The morning of the second mod day rolled around, and I woke up in a good mood despite the insistent nagging of a low-grade hangover. Bourbon's all fun and games until you arise with a steel band around your skull and Technicolor breath. I grabbed a few cereal bars and an energy drink at the set and looked around for ways to make myself useful. The fog was burning off, both literally and figuratively, when I walked outside the main garage to look for some missing gear in one of our vans and spotted Freddie heading towards the set from the Chateau Le Dump.
"Hey," I started, but something was very wrong. Freddie was walking like he was a hundred years old, barely shuffling up the incline to the set. His arms didn't swing as he moved, but jerked at angles like a barefoot person walking over sharp rocks. How hard had he hit that wall?
A former football and baseball player, Freddie's back wasn't in tip-top shape to begin with, and the close encounter with the wall while drifting hadn't helped. He figured he'd know by that night what was what. Wow. Just when I felt like I was being accepted as part of the production staff and was feeling comfortable in my role, it looked like Shawn or I might get a shot. That woke me up. My mind spun as I found tasks to occupy my time and make the daylight hours pass more quickly.
The teams were once again busy changing suspension components, boosting power, adding downforce, and trying not to think about what a long day and night of wrenching they had ahead of them. The Camaro and Challenger got air dams and spoilers, which made them look a little like the cars campaigned by Mark Donohue and Sam Posey in early 70's Trans-Am competition. I tried to imagine Clarence in a lime-green E-body and laughed. The Corvette was more intimidating than ever, with a new front splitter, a three-section spoiler, a vented hood and wheels wide enough to sit proud of the rear panels. The C6 made the other team owners stop and frown when they looked at it.
Shadows grew longer in the afternoon light and there was a buzz on the set. Meetings were being held behind closed doors. Word went out that all the drivers and crews should assemble in the garage. Hot lights burned overhead and the cooling fans were shut off. The teams gathered, and Lee made the announcement: Freddie couldn't continue. I stood under the long arm of a jib camera and applauded while Shawn walked into the light and into the cameras' eyes. I was envious, obviously, but I was also his biggest fan at that moment. Shawn and I were like our own little sub-group among the producers, directors, cameramen, grips and drivers. We were outside all the groups looking in, and now one of us had made it. I knew the producers had made the only choice they could have, Shawn did have a tenth of a second advantage on me in the timed laps, maybe more. I didn't know which laps they had caught.
An executive from the Speed Channel had come down to Georgia to check out our progress and meet with Bud Brutsman, the executive producer. I saw the two of them leave in Bud's car, a brand-new '69 Mustang clone with a supercharged motor from a late model SVT Cobra and done in pure black with a matte hood. (You may have seen it at the drag track in the first episode.) I was sitting outside in the cool evening air with a group of other production assistants when the line producer, Lynda, approached us and asked who wanted to drive the Speed exec's rental car out to the Chateau Elan for him. I looked past the keys held in her outstretched hand to see a red 2006 Mustang GT and was making "vroom, vroom" noises in the driver's seat before I even got the key in the ignition. I made the most of the surface roads while trying not to topple the tall stack of folders in the passenger seat. I eventually just put a seatbelt on them while at a red light. The light turned green and I launched myself onto an on-ramp ... and into voluminous traffic.
Curses! I kept to the right two lanes for the two exits I had to drive and entertained myself by rowing through the gears, grinning hugely with each blip of the throttle as I downshifted.
Weeks earlier, each of us was asked to send in a photograph of ourselves wearing a racing suit so our name and likeness could be put on 12 foot tall banners which were hung on the wall of the garage. This was a simple task for the other drivers. I had to contact a family friend with a vintage racing shop, borrow a suit, take a few snaps, and give it back. I returned from my ride in the Mustang and was handed my banner. "I guess we can just give you this now," said the young woman who handled wardrobe and props. I unfurled it back at the hotel and took a look. I pictured how it would have looked hanging next to the others. I got in bed and shut off the lights.
You know the drill by now, dear readers: load truck, unload truck, hang banners. This time it was at the Lanier Speedway. I'd never driven a banked oval before, but Shawn had a smile on his face a mile wide; this was his element. I was sent to the inside of a turn with a pickup truck and a cameraman. My job was to roll slowly forward as the cars flew by and he filmed while standing on the bed. Clarence and Ken, the only two non-circle track drivers, both put on huge smoke shows: Clarence as his fender rubbed a rear tire and Ken as he chose to drift a few turns during the timed laps. Clay Dale, more than once a track champion at Lanier, just couldn't get the Camaro to stick in the turns. Jace once again set the fastest lap in the Vette, garnering praise from Lou and a few more points towards the overall championship.
Clouds had slowly been rolling in during the time trials at Lanier, and we packed up and headed back. I was riding in the back of the truck with four other people and nearly every piece of sound and camera gear used in the production when the floor smoothly took on an alarming pitch. Gravity tried to dump all the cargo, including us, out the back as the truck traversed the steep banking to exit the track. We each grabbed a handhold and some gear - too easy, drill sergeant.
A quick rain shower hit Road Atlanta and quickly left when the production rolled in. The track was soaked, and they had a decision to make. The cars sat in a line along the pit wall as the producers talked it over with the track officials. The teams sat in their shiny new Suburbans and Yukons in the parking lot and ... wait a minute!
Before long, all six of the massive SUVs, along with another pickup and the flat bed wrecker which belonged to the track, were grunting and chugging out laps in an attempt to dry out the racing line. The kid-haulers ran in a tight group, big bodies roaring down the front straight like B-17s in formation. Lou Gigliotti, scornful of the pace as could only be expected, ran to the inside of the group on the diving turn 12 before the front straight and passed several other teams before the finish line. I could hear his team cackling over the radios. The asphalt was just beginning to look good when the rains came again and washed away any chance of driving that day.
Back at the garage, everyone was looking forward to an early night. The crews joked with one another as they dried off the cars. I was thinking of getting myself a snack when Bud blew past me, anger all over his face. The teams were called back into the garage. Somebody's going to get a talking-to, I thought. I found my way back into the garage, hoping to rubberneck at the scene that was about to take place. Many pairs of eyes settled on me as I walked in. Shawn had quit.
[James Gribbon was there the whole time Speed TV was filming its new series, "Forza Motorsport Showdown." Teams of supposedly amateur drivers compete in multiple challenges — from road course and autocross driving, to oval, drag, and drifting — for a shot at $100,000. Each week James will be conveying what it was like to ditch his office job to get sunburned, shit on and generally treated like the Gimp for an outside shot to drive someone else's car really, really fast. So check out the show tonight, or spoil it for yourselves each week.]