The night is only halfway over, but it seems like I’ve been driving this rain-soaked coastal highway for days. Maybe since the beginning of time. For the season it least, since smoke started fuming out of the barrel that’s shooting me down but good—four times now, at Daytona and Talladega, Darlington and now Charlotte.
And the rain won’t stop falling. The windshield wipers have fallen into a steady drone: slip-a-slash, slip-a-slash. Like brushes on a snare drum of a moody jazz trio lost in that third set between midnight and forever. A sound so easy and inevitable, almost like the ticking of a clock next to a bed.
Only I can’t find my way home on this drenched highway.
Tonight I’m all alone out here. It’s been hours since I’ve seen a single vehicle. Much too treacherous, I guess. Back around Santa Monica – or was it Bristol? — headlights warmed the black contours of the next bend and then that blue Corvette’s appeared, tires grappling with the far edge next to the abyss and then speeding by. Was that Kyle I saw at the wheel, giving me that slight smile, both jocular and predatorial? And who was that shadowy female sitting next to him? No one I recall seeing him with. Then they were gone, reduced to red tailights dwindling in the rear view mirror for a two swishes of the wipers and then vanishing into the cold embrace of the ocean night.
Nothing since, leaving me to drive alone in rains like I’ve never seen in southern California. Rains which do not descent from heaven as much as devour up from hell, inch by inch, a surfeit reclaiming this failing, fallen night.
* * *
The radio is tuned to a pirate station on the other side of the border which broadcasts old standards commercial-free: “Laura,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Misty,” “The Blue Gardenia,” “The Last I Ever Saw of My Heart,” “Ocean Breeze.” And—-of course–“A Rainy Night In Georgia,” Brook Benton singing through the static of distant lightning with that sour-mash, red clay baritone,
Neon signs a-flashin’
Taxi cabs and busses passin’ through the night
The distant moanin’ of a train,
Seems to play a sad refrain to the night
A rainy night in Georgia
A rainy night in Georgia
I believe its rainin’ all over the world.
It’s past midnight now and the roads are a blur, the headlights of my silver Chevy Impala cutting into the murk like every lonely soul’s hope of reunion, searching the world and finding nothing but the next twenty yards of twisting coastal road. Once I rounded a bend and swore I could see the ocean surging halfway up the cliffs from where I remembered it as a teen when I first took to racing this highway late at night.
What the hell is happening? When before there were only certain outcomes—I used to be able to drive these roads with my eyes closed –now I’m peering hard into the murk, my knuckles tight on the wheel.
Now there are only questions. How can you win a championship when you can’t even finish a fucking race? When did everything get so dreary and misty? Am I driving to season’s end at Homestead or toward home in El Cajon?
The rainy night tells me nothing except to whisper something imperceptible, between the motor’s hum and the wipers’ glissade and the next song on the radio. Something about Her absence. That it’s all my fault. That all that water rising the cliffs was sprung from mistakes I made this year, mistakes which She, for reasons She won’t tell me except in this big night music’s unintelligible, sibylline wet whisper, has deigned to let me pay for. Mistakes she always corrected with a Her kiss of unbelievable good fortune.
My eyes in the rear view mirror, as I can make them out in such darkness, have lost their faith. But what else can I do? So I drive on, praying that things will right themselves That I’ll find her once again along this long, evil road, make my amends to Her, and finally get racing in the right direction once again.
It’s getting late and later, the night continually worse in its wet wreckage, weariness gnaws in from my peripheral vision and up from the lonely seat I ride in.
I have my doubts. O God I have my doubts: But I drive on, the whole night through, eyes searching beyond these headlights’ reach for the apparition which once blessed me…
* * *
2 a.m. Another disc jockey has taken over at the station and is spinning contemporary shit I can’t stand, so I turn the radio off and let my thoughts broadcast into the night. Where the hell did She go? Three of the past five races, I’ve finished 31st or worse. I had the car to beat at Charlotte-or so it seemed–but these hands have lost their touch, their intimate knowledge of Her curves. I spun out — something I never used to do — getting wicked loose on Lap 167 and hitting the wall coming out of turn 4. The only thing good that came out of that is that I forced Hamlin, that fucking upstart, into the infield where he blew a front left tire and messed up the alignment but good. Eat my smoke, dipshit …
On that last bend in the highway I swore I saw water lap up onto the road from the top side of a cliff which use to fall a thousand feet to the sea. Like a head poking up from a wave, red hair scattered like kelp, eyes almost violet they’re so blue. My career–and perhaps the hight from which it now inevitably, inexorably falls–reflected in them. Reliving the moment, the way perfume lingers in the door She walked out of, never to return.
