The last thing on 16-year-old Jess DeLand’s wish list is a boyfriend. She’d have to be crazy to think any guy would look twice at her. Besides, there are more important things to hope for, like a job working on cars and an end to her mom’s drinking. Foster care is a constant threat, and Jess is willing to sacrifice anything to stay out of the system. When luck hands her the chance to work on a race car, she finds herself rushing full throttle into a world of opportunities—including a boy who doesn’t mind the grease under her fingernails. The question is, can a girl who keeps herself locked up tighter than Richard Petty’s racing secrets open up enough to risk friendship and her first romance?
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If it hadn’t been for Teri Sue Cline’s Southern drawl, I’d probably still be sitting in the stands at Eugene Speedway, wishing I had the nerve to talk to one of the drivers. It was pure luck that I was even in the pits to hear her. Every other race I’d been to, I’d waited until after the show to look at the cars. But for some reason on that last Saturday night in April, I felt oddly confident, so I slapped down twelve dollars for a pit pass instead of the usual seven for a seat in the stands.
It was a warm afternoon, sunny and blue-skied after a wet, gloomy week, and the loudspeaker blared a tinny rendition of The Dance by that popular new country singer, Garth Brooks. Just walking through the infield gave me goose bumps. I felt my face stretch into a grin as the something’s-going-to-happen electricity seeped through my skin and into my bloodstream. Some people might get that feeling at a state fair or rodeo, but it had always been the speedway that stirred it up in me. The excitement couldn’t quite burn through my self-consciousness, though. Not one of the drivers knew me, and I doubted they’d want a stranger drooling all over their cars. Especially if that stranger happened to be a sixteen-year-old girl.
I headed for the Street Stocks first. Being the entry-level class, they were less intimidating than the Limited Sportsmen or Super Stocks. My Nike-wanna-bes scuffed the asphalt as I walked down the row, air pulsating around me in a symphony of growling engines, shrieking tires, and excited voices. With the bright, sharp odor of racing fuel teasing my nose, my nervousness began to melt away.
I stopped at a car I didn’t recognize from last year, a baby blue Camaro with pink and yellow lettering. The number 70 blazed from the roof and doors in shocking pink. Even though I didn’t think much of the current neon craze, I had to admit the colors looked good on this car.
“Son of a bitch!”
A wrench bounced across the pavement, landing inches from my toes. It was followed by a stream of swearing that made my cheeks go hot. The source of the tantrum, a guy with a beer-belly poking out from under his T-shirt, glared up at me from the ground beneath the rear end of the Camaro.
I took a step back.
The man’s fingers curled around the bumper. He hauled himself up and wiped an arm across his forehead, leaving behind a streak of grease. Jerking down his shirt, he shifted his look of annoyance from me to a girl standing a few feet away. Her blue firesuit nearly matched the color of the Camaro.
Whoa. How had she wound up with a race car? She didn’t look that much older than me.
The guy snatched a rag from his back pocket. “I can’t get the damned thing loose,” he said, rubbing at the grease on his hands so roughly you’d think it was the cause of his grief. “You’re just gonna have to race it like it is.”
The girl pushed herself off the wall. Hands on hips, she eyed him in a cool, disapproving manner.
“My daddy doesn’t pay you to tell me to race it like it is, George. And he sure doesn’t pay you to throw around tools he spent good money on.”
My jaw dropped at the smooth, sweet lilt of the girl’s voice. If it hadn’t been for her drawl, I would’ve walked away. Who wants to stand around listening to other people’s fights when there are so many you can’t escape? But this girl was clearly from the South, and I had to know what she was doing at a rinky-dink speedway like Eugene when she could’ve been hanging out at Rockingham or Daytona.
Looking for an excuse to stick around, I bent down to pick up the shiny Craftsman wrench at my feet.
“I’ll tell ya what your daddy don’t pay me,” the man said, dusting off his jeans, which sagged over a practically non-existent behind. “He don’t pay me enough to bust my knuckles and take your lip. If you’re too proud to drive it the way it is, feel free to crawl under there yourself.”
