The Kentucky Chance

Kerry had lived a successful business life.  He owned nearly a dozen car repair and restoration facilities across several states.  His business empire also included auto parts franchises in dozens more.  At 56, he was considering retirement and what to do with the time.  He hadn’t looked far to find his answer.  Kerry didn’t have any children of his own but often considered his nephew Derek like a son.  Derek’s father, Bert, and he were close both geographically and as siblings.

Derek is a very average and ordinary person whose life is about as typical as you’d expect.  A graduate of community college he spends most of his days working hours in a local computer shop.  He enjoys the work and the customers love him.  Derek had dated a few girls in his college days but nothing stuck.  The now 30 and single man spends most of his time working, and racing.  Derek, like tens of thousands others across the nation, met on weekends at various local tracks to take his car around as fast has he could.  He drives a 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse, a source of pride for him.

This weekend was one like many others this summer.  Hot, humid air waved slightly from the heat of a late afternoon sun.  Sweat drenched Kerry and dripped from his forehead.  This afternoon he made his way out to the local track, looking for the flat white of his nephew’s car.  His brother had only told him about this two nights ago over a poker game.  A love of racing runs deep through their family, as  does a love for automobiles.  Derek is often considered the black sheep because of his bent towards technology.  As Kerry watched he saw that despite this, Derek hadn’t fallen far from the family pedigree.  In fact, as he watched Kerry suspected perhaps he improved upon it.  Derek showed great skill and traffic control as he weaved about the road course.  It’s obvious he knew the course well but something, Kerry couldn’t put his finger on it, something about how he drove is different, pure.

It had been three years since Kerry watched Derek drive, three years ago he made the decision about his retirement.  His wife had happily agreed to it, pleased to see her husband retiring to spend more time with the family.  Kerry exhausted the limits of his social network and managed to find a well worn race car to buy.  The old Ford NASCAR had seen it’s height 15 years before and was being sold by the racing team as they retired from the sport.  Kerry worked weekends and on off days to bring some fire back into the old girl.  He painted her flat red and stenciled a large “46” onto the sides and roof; Derek’s favorite number.  On the day after Derek’s 30th birthday he unveiled the completed car to his brother and nephew.

Bert, for one, is elated.  He had been a NASCAR fanatic since he could hold the dinky cars in his hands.  Derek looked more confused and overwhelmed than anything.  Kerry just finished explaining he bought them a car and a team’s berth in that year’s NASCAR season.  Derek was, thanks to Kerry’s connections in the industry, to make a qualifying run at the Daytona 500 season opener.  Bert would he his crew chief while member’s of Kerry’s team filled in pit crew roles.  Bert knows the sport, tracks and venues so well that Kerry doubted he could find none better.

None better for his budget at least.

Their day at Daytona arrived as bright and warm as it had three years ago when Kerry was inspired.  He watched as their crew made last minute preps and Derek stood out looking onto the track.  Daytona is a long, high banked track giving drivers the chance to push great speeds from their cars.  Kerry exhausted most of his savings and investments into making this car, his hobby and gift to Derek, a reality.  Their car is old but still had life.  It roared and grumbled like an ancient champion, spitting fire.  He had made the appropriate modifications to the chassis to meet modern NASCAR safety requirements.  Bert approached Derek and told him the car was ready.  Derek wore a steeled look of determination on his face as he was strapped in.  His nerves are cleverly disguised but Kerry could sense them.  Their early arrival meant he could get a couple laps on the track before other teams got out.

Derek blasted out of pit lane and onto the great expanse of Daytona.  The old Ford roared and sped forward under his guide.  Kerry stood watching as his nephew takes his warmup lap, feeling the track.  He saw the tell-tale signs of his rookie driver but remained confident.  By the third lap Derek found a good line and shaved nearly 2 seconds off his time.  His fourth cut another third of a second.  Derek settled into a pace and consistently posted times near his personal best.  The track became busy with other teams.  Driver’s times began to post on the screens before Kerry.  His eyes widened as Derek’s best time dropped; first, third, fifth, 11th.  Suddenly it stopped and held at 15th.  His average time floating around the same position as well.  Kerry got excited by the potential in his practice laps and moved to watch Derek drive when the bellowing approach of a racing V8 told him Derek had pulled into the pits.  He was exiting the car and removing his helmet as the crew worked around him.

