Gail had been Alex Krol’s girl since high school. She fell for him before she learned that he risked his life on dirt tracks during the summer months to the delight of the fans who paid to see cars crash—the more spectacular the wreck, the taller they stood on their toes and craned their necks to see the carnage. When Alex makes his dream to drive in the Indy 500 come true and he witnesses the death of two drivers in his first start, he must ask himself if his quest to win the world’s greatest race is worth not only the physical risk, but also losing the woman he loves.
South Lyon, Michigan, 1992
“Alex Król?” the voice on the other end of the phone said.
“Mr. Król, it’s an honor to meet you.”
“If I don’t recognize your voice, then I don’t know you. If I don’t know you, then I don’t believe you’ve had that honor.”
The voice laughed – a bit stifled, Alex thought – then said, “Yes, I suppose technically you’re right. But I hope to change that.”
“I don’t need window treatments or my furnace cleaned, or anything else you might be selling, including Girl Scout cookies.”
The laugh again, a little more genuine.
“Mr. Król, I’m not selling anything.”
“I don’t have Prince Albert in a can either.”
The laugh yet a third time; Alex was becoming annoyed. “Why don’t you start by telling me who you are?” he said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Alicia Abney. I work for the Metro Times in Detroit – a weekly newspaper that’s distributed free of charge – and before you accuse me of trying to sell you a subscription, I’m not,” she rushed to finish. Her attempt at humor fell flat.
“What can I do for you, Miss Abney?” Alex asked.
“Actually, I don’t work for the Metro Times. I’m a freelance writer, and I’d like to do a story on you.”
“I’m not interested,” Alex said. He sounded as if he was talking to a telemarketer trying to sell him a product she was convinced he couldn’t live without but about which he couldn’t have cared less.
“Oh.”Alicia sounded as if Alex’s response was one she least expected to hear.
“I’ve been out of motor sports for more than twenty years. I don’t need publicity.”
“Mr. Król, it’s not about publicity. It’s a profile of a former Indy 500 champion.”
“My career in racing does not define who I am.”
“Our readers –”
“I’m sure are more interested in reading about the stars in the sport today – Arie Luijendijk, Danny Sullivan, and Paul Tracy.”
“But none of them are from the Detroit area.”
“Neither am I anymore.”
“