He stalked off, but I didn’t see where to, because by that point, my attention was completely wrapped up in the girl. Like most, she had more going for her than I did, even though she wasn’t what you might call beautiful. Along with green eyes, a pale, freckled complexion, and softly curling hair a little too red to be blonde, she had a figure that was sort of—well-padded. But she held herself with a confidence that brought those things together to make her look good. At any rate, she looked better than me, with my mousy-brown ponytail tucked through the back of my Eugene Speedway cap and a shape that would’ve let me pass for a twelve-year-old boy.
I realized I was gawking and held out the wrench, embarrassed I’d hung around eavesdropping.
The girl took it. “Thanks,” she said, a friendly smile lighting up her face. Then, as if I’d blinked out of existence, she turned to rummage through the high-dollar toolbox sitting on one of her spare racing tires. After locating a can of WD-40, she lay down on the throw rug George had left under her car and scooted beneath the rear axle.
I’m pretty good with a wrench, and was tempted to offer my help, but I’d never worked on a race car. Besides, what driver was going to want an outsider messing with her equipment? Better to walk away.
I turned around, but before I could take a step, the girl swore in that sweet, twangy voice and reeled me back in. As if I could resist anything Southern. The South was where stock car racing was born. It was where I planned to move the second I got out of high school, so I could get a job on a Winston Cup pit crew.
Well, it couldn’t hurt to stick around for a few more minutes.
I squatted to look under the Camaro. The girl was struggling with a nut on one of the U-bolts that held the springs to the axle. The wrench in her hand didn’t offer much leverage. I glanced toward her toolbox, where a set of deep sockets gleamed in the slanting rays of late-afternoon sun. Not stopping to think, I picked one out, snapped it onto the end of a long-handled ratchet, and crouched beside her. When she turned to give me a curious look, my face prickled with heat.
“Uh . . . here,” I said, leaning forward to hand her the ratchet. “Try this.”
Without speaking, she took it and attacked one of the four bolts, attempting to take it all the way off without loosening the others. I didn’t want to tell her how to work on her own car, but I couldn’t sit there and watch her make the job harder than it needed to be.
“You’ll want to break them all loose, then take them off gradually,” I said. “Back each one off just a few turns at a time.”
She glanced at me, and my face did another supernova impression. Good going, Jess. Just piss off the first person you meet.
“Sorry.” I stood up and backed away. “None of my business—”
The girl’s hand darted out with a speed any cat would envy and latched onto the leg of my jeans. I took another step to keep from stumbling.
“Wait.” She wiggled out from under the car and sat up, pushing pale red hair out of her eyes with the back of her wrist. “Where’d y’all learn so much about cars?”
I shrugged, uneasy about having her full attention. “Books, I guess. And I’m taking auto shop.”
“You ever mess around with leaf springs?”
“Not much. What are you trying to do?”
“Add another leaf to this side. Only won’t this spring jump when I let the tension off?” Her freckles crinkled up in frown lines.
I crouched down again and studied how the two jacks were arranged under the spring and axle. “Not the way you’ve got things set up.”
The girl eyed the car as if it were a rottweiler that was simultaneously growling and wagging its tail.
“Maybe you’d do it for me?” Her eyebrows arched upward.
I blinked at her. Even with the howl of the Super Stocks hot lapping, I knew I’d heard right. I just couldn’t believe the words. No one but my shop teacher ever took me seriously as a mechanic.
Hope drained from the girl’s expression. “Never mind. I can figure it out my own self.”
“No—I mean, I’d be glad to. You just surprised me.”
“Well, I sure could use some help. That George ain’t gonna be any use.” She stood up and swatted her rear-end to get the dirt off her firesuit. “Name’s Teri Sue Cline,” she said, holding out her hand.
I had sense enough to shake it, even though I was so shocked it was all I could do to breathe. “Jess DeLand.”
Teri Sue grinned. “Well, girl, let’s get to work.”
* * *
The spring didn’t take long to fix. When I was finished, Teri Sue handed me a hot dog and Pepsi she’d gotten from the concession stand. I set them on the fender while I reached into my pocket for a couple of ones.
“Here you go.”