“Everything alright Derek?  Going out again for some more runs?” Kerry asked.  Derek simply shook his head as he walked past, placing his helmet on the shop table.

“That’s enough for today” he said simply before disappearing through the door.  The following two practice days followed the same.  Kerry felt he needed more time to feel the course but didn’t push his driver.  Kerry had complete faith in Derek.  Qualifications day arrived and Derek was last out.  Evening cooled slightly but the track was still warm.  Derek pushed the car and managed a top 20 time, 19th overall.  His race for position didn’t go well; last place.  His finish at Daytona was only three off last.  Kerry sensed some frustration from his driver and team as they left.

Derek continued his runs for the several weeks that followed.  His practice and qualification times showed promise but he continued to fall in near last place.  Kerry announced, after enlisting the financial help of everyone he could, he had procured a brand new V8 for their old Ford car.  It was installed during an off week, Derek was excited.  They debuted the new car in North Carolina when something strange happened.  Derek went out early on practice day, as they always did, and he posted a top time.  Then, on qualifying day, Derek’s line was true and he lapped the track a full half second faster than everyone else.  Great cheers erupted from Kerry’s pit when Derek’s pole position was posted.  Race day was grueling, a long and tiring run.  Derek started in first but quickly, very quickly fell to 38th.  His new engine, however, gave him speed he didn’t have before.  It wasn’t long before Derek had dug into a groove and fought his way to 12th.

It was clear to Kerry, and he was sure Derek as well, that the car was no faster than a 12th place car.  Derek spent the remainder of the race locked in a fierce battle with the 13th place car, trading places back and forth dozens of times.  The exchange was so dramatic and entertaining it drew the attention of the announcers and fans.  Derek was ahead the length of his hood when they crossed the finish.  This was their first top 20 and the first time Derek hadn’t been lapped.  Kerry was also approached by one of the medium tier sponsors.  They offered a moderate sum to bolster their budget in exchange for logos on the car.

After North Carolina Derek and his team were excited.  Excitement quickly faded into frustration.  In the four races that followed Derek posted three more pole qualifiers; a rare feat for a rookie.  His practice times were consistently top among the field.  His finishes, however, were not.  Derek’s 12th at North Carolina proved to be his best finish for weeks.  Kerry’s faith in Derek never diminished though.  He knew without a doubt his driver was good, he started to suspect he didn’t have the right tools for the job.  Derek’s frustration had grown to the point he told Kerry he would race twice more and then be done.  Kerry sprung into action.

Kerry met with a member of the senior management from their sponsor.  It was less a meeting and more an intrusion into a lounge where he sat by Kerry.  He cornered the man and demanded the money for a new car.

“And who are you exactly?” the executive said indignantly.

“I own Kerry Motorsports, my driver is number 46” Kerry said impatiently.

“Oh yes, that car” responded the executive unimpressed.  “Listen, we have sponsor deals with dozens of the teams out there, better teams.  Why should you get a new car before them?  Your driver is a rookie who can’t place” the executive ranted.

“In 11 races, who has the most poles in qualifying” Kerry snapped.  The executive was quiet, then laughed.

“You’re right, your driver does.  Yet he still can’t break top 30.  How embarrassing for him!”  Kerry clenched his fists.

“Just one race, that’s all I need one for.  We’ll close shop and you can sell the car to another team including our assets if we lose.  You’ll wind up ahead,” responded Kerry.  The executive sighed and paused, looking Kerry over.

“Alright.  We have a car en route to another team later this season, maybe your driver can test the build for us.  If he loses or wrecks, payment is on you,” the man said, pointing forcefully.  Kerry could barely contain his excitement and held a trembling hand out to shake.

“When will we have it?” Derek asked once Kerry had excitedly told his team the news.

