He hated his fire suit. He'd tried to hide the fact that he was looking like a huge carrot at the moment in front of the sponsors, but now that he was alone he let his face twist in disgust. The words, smile for the camera had been mumbled to him over and over today and he'd done it, but really he'd wanted to rip the damn suit off and go home. It didn't matter that they were paying the way for him to race. Orange just wasn't his color and no matter how much Walt Disney World wanted him to wear it and be "Tigger" for this race, he wasn't about to walk into the driver's meeting like this.
When Jack Roush slid over next to him during the meet & greet he'd just come from, he thought he might have been in trouble for something since in the last year everything in his life had been turned upside down and sideways. To his relief, it turned out that Jack had only come over personally to tell him to relax. Jack worked in mysterious ways and maybe it was his intent to rattle him a bit. He'd picked the wrong way to do it, but it did give him something else to wonder and worry about. Dressing up in a Tinkerbelle or Tigger or whoever he was this season was now actually on his list of things NOT to do. A year ago he would have punched anyone in the face who would have even suggested such a thing, but a year ago he had an easier road to travel on and fewer things to worry about.
He might not have been able to react to everything under the watchful eye of NASCAR and his team owner then, but he was rolling his eyes now. Thank God for sunglasses or he'd really be in trouble. His eyes scanned down the suit as he caught his reflection in the medical center's sliding glass door. He turned side to side, watching his reflection with a frown on his face. He liked his old black suit. He liked his old black paint scheme. Hell, he liked he like old black helmet even though he'd complained for the two years that he'd worn the color that it made his head even hotter.
He looked like a big striped traffic cone. A six foot tall traffic cone. The orange wasn't even a fluorescent color but it might as well have had flashing lights on it begging people to look at him. It was exactly the wrong message he wanted to throw out today. NASCAR had warned him when they'd finally signed off on his safety papers, reinstating him into the league that he shouldn't be showboating it and that he should try to make the transition as smooth as possible. He already had enough people watching him, this being his first race back and all, so calling even more attention to himself with the bright colors wasn't the way he wanted to make his return to the track.
He took the baseball hat off his head, moved his hands through his hair while keeping a hold on the hat, then pressed the hat down on his scalp again. His fingers immediately moved to the zipper on the front of the suit and he pulled it down, sliding it off his arms and tied the arms around his waist. He'd worn an OK T-shirt that morning and he checked it for food spots on the chest before he stepped towards the tent where he could see all the other drivers getting settled.
It was going to be a hell of a day. He'd already shared a press conference with "Racing Mickey" which coincided with a new race track that they were opening there near Martinsville, North Carolina, something along the lines of the Walt Disney Speedway. Then had been the meet and greet which he ended by slamming down a homemade egg and English muffin before having to meet with NASCAR one more time before he could go to the driver's meeting.
Each of the events of the morning had been a pain. Normally in a driver's career they'd enjoy this type of thing, but every time he stepped out of his RV into the public eye he found himself being booed more than cheered for. He knew that it was warranted, well not warranted, but at least he understood it.
That wasn't something he wanted to think about right now. A statement had been made about the crash and about the events that followed by the Roush Racing PR guy, but he'd been told by both NASCAR and by Jack just to race his race and leave last year and all the issues that came along with what happened to the PR people; the way it should be.
He turned his head and found Bubba Wyatt watching him. Normally Bubba was a fairly sarcastic guy, but today he looked as if he was out of sorts. His baseball hat was backwards, something that Bubba only did when making fun of rap artists or on the odd occasion that he needed to lean into the car to fix something. His headphones were hanging around his neck cutting him off from the rest of the team. It also looked as if he too wasn't pleased with the Tigger scheme of the crew's uniform. Bubba too had taken the same route that he'd taken to fix the problem, tying the arms of the outfit together around his slightly round waist.
"You ok?" He tipped his head to the side and even though he couldn't see Bubba's eyes, he could tell there was worry there. Everyone had been worrying about him. It was supposed to be a new start for him, but there were a few factors that were still out there as to how he would be received. Coming back after so much time off in itself left room for error, but with the circumstances that had kept him from racing, everyone seemed a bit worried about him.