“Aw, put that away.” Teri Sue waved a hand at me. “I gotta show my gratitude somehow.”
“That’s okay. Like I said, I’m happy to help.” I held out the money, but Teri Sue ignored it.
“Take a look at this.” She lifted the hood and propped it up with a piece of aluminum tubing.
I had to give her credit. She’d known me less than an hour, and already she’d figured out how to get my attention. As uncomfortable as it made me to accept a free meal, I folded up the singles and put them away.
It was the first time I’d seen under the hood of a race car up close in full daylight. I drank in the details the way you gulp a glass of cold water on a hot summer day. All the unnecessary parts had been removed, leaving only what was needed to make the engine run. The brand-name, after-market equipment was clean and expertly installed. Nothing had been done halfway on this car. My hot dog disappeared without me even tasting it.
“Do people give you a hard time, being one of the only girls on the track?” I asked, stepping back so Teri Sue could shut the hood. While there were probably forty-five to fifty drivers between the three divisions, only four of them were women.
“Nah, not really. I’ve gotta put up with the occasional sexist comment, but I also get more than my fair share of attention.”
“Teri Sue!” called an aggravated voice from the pit road. “You need to get lined up for time trials.”
I glanced up to see the chief steward motioning toward the line of Street Stocks parked at the rear entrance to the track. He was scowling through a beard bushy enough to provide facial hair for three men.
“What’s with him?” I asked, making a mental note never to get on his bad side.
“Ted? Aw, he’s just naturally grumpy.” Teri Sue fished a small notepad and pen out of the bottom drawer of the toolbox and slapped them into my hand. “Could you get my times for me? The easiest way is to write ’em down for all the cars so we can figure out the line-up ourselves. Sometimes it takes the officials forever to post it.”
Teri Sue climbed into her car, tossed her strawberry blond curls over her shoulders, and pulled on a baby blue helmet that matched her firesuit. Unable to hold back a prickle of jealousy, I watched as she hooked the shoulder straps of her safety harness through the quick release buckle on the belt.
The man in the next pit over was helping his driver secure the window net, so I pulled Teri Sue’s from inside the door and clicked it into place.
“Thanks,” she said, flipping the ignition switch mounted to the roll cage. She pushed the starter button, and the engine roared to life.
Once again looking to the guy beside me for a cue, I stepped onto the pit road to guide Teri Sue in backing up. I might not have any experience with race cars, but so long as there were people to watch, I’d have no problem figuring things out.
The Camaro pulled away, and I took a second to slip two dollars into a small drawer in Teri Sue’s toolbox. By the time she found the money, I’d be long gone. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate her generosity. I just felt better knowing I didn’t owe anything to anyone.
The loudspeaker crackled. “First up in our Street Stock division is Dallas Sauter. He got edged out of the 1989 championship, but it’s a whole new decade, folks, and he’s currently leading the points.”
I sat down on a stack of tires and opened Teri Sue’s notebook to a fresh page. One by one, the Street Stocks began pulling onto the track. I sipped my Pepsi as I wrote down each car number and its times.
Around me, drivers and crew from the higher divisions hustled to make last minute adjustments, working together like they’d known each other all their lives. That was something I’d always envied about people at the track. They were like one big family. Every week, as I sat alone in the stands, my ears would ring from all the whooping and hollering of wives, children, cousins, and friends, decked out in T-shirts and jackets that advertised their favorite driver. After the races, they’d hurry down to the pits, where kids would climb into cars or beg for autographs while everyone recounted the most exciting moments of the evening. I’d wanted to be part of all that since I’d started coming to the track when I was ten. I could hardly believe I was finally getting a taste, even if it was for only one night.
The purple #84 completed its second lap, and Teri Sue pulled onto the asphalt. She circled once to get up to speed before the flagman threw the green. Her first time put her mid-range in the pack. The next was less than three hundredths of a second off the first. That meant she was consistent—an important quality in a driver.
