It was another hot day at the Southern State Fairgrounds, and Jimmy Wilson felt a bead of sweat form on the nape of his neck, dribbling down his back and melting into his shirt.
He blinked behind his sunglasses, the intense sunshine having no mercy on the scene.
It was a big occasion, as he was set to wheel the Premier Tires of Allentown No. 27 in USAC Champ Dirt competition. He sat on the back of their small trailer and stared at the car, engrossed in the possibilities.
This, Jimmy felt like, could be a pivotal day. In addition to the car owner, Gregg Richards, and his mechanic, Mike Stapleton, the full force of help was in place for today: Jack Harvey and Slim MacDonald.
Harvey had agreed to spend a few days privately working on the car in the Ellison Paving shop in Central City, and Jimmy was confident this could be their ticket to success.
With Harvey’s help, he figured, they could do the impossible: they could beat Duke Moran and his mighty four-cam Ford.
This is the breakthrough, Jimmy mused. This is the new beginning.
But his guts kept churning, troubled that a prime opportunity to capture the Champ Dirt title might slip away. Jimmy still held a small lead in the points after winning the series opener, a race defending series champion Moran missed because of a scheduling conflict.
Looking back, that felt like a hollow victory because Duke had flat outrun them last week at the one-mile Lincoln Fairgrounds. Duke and the Maverick team’s four-cam Ford were noticeably stronger than them – and everyone else.
But Harvey had agreed to take a larger role and “see what he could do.” That promise fueled Jimmy with confidence and hope. Today, on the big dirt mile at the Southern Illinois Fairgrounds, they would have another shot at Duke.
Naturally, Harvey was tight-lipped on the time he spent with the car. Jimmy wasn’t sure, but when he stopped by the shop on Monday night he caught a snippet of Harvey’s phone conversation with Roger Sheward, a drag racing guy who had a nice dyno in his shop on U.S. 40, west of town. A dyno … hmmmm.
Jimmy didn’t know what kind of deal Harvey had worked out with Gregg, but there had to be some money changing hands. But that was their business; Jimmy’s only interest was stepping up their program.
Another piece of good news was that Renee Johnson had once again joined Jimmy on the trip from Central City. The past few weeks had been swell, spending lots of time with Renee and enjoying the hell out of it.
The best part was that Renee seemed to be enjoying it just as much.
As Jimmy looked on, the guys were standing around the car, talking.
“So, what all did you change?” Mike asked Harvey.
“Well, let’s just say we made some adjustments,” Harvey said. “I don’t tell anybody the specifics … we’ll see if she runs better. That’s all that matters.”
Jimmy was buoyed with confidence. He was setting himself up for a letdown, sure; Duke Moran and the Maverick team were super-stout and beating them straight up would shock everybody.
But despite his big ego, despite his bragging, despite his gruff ways, Harvey was the man when it came to wrenching a race car. In Jimmy’s eyes there wasn’t a better wrench in the country. And that included the championship boys and all the stock car guys down south.
A few minutes later Duke made his way to their pit, and he and Harvey had an enjoyable reunion. Although their paths rarely crossed these days, their friendship dated back to Duke’s sprint car days almost 20 years earlier.
You could sense a ton of mutual respect as they talked. Although Harvey couldn’t quite bring himself to say nice things about Duke, it was clear that he enjoyed the conversation.
A bunch of people quickly gathered to eavesdrop, and a couple of photographers snapped pictures.
“Say, Duke, the museum called,” Harvey began, and Jimmy immediately recognized his needling tone. “They want that antique Ford motor for display.”
“Oh, it’s too soon,” Duke replied, a twinkle in his eye. “We’ve still got lots of races to win.”
“I think it’s a new day,” Harvey said, shaking his head. “Four cams, hell, that’s about three too many!”
“The dinosaur is a little old, but still gets the job done.”