The other drivers were supposedly warned the week before and would be reminded that morning to leave their personal feelings in the pits and let the race happen as it happened, but there was still a chance that people couldn't overlook the accident and the interruptions that it had caused in not only his life, but in Quincy Herron’s career and subsequently his life.
"You ready to go in there?" He motioned towards the tent where he was headed.
He didn't want to go anywhere near the driver's meeting. He knew it was important and he knew he needed to be there, but if he could just slip into the back of the room without anyone noticing him he might be able to get through the next few hours. Hell, it was a mandatory meeting if he didn't want to get put into last place for the start. "In a minute."
"Don't be late now," Bubba said and let a smile slip out. "We got the car dialed in good from yesterday. Don't want to screw that up with some BS penalty now."
He nodded again. The penalties were a sore spot for him, and the ribbing from Bubba again wasn't a good way to start out the day.
"I'm gonna-" He motioned towards the tent.
"Keep your chin up," Bubba said with a soft tone that took him by surprise.
It wasn't often Bubba let out the softer side of his personality. When he was with kids, he'd use a softer tone, but for the most part Bubba was a pretty tough guy. Just when he expected Bubba to rib him more, the guy actually seemed to have a heart. He knew deep down that the team was trying it’s hardest to understand him and forgive him for screwing up the year before, but it wasn't until that moment that he felt as if it might actually be happening.
After a few more deep breaths, and a little pep talk to himself, he slipped into the back of the crowd. He tucked his chin to his chest and listened to the list of drivers being read out. The murmurs around him started the moment he stepped foot under the tent and stayed audible until Mike Helton tapped his finger against the microphone to get everyone's attention. He might have been trying to hide, but even Mike's acknowledgement of the extra noise in the space caused him to bring his eyes up and finally take in the crowd of drivers and extra crew members and press that lined the walls.
"Gentlemen," He said then turned to the press. "And ladies. Is there something I need to add to my agenda this morning?"
He broke into a slight smile when he heard Mike being so formal. Normally the guy did his job and left the tent, there wasn't much personality considering that he was the President of NASCAR and tended to be more feared than befriended. It was to be expected. He'd always imagined that having to talk to Mike in more than a slightly social way was like stepping into the principal's office. Over the last season he'd found himself in the hot chair one too many times.
"Thank you," Mike said as the noise died down. He took a deep breath. "Now. We've all seen that Dusty Tatum is back with us this race. I don't want any trouble out of any of you. We've spoken with HQ Racing and everyone is in agreement that the suspension is now over and that all of us should get back to what we do best--"
Someone said something along the lines of, "Except Quincy." More hushed voices filled the room for a moment.
Mike coughed. "The Disney Team and I have discussed the rules and Dusty is ready to run his race. So let's all have a safe day today, right?"
The murmurs of reply were less than enthusiastic, but everyone seemed to comply with the given rules.
The driver's meeting didn't last more than forty five minutes. Dusty kept his head down, only letting his eyes catch eye contact with Mike once as he was leaving the tent.
It was just two hours later that Dusty started down towards the pits. The driver’s meeting had let out and he’d been ushered towards Jack Roush for a quick talk. He’d thought it would have turned into yet another lecture, but Jack gave him an impromptu pep talk as the heat of the day started to creep over the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It was that cliché quiet before the storm as the drivers listened to the last notes of the race invocation and national anthem, anticipating the sound of racings famous words to be called out over the loud speakers.
As the screams of the fans drown out at the last words of the song, the teams ran through all of their superstitious rituals before the drivers made a move to slide into the pilot seats of their rides. His crew did only hand slaps and no one seemed to break their expression when they got to him at the end of the line. Only Bubba came to him, put a hand on each side of his head and leaned forward. "Git 'er done," he said and started to laugh quoting a comedian, Larry The Cable Guy.
"Git 'er done," he repeated and broke into a smile before he moved towards the car to get strapped in. His stomach twisted a bit as he waited to climb in. He thought about looking up at the crowd one last time, like he had gotten into the habit of doing his rookie season.
Instantly it felt wrong. He’d been told over and over again that he needed to change. He needed a new attitude. Jack had told him that he needed a new game plan. A new hobby one person had told him would get his mind off whatever was causing him trouble.