“Kentucky,” Kerry answered.  It meant they one more race to endure before then.  This time, however, the sponsors would be watching extremely closely.  Their race in Kentucky was the last in their contract with the sponsors.  Derek didn’t know it but Kerry now had everything he owned riding on this race.  First Derek had to compete in Sonoma; a road course style track.  Kerry was confident Derek would excel here.  He had, after all, spent most of his racing days on tracks like it on track day.  An old Ford NASCAR proved to be very different than the small turbo Derek was used to driving.  Two frustrating days of practice followed by an abysmal qualifier showing set up a last place finish for Derek.  He left the track after the race furious, slamming his helmet onto the table as he did so.

Kentucky dawned bright and warm to begin their practice week.  Kerry had arrived early the night before to see delivery of the car from their sponsor.  Sure enough a top tier Ford NASCAR awaited in their garage.  He admired the car with his eyes and hands, startled when his brother entered.  They admired the car together and hoped it would be the change their team needed.  Derek, early the next morning for practice, hit the track before the other teams.  His mind was preoccupied by recent performances and his driving reflected it.  Kerry watched nervously from the sponsor’s box high above the track.  He could tell Derek’s lines were off and his times weren’t the best.  Derek left the track as other drivers began to enter, talking to no one.  His second day of practice followed much in the same vein.  Kerry looked on nervously as many of their sponsor’s management gave him dirty looks.  Derek needed to wow them.  Kerry caught Derek on his exit on their third day of practice.

“Derek, what’s going on?” Kerry asked, stopping Derek with a hand on the shoulder.

“I’m just trying to finish so I can go back to normal,” Derek replied.

“Normal, what do you mean normal?”

“My old life.  I’m obviously not any good at this racing thing.  You’re wasting your money and time on this Uncle Kerry.  Let’s just finish this event and get back to our old lives.”

“You’ve got more poles than any other driver this year, you have great practice times.  The problem isn’t you, Derek, it’s the car.  I know you know that.  You can’t accelerate to keep up with the crowds even with a pole start.  I went out on a very, very thin limb to get this for you man.  Race well for me, race like you mean it,” his uncle pleaded.  Derek looked at the ground before nodding.  “Plus, I can’t afford a real driver.  You’re all I got,” Kerry and Derek enjoyed a smile.

Qualification day came and Derek was last out due to his overall rank.  Kerry was once again in the sponsor’s booth and had insisted his driver would put on a show today.  He sat anxiously and watched Derek prepare in the pit below.  Before long he accelerated off and powered onto the long, banking track.  Derek’s driving was different as soon as he started.  His lines exiting the running start into the qualifying laps were aggressive and very, very fast.  He flew across the starting line and dug in as if guided by rails.  Kerry hadn’t seen a driver so perfectly drive the course all day and he anxiously waited for is time to pop on screen once he crossed the line again.  Derek’s name appeared at the top of the list, a clear half second ahead of the pack.  Kerry jumped and pumped his fist in the air, those around him unimpressed.  Kerry stood and watched as Derek completed his second lap.  His pace wasn’t as pure as the first and his time about a third of a second slower.  Still, Kerry knew they were onto something.

Race evening came and the stadium was at capacity.  A buzz filled the air and Kerry’s whole team brimmed over with excitement.  Derek himself was having fun chatting with his father and two of the other pit crew, their laughs echoing up the pits.  Other teams hurried about with final preps as Derek’s car was pushed past them to his start at the top of pit lane.  Moods suddenly became somber and nervous once Derek climbed into the car and Kerry disappeared to the sponsor’s box.  As he rounded the final bend, the pace car veered off into the pits.  The race was on.  Kerry watched, his eyes and smile growing wide, as Derek’s car not only kept it’s place at the head of the pack, but kept pace with the others.  Then he gained.  Derek fought out ahead by a car length then dug into an aggressive line similar to his qualifying lap.  It wasn’t long and he had distanced himself from the pack.  By the 25th lap he had caught and begun lapping the rear of the pack.  When Derek pitted for the first time he had enough lead to do so without losing position.  He rounded the final bend 13 seconds ahead of second and captured his first victory in stunning style.  Kerry hollered with the people around him before shooting the doubting executive a playful look.

Derek went on to win four more times that season, placing top ten in 12 more.  He set a NASCAR record for poles qualified by a rookie.  Kerry’s sponsor didn’t renew at the end of the race but it was a short time before a better contract came their way.  Kerry was sure he’d enjoy retirement after all.

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