By Adam Ford
I pulled into the dirt parking lot. A small cloud of dust kicked up, then settled around my car. The black paint had a newly-washed shine but it wasn’t going to stay that way for long—the settling dust was only the first coat of many—it was race day. I scanned the parking lot at the other vehicles assembled there—the usual assortment of old and older, polished and rusty, some that I recognized as familiar foes, others unknown.
I walked over to Carl, the track manager. He was standing by the gates to the track grounds with his clipboard, studying it as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered. He glanced up as I approached.
“How’s the field look today?” I asked.
He ran his hand down the list of entrants on his board. “I’d bet on the blue car,” he said, then nodded in the direction of the other cars parked in the lot. There were a few blue-colored cars in the mix, but I knew immediately which one he was talking about. It was a TR4, like mine, but painted in the brightest sky-blue imaginable—joyful and brilliant like the brightest summer day. It wasn’t a car that I’d ever seen at the track and I wondered about its history.
“Who’s the driver?” I asked.
Carl almost nearly smiled, which would have seriously thrown me for a loop. He was the kindest man you ever could meet, but he was no-nonsense and ran his track his way, without any fussing. He just turned the clipboard toward me and tapped his finger next to an entry: “Triumph TR4; color, blue; driver, Blue Valiant.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
Carl tipped his head in a kind of half shrug. “Pretty sweet name if you ask me.”
On some level, I had to agree, but I wanted to find out more about this new driver. I checked in with Carl, then headed over to the blue car. From a distance, it looked pristine, but up close, I could see the wear, the little edges of rust creeping in, the slight dullness of the paint. But that didn’t detract from its blueness. The driver was really living up to his name. The seats were a rich dark blue, accented with cyan, the carpeting was midnight blue, and even the dashboard and steering wheel, both matching burled wood, were stained a deep blue. The wheel rims matched the sky-blue color of the car and, standing there and looking at it, I thought “that’s too much blue,” but somehow, it all worked.
I stood there for a bit, hoping that Mr. Valiant would spot me and come over to chat, but the drivers in the parking lot were either talking in groups or tending to their vehicles and no one made a motion to come my way. I gave up and headed into the racetrack.
The first race of the day was the TR6’s, some Jags, and a crop of rubber-bumpered MGs. I sat in the stands and watched the dust clouds billow up when the pack hit the dirt section of the track. It was dry today, and while that meant predictable surface under the tires and no mud to contend with, it did offer the complication of reduced visibility. It was also quite calm at this time of the morning and the kicked-up dust tended to hover over the track and slowly dissipate, rather than being blown away.
The race was exciting for a while, but as cars scratched out or just lost speed, it became an exercise in watching the leading cars—separated by too many car-lengths to effect change in the standings—circle the track to the checkered flag. I left the stands with a couple laps to go and headed out to my car to bring it into the staging area. The blue car was still sitting unattended as I fired up my TR4 and pointed it through the gates. This was a good car. I’d had a number of TR4s, but this one seemed to just run right, all the time. If I couldn’t drive this black beauty, I didn’t race.
There were 16 cars in my race today—four rows of four—and I pulled the rightmost starting position in the second row. It wasn’t a bad spot, actually. The track had a broad left turn at the end of the first straightaway, but that transitioned immediately into a hard right, bringing the cars back around to being almost in line with the stretch of track that they’d just left, as if someone had stuck their thumb into the straight, forming what the locals called “the nub.” If I could run hot into the first turn and get outside the front row, I had a chance to get the inside line on the next corner. That was the plan, anyway. It all depended on who was driving the four cars in the front row and how sprightly their cars were feeling today. The man in the pole position was my friend Dave in his battered and barely-running MGB. He had a reputation for grinding to an unexpected stop at some point in every race, quickly hopping out and fiddling with something under the bonnet, then gamely continuing on to finish the race, most often in last place (of the cars that actually crossed the finish line).
I scanned over the field of competitors this morning—mostly MGs, a couple of Austin Healeys, one Jensen that looked too nice to be out on a track, and three TR4s, including mine. The blue TR4 was just pulling into the left-most spot on the back row—the last car to line up. Mr. Valiant was sporting, of course, a blue helmet but was looking away at the track official. I put my own helmet on and prepared to race.
I got a good jump at the flag, but was hampered by the slower MG in front of me and had to settle into the pack for the first few turns. At the changeover from asphalt to packed dirt was where the first round of separation usually occurred. I kept up with the leaders and as the rampage of little cars sent the first waves of dust into the air, the more timid or less experienced drivers fell back, testing the traction with their skinny tires through the big sweeping right and the esses. By the time we all popped back out onto pavement there was a front group of about seven cars, with the rest of the field stretched out behind us. Dave was holding the lead but a yellow MG pulled past him on the back straight, and a black-and-red Healey that had started in the second row with me was nipping his rear bumper. No sign of the blue TR4.