My crew did their best to get everything back in place – you should have seen Knaus, shouting at the crew as they furiously soldered a plate on the back quarterpanel. How studiously he avoided eye contact with me, furious at my ARCA-grade driving. I restarted 25th and just got going again but got loose – oh so fucking loose – and spun out coming through Turn 2, then whizzed down the track and slammed the inside wall so hard I my eyeballs almost came out of their sockets.
But maybe it wasn’t the coming impact that had my eyes so wide. No sir. What had everything in me agape was that I I saw Her standing right there where I was speeding into the wall, arms spread on white concrete, her long red hair lifting in the slow-mo breeze of my hellbent approach, her smile somewhere between a smirk and something both bittersweet and wistful. Like a Miles Davis on his horn, very note aching in the jones of absolute midnight.
There She was – in Her full vicious, voluptuous, feline audacity, disappearing exactly when I smashed into the wall. The officials who pried me loose of the wrecked 48 thought I had a concussion; maybe I did have one, because visions of Her were still spinning round my head in the infield care center. I lurched out of there to be met by the FOX reporter and said what I could – you know, all that stuff getting loose and bad luck for a great car and team and getting it together next week, blah blah blah. My head was jangling like a churchbell at the crew managed to get the No. 48 back on the track – 37 laps behind the fray – but all I could think of as I went round and round and round to a dismal finish was the look in Her eyes, neither disapproving nor welcoming: something hung in the balance, equivocally here yet gone.
Gone forever? Tonight I must find out. I must. I must.
Now I sound like windshield wipers trying to fend off a flood: She’s gone, she’s gone, I must, I must.
* * *
Idiot. I did not become a champ on luck—that’s the mantra, right? Only I believe that as much as I believe that the sky isn’t in league with the ocean tonight, trying to drown the world. Downshift, turn, work back through the gears up to 120, brake, downshift, turn, the Chevy doing her work well, as intimate to me as my wife Chandra was when she hugged me on Victory Row. The girl swelling in her womb is as intimate to her as this car is to me: our marriage should be enough to beat all comers, right?
Only why am I out here alone driving all night in what is becoming the very belly of the whale?
* * *
Turn the radio back on, search out another pirate station, this one playing mostly funk from the early 70’s—Songs to keep you awake when you’re driving the dead hours of night: “Do It (Til You’re Satisfied)” by B.T. Express, “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, “Jungle Boogie” “Sex Machine” by James Brown and, of course, “Low Rider” by War:
All my friends know the low rider
The low rider is a little higher
Low rider drives a little slower
Low rider is a real goer
Low rider knows every street yeah!
Low rider is the one to meet yeah!
Low rider don’t use no gas now
Low rider don’t drive to fast
Take a little trip
Take a little trip
Take a little trip and see
Take a little trip
Take a little trip
Take a little trip with me.
Take a little trip with me … Before the flood claims us all …
Oh the season started great enough, with those three early wins – Fontana and Vegas in a row, then Bristol two weeks later. The media hype machine all but declared my fifth consecutive championship right then, as if the rest of the season could hardly matter amid such dominance. But since then, after the DNFs and middling finishes, all that talk plummeted off one of these ocean cliffs like a jilted suicide.
Jinxed? No– jilted. I feel like I’m driving in reverse around the tracks now, slipping back into the pack, getting left far behind the furor of the next championship race, disappearing into the shadow of the next champion – Kyle or Kurt or Kevin or Jeff, who knows. All I know for sure tonight is that it won’t be me.
Unless I can find Her again.
Take a little trip with me …
* * *
So tonight I’m out driving where She first came to me, south along the coastal highway toward El Cajon where I grew up. It was a night like this – July 2001, just after my first Nationwide win in Chicago. I’d flown back home to celebrate with my family before the Gateway race the next weekend and was out alone, hellraisin’ on the coastal highway well after midnight in a the black Dodge Viper I’d bought with my winnings. Raining that night, too, very strange everyone said; I was humping round curve downshifting at 80 when I saw Her standing thirty yards down in the middle of the road and hit the brakes, twisting this way then that in the rain, screeching to a halt with the chrome bumper coming to rest against the folds of Her green dress.
