that he was just plain tired some days made the whole idea of racing for ten more years really hard to swallow. After Joel Dacey's victorious season in '99 at the age of forty-two, no driver over the age of thirty-six had ever won a championship.
The crackle of static and then Jarvis' voice in his earpiece brought Mitch's thoughts around to where they were supposed to be. Danny had edged ahead of him on Mitch's left. A glance through the window net revealed Danny giving a brief wave before shifting into a new gear and leaping forward.
"Ass," Mitch mumbled, sliding into the spot directly behind Danny and just in front of the number seventeen car that had been tailing him for nine laps.
They finished just like that: Danny, then Mitch, then number seventeen. Seventeen was Tim Calhoun. Timmy was a good driver and a decent guy; there were times Mitch felt guilty about beating him because Tim had such a good attitude about losing.
Mitch pulled into his pit and let the crew swarm around his car. He took off his helmet and wiped at the hair that was plastered to his forehead. Fuck, it got hot inside his car.
"That was good, Mitch! Good finish!" Jarvis was grinning at Mitch outside the window net.
"Was okay. Fucking Abrams." Mitch rolled his eyes and ripped the net off. He pulled himself out through the window and dropped down to the ground, tugging at his gloves.
"Doesn't matter, doesn't matter," Jarvis placated. "Both of y'all qualified for starting spots anyway. We'll show him at Daytona, right? 'Course we will. Johnny, for fuck's sake, why the hell are you changing that tire?"