Changes were going to come. He couldn’t avoid that. He’d done a lot of changing already so the step to start a new tradition would again show that the accident had been a life altering event for him as well as the other people involved. He put his palms flat on the top of the car, just above the driver’s side window and looked down at the ground. Stretching his arms out he twisted his hips once each way and just four short breaths later he straightened up, settled enough to climb inside.
It took only a few moments to get settled. Each movement brought him closer to what he’d been missing. As they came closer to the moment where they would lock him into the car and let him drive away, his stomach began to settle and the adrenaline that came along with driving a NASCAR race returned.
"GENTLEMAN," a female voice could be heard from somewhere near the winner's circle. "START YOUR ENGINES!"
Flipping on a few switches, he moved his visor down over his face, closed his eyes for a moment and prayed that the car would start. As finicky as the team's machines had been over the last week, the last thing he needed would be to stall out right on pit row in front of all the other teams as well as a few million fans both in the grand stands and at home on TV.
His eyes flew open as the engine turned over and his foot pressed out a few giant growls from hood before he reached a hand out to wave a thumbs up to the people standing with the rest of his pit crew.
It was a month after Valentines Day, the perfect day to celebrate racing, and the Golden Corral 500 was about to begin.
Making eye contact with his Pit Crew Chief, he nodded his head, a signal that he was ready to be fully strapped into the vehicle. He pulled his arm back into the cage that surrounded the driver's seat and rested his hand on the steering wheel as the safety net was secured into place over the window next to his left shoulder. He took a deep breath as it was being done and counted to ten before squeezing the steering wheel one good time.
"Get your head in the game," he heard a raspy booming voice over the radio in his ears.
Tapping his helmet and checking the chin strap he touched the two shoulder straps of his harness ceremoniously before moving his body a bit in the seat to get more comfortable. Sitting in a race car wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world even if the seat had been formed to his body for safety reasons.
"It's in," he said over the noise of the engines around him as the first three rows of cars pulled off of pit row onto the track behind a pace car flashing an orange light on it's hood.
"Now I want you to run on that low groove you found in Happy Hour--" The voice rattled over the radio in his ear. For the most part that voice was a calm soothing one, but today, it seemed that no matter what came across the line would agitate him.
"Damn Bubba," he said over the line. "You'd think this was my first race."
"Now Dusty." The voice now sounded like his father and he turned his head towards pit row. It wasn't as if he'd see the man actually standing there, but the shock in hearing the voice startled him.
"DUSTIN!" Dusty turned his head and realized that he'd come too close to the car in front of him and instantly slammed on the brakes. He knew that a penalty was coming for him since they hadn't even started the race, but all he could think about now was Greg Arnold, his spotter screaming at him from somewhere else in the stadium. "Damn it Dusty, get your head in the game here. You just slammed into Gordon and I'm sure as hell not going to be able to help you out if he decides to slam you back."
"I didn't see him," Dusty said furiously.
"Didn't see him?" Greg yelled. "He's a bright blue and orange car with God Damn Flames on the side of it. How can you not see the--"
"That's enough," Bubba’s voice came back on the line. "You two watch it. We've got a few hundred laps to get through and I'm not babysitting the two of you all day."
"Fine," they agreed together.
"Now," Bubba, as Pit Crew Chief, took over the conversation. "How's the car holding up for ya?"
"Are you sure that this loose race setup is going to tighten up with the track?" He looked around a little. "Greg, you see the sun anywhere? If the sun doesn't come out we're gonna be stuck--"
"We know what you're gonna be stuck with. Weather channel said it would heat up and so far it has. Track temps are in the 80s right now and rising," Greg rattled back.
"If you say so," Dusty said.
"I do," Bubba said from the pit, "Now run low as you can, but watch out for Gordon. You already pissed him off and I don't want you wreakin’ the car cuz you want to compare cup sizes."
"I got it," Dusty said.
"The pace car is about to pull off," Greg said. "Get 'em."
As the pace car turned off, Dusty and the other forty-two drivers hit the gas and began to build up speed faster than anyone except those drivers in the race could comprehend.
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