Her long red hair was curly back then and she was dripping wet, her nipples like headlights against the drenched fabric of her dress. My jaw was hanging wide and my eyes must have been popping out of their sockets, but She just smiled and got in.
“Going my way?” she asked, her question in her voice more like a command, the way the question of a wave’s collapse and shatter on shore hangs in the air and is yet inevitable. A sweeping blue wild sound, deep and rich and throaty.
I didn’t think I’d be able to speak again, but I did manage to croak: “You are one fucking crazy lady.”
To which She sighed, eyes boring into me from the darkness of the cab, “And you are one fortunate driver.”
“I’d say you were the lucky one tonight, Red.”
“That’s not what I meant. Wrong tense.”
“Whatever,” I said, or something brilliant like that. What do I know about women? I was popping wheelies on the way out of my mother’s womb. She rode with me as far as Malibu, window rolled down on her side to the ocean night, her hair billowing in the breeze.
She had me stop before the exit and pull over. Got out right there in the middle of nowhere, the moon full and brilliant over the Pacific.
“I’ll see you round, handsome,” she said over her shoulder as she walked toward the exit, slender, and lithe and liquid all at the same time. “Now keep those hands steady on the wheel.”
I did. Or we did. I only come to believe that now that these hands are no different than anyone’s anymore.
Chandra says it’s the stress of achieving the unachievable, but that’s not the same as rolling snake-eyes.
Snake-eyes, snake-eyes, the wipers sing, smiling like Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” when she sings, “Put the blame on Mame, boys.” For a guy who has made a fortune racing as if luck did not exist, the night sure is changing my tune.
* * *
My first Sprint Cup start was a few months later at Charlotte. I crashed, but something told me I was on my way. (She told me, in a dream later that night, coming up out of the sea to wrap her destiny around my hips and hold so tight I woke up believing I had drowned.) The next year I got my first win at Sonoma – where else?—and finished the year with 3 wins and a fifth-place in the points.
The next year I had 8 wins and finished second in the points. In 2006 when I turned 30 I won my first championship; I had just five wins, but She made everything else count, every race, every finish, every great car Chad has engineered with his evil genius.
Five years later, the win count’s at 50 and I have four championships all in a row. Man, how those four cups shine standing together in the Hall of Fame!
And yet I can’t see a single one of ‘em tonight. My next Cup is shaped like darkness, it’s shrouded somewhere ahead where the world is drowning.
* * *
Seawater is now coming across the road in dribbles and rivulets. I hit them going 90 mph, hydroplaning close to the road’s edge before I can correct and get back in the middle of the road where the inundation is least.
Not much longer and it will all be underwater.
But I’ll keep driving til I find Her again.
She’s gone, she’s gone, I must, I must …
All that’s left of the champion is the determination. Once the cables have been laid, they only transmit one command to every extremity of the body and brain and heart and balls and souls: Pedal to the metal, boys. Put the blame on Mame.
* * *
She’s near here, I’m sure, maybe lounging on a rock a mile offshore, glazed with rain and moonlight and seawater, watching me drive by … Or maybe she’s in the next roadside diner, an all-night affair for bums trying to sober up enough to drive on home and truckers trying to steel their nerves for the next leg and guys like me who are doomed to keep on driving, long past the glory, like the Road Warrior, the last cop on earth gone rogue, no longer seeking justice but wreaking revenge, fighting on til the last drop of gasoline is siphoned out of the last Ford or Dodge or Toyota roadster to take me on, reduced to so much fuming wreckage.
Yeah, She’ll be sitting there, invisible to everyone else yet stunningly aglow to me in the naked light of that hash-joint’s overhead fluorescence, a half-full cup of coffee pushed away from her, smoking a Pall-Mall almost distractedly, plumes of smoke encircling her face like waves of a water that yearns so to wrap her thighs around the entire earth before morning.
Sitting at the far right end of the counter, the empty seat to her left is empty, inviting and threatening at the same time, a siege perilous for every knight who thinks he’s long and strong enough to last a moment next with Her.
Would She even recognize me? Have things changed that much? I still have as many wins on the season as anyone else, right? Doesn’t that matter? Doesn’t everyone say how cool I remain, unruffled by a floodng disaster? How invested Hendrick Motorsports is in the cars they roll out for me? How Chad’s the Evil Genius can pull victory even out of a dead sea turtle’s ass. That still matters, doesn’t it?