Using the best times, I made an ordered list of car numbers to get the lineup for the main event. The pack of fifteen would be split in two, with the top half in the fast heat and the bottom half in the slow one. The four quickest drivers from each heat would also race in the trophy dashes. Teri Sue had earned a spot in one of those. Even though she’d timed in slowest of the cars in her dash, she’d have the pole because at Eugene they inverted the pack. That stirred things up a little, giving the slow drivers half a chance and making the fast ones work for a win.
Teri Sue pulled into the pits. “How’d I do?” she asked as she climbed out of the car. I held up the notebook for her to see.
Her forehead scrunched up. “I’m in the slow heat and ‘B’ dash again.” The irritation vanished as quickly as it appeared. “Oh well. Least I have a chance of winning there. In the fast heat, I’d really be outclassed.”
She took the notebook and studied it. “Danny Lamar and Kit McKenzie are in my dash. They’re pretty good. And then there’s Cody Everett. He qualifies fast, but he can’t hold his own in competition. Guess he doesn’t have much experience.” She shot me a grin. “He’s only sixteen. Just a young’un, like you.”
I fought off a twinge of annoyance. I was no “young’un.” I’d been taking care of myself for years.
Teri Sue pawed through an old milk crate on the ground beside the toolbox, coming up with a ball cap that had a Charlotte Motor Speedway logo embroidered across the front. She shook it out and stuck it over her helmet-flattened hair, pulling her curls through the back so they formed a bushy ponytail. “Now, Cody’s uncle—he can drive a race car.”
“Who’s his uncle?” I’d had to work the past few Saturdays, so I wasn’t up to speed on this season’s new drivers.
“Race Morgan. You know, in Limited Sportsman?”
“Are you kidding?” I looked across the pits to where Cody’s Dart sat, and then over at the line of upper division cars waiting to time in. One glance confirmed it. The black #13 Street Stock was almost a mirror image of Race Morgan’s #8 Sportsman. Both were ’74 Darts with that distinctive squared-off body style. They also sported similar red, blue, and yellow graphics. The main difference, at least in outward appearance, was that Race’s car was more than a little worse for wear, having been through a few encounters with the wall and one spectacular roll-over.
“I’d heard Race got saddled with his nephew last year,” I said. “But I thought the kid was a juvenile delinquent.”
Teri Sue shrugged. “Maybe Morgan reformed him.”
“Maybe so. Everyone talks about what a great guy he is.” I continued to stare across the pits, waiting for my favorite driver to take to the track. Race was young—in his mid-twenties—and drove with a smooth confidence that made him a lot of fun to watch. I’d never seen him back down from a challenge, but he wasn’t one of those aggressive types who pushed everyone around. He just didn’t seem to have any fear. Unlike myself. I’d never even had the courage to ask for his autograph.
“What—you like Race or something?” Teri Sue’s voice was a teasing sing-song, and a smirk tugged at her lips.
“Who doesn’t? He’s an excellent driver.” The defensiveness in my tone was obvious, even to me. “He would’ve won the Sportsman championship last year if a wreck hadn’t put him out for almost half the season. He’s the only person who’s passed Jerry Addamsen in the points in four years.”
“I know,” said Teri Sue. “He’s leading his class now.” Her smirk had mellowed into a humoring big-sister smile.
Not knowing how to respond, I froze. At school, the girls snubbed me because I had grease under my fingernails and didn’t care how I dressed, so long as my shirt was right-side out. I had no experience with flirting or confessing crushes. Even if I’d been interested in that sort of thing, I’d have been laughed at for thinking I had enough class to attract a boy’s attention.
Teri Sue’s grin faded, and I realized my lips had stiffened into a scowl.
“Hey, I was just pickin’ with ya.” She punched my arm.
The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was an overly sensitive freak, so I forced myself to smile back. “I know. It’s no big deal.”
“Nothin’ to be ashamed of, anyway. It’s not like he’s some dog that runs at the back of the pack. Matter of fact, he’s got a real nice butt.”
Laughter caught in my throat, almost choking me. Teri Sue was something else. I couldn’t even think about Race Morgan’s rear end without my face blazing, and here she was announcing her observations to the whole speedway.
“I hadn’t noticed,” I said. But any fool could see she didn’t believe me.