After one lap, the Healey had taken first and I roared past Dave to sit in fourth. A good place to be for a while, I figured. I could plan my passes as I watched the movements of the cars ahead. And if this was a day when I couldn’t sneak past them, well then fourth was an acceptable finish. Of course, I wanted to win—I always wanted to win. But if I couldn’t win, I’d rather finish somewhere respectably back in the top ten. The worst finish, the one that I loathed, was second. Coming in second would set me on edge for days, thinking back over every turn, every decision, to figure out why I hadn’t won. It was so much easier to just have an “off day” and chalk it up to fate than to know that whatever I did out on the track that day, it wasn’t enough.
By the fifth lap—halfway through the race—it was me and the Healey, with a few MGs just behind us. I had forgotten about the blue Triumph until I was getting ready for a run at the leader on the back stretch. I checked my mirror as we came out of the dirt esses to make sure that I could slip around him when I was surprised by a bolt of bright blue, exploding out of the cloud of dust behind us and sneaking up on my tail. I instinctively moved to cut him off but that lost my chance at getting around the Healey. Where had he come from? From the few times I’d glanced back over the cars behind us, he’d been nowhere. He must have been at the back of the pack and now here he was, gunning for my spot and the lead. How did he do that?
“Well, Prince Valiant,” I said to myself as we sailed into the big left that would bring us to the last set of esses before the front straightaway, “let’s see what you’ve got.”
It became a battle. The Healey stubbornly clung to the lead, and I just as stubbornly clung to second, but the blue car was tenacious, and as I watched both front and behind, I sensed that maybe Carl was right—bet on the blue car. A few laps later, it happened. The blue car snuck up on my inside as I was paying attention to the Healey and slipped by as we rounded the nub. It only took a couple of seconds, but those seconds seemed to last an eternity. Why? As I swung my head around to assess the challenger to my spot, the driver of the blue car turned, looked right in my eyes, and, with a slight smile on her face, winked. Maybe it was the way my eyes locked on hers, maybe it was the sudden realization of the identity of my opponent, maybe it was the swirl of hair flowing out from below the edge of the helmet or the cut of her cheekbone or the upturned corner of her lips—maybe it was everything. But whatever it was, by the time the wink was over, I was in third place and the blue TR4 was closing in on the Healey.
I felt foolish and exhilarated all at the same time and i pushed my little car forward, hungering to make up the lost spot. I watched as Blue deftly challenged the Healey, setting her Triumph so close to him that he had no choice but to flare out, ceding her the line, not wishing to exchange stripes of paint with the blue car. Seeing her successful finesse of the Healey, I did the same, daring him to kiss my fender with his and as before, he moved aside so that I could push past him toward my goal—chasing down that other TR4.
The last laps were a dance, each car asserting itself or yielding in turns. I squeaked out the lead on the dirt, she gained it back on the tar. We jockeyed for position in the esses to hammer down the straightaway, neither driver giving a millimeter. And just like that, there was the white flag. One more lap, and I was on the inside of the straight—not where i wanted to be. I eased up and dodged around the back of the blue car, reappearing on her right heading into the nub. The tactic worked, as I gained the lead again heading onto the dirt, but she’d been studying me and learning as we battled it out, and this time in the dirt, she slid around me and grabbed the lead again going into the back straight.
Three more turns. Three more turns between first and second, between glory and anguish. I raced as fast as I dared take my screaming engine on that straightaway, but Blue raced faster. She held the big left, I pushed ahead on the first ess but her positioning was better and she came out onto the home stretch with her nose ahead of mine, pulling slightly away as we roared under the checkered flag.
I was spent. I cruised all the way around the track, watching the temperature gauge slowly settle back down out of the red as the breeze played across my sweat-streaked face. I pulled off of the track into the staging area and up to the blue TR4. Blue was just getting out. She turned to me and grinned, then tossed her helmet into the car in the kind of casual way that I could never muster and strode over to me, hand outstretched.
“Nice race,” I said, shaking her hand. It was a firm grip, solid, steady. She seemed as relaxed as if she’d just walked out onto a sundeck at a party.
“Our friend in the Healey may feel we ganged up on him,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. That was all I could think of to say. She paused just for a second—smiled and winked, then turned to get her trophy from Carl. I looked over at him and he gave me a little half shrug as if to say, “I told you to bet on the blue car.”
Blue got the trophy, I got the dreaded second place. My black beauty performed as well as it ever had. Blue performed better. It was the best race of my life.