But these windshield wipers are singing a different song, sighing going, going, gone to the evilly wet night …
Found by me at last in that all-night diner somewhere down the road, will She turn and smile when She sees me walk up to Her like a lemming rescued from the bottom of the sea, dripping, my hair clogged with seaweed and fishing lines? Will She invite me to sit there with Her and be calmed by the powerful rollers of Her voice, welling, deepblue, womb-soothing, fateful, gilding the nerves of her chosen son-lover and clearing every obstacle to mar a racer’s progress to Victory Lane with an intricate flutter of eyebrows, a turn of the smile?
Will I be able to just sit there and inhale Her subtle sea perfume, a scent bearing equal notes of orange blossom, musk and pure split dolphin, red and dead and offered, like a throat, to the hungriest canines in the land?
Will I fall into the swell of Her breasts suggested by the plunging neckline of her green dress, fall hair nose and eyeballs into hell’s sweetest abysm, plopping onto a bed more soft and gossamer than baby’s breath?
Will She smile and she ask me to dance, right there, when “Laura” comes onto the trusty old jukebox in the corner:
You know the feeling of something half remembered,
of something that never happened, yet you recall it well.
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
that you’ve never met as far as you could tell, well.
Laura is the face in the misty light,
footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
that you can never quite recall.
And you see Laura on the train that is passing thru.
Those eyes, how familiar they seem.
She gave your very first kiss to you.
That was Laura but she’s only a dream.
Or will She stare at me that long while which says I am no longer of any real use to Her, stub out Her Pall Mall and sashay out the door, leaving me alone in there with the rest of the preterite dweebs and has-beens which the night discards like so many cigarette butts?
Will that be Her getting into a car waiting outside that has the number 2 or 11 or 18 or 37 painted on its side, zooming off into this eternally rainy cold night, become two red taillights quickly enveloped in the mist?
No, I whisper to the sighing windshield wipers, to the ocean waves now lapping at my Impala’s door – I’m driving 40 mph now and slowing down as the rising tide of night comes to claim me in Her empty, gravelike arms.
No. I check the instrument panel which is fluttering now, close to shorting out.
But I’m not the one to master a night like this.
No one is.
If there is one, it’s no longer me.
A last turn and the car’s awash, stuck there in the middle of the road. I turn the engine off, listen to rain on the roof and water at the door. I close my eyes.
I sigh, distantly relieved. It’s no longer in my hands.
Then there’s a knock at the window. Someone’s standing outside, leaning down to peer in. It’s so dark I can only make out the vaguest contours of her face.
I roll down the window, ocean water flooding in.
“What’s a girl like you doing out on a night like this,” I say, my eyes not yet willing to believe what I see.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she says, her long red hair dripping onto me. “OK if I bum a ride?”
“How far you going tonight?”
“Pocono. A ways up from here, but not too far.”
Somehow I get my Chevy started. The engine roars to life like a hibernating bear. The old silver 48. Silver is just a bluer grade of night, you know, a faster shade of black. Not a shadow. A streak. There’s cherry red and there’s midnight blue and then there’s moonshine silver – pure ocean whiskey poured from the bottomless heaven of Her womb.
Somehow, the water doesn’t seem so deep ahead.
She climbs in on the other side, her red hair soaked, her green dress slick against her every curve.
And then it stops raining, slowly, a night’s-long incessant thrum easing off by degrees.
Comes to a stop. I turn off the wipers. To the left there’s a break in the clouds, out over the water. Moonlight pours through the gap, silvering an ocean which has receded back to its old level.
She leans over to me, still dripping, her breath warm as blood in my ear.
“What are you waiting for? Let’s get this piece of shit moving.” She turns the radio on and fiddles with the tuner til she comes upon a pirate station playing Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”:
Nobody gonna take my car, I’m gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car, it’s gonna break the speed of sound
Oooh it’s a killer machine, it’s got everything
Like a driving power, big fat tires and everything
I love Her and I need Her
I feel Her
Yeah it’s a wild hurricane
All right hold tight
I’m a highway star
When I jam the pedal down the sound is unlike anything in the world. Nothing can or will ever beat it. She looks at me with those moon eyes wide, lips slightly parted, smiling from here to evermore.
Nobody gonna take my girl, I’m gonna keep Her to the end
Nobody gonna have my girl, She stays close on every bend
Oooh She’s a killer machine, She’s got everything
Like a moving mouth, body control and everything
I love Her and I need Her, I see Her
Yeah she turns me on
All right hold tight
I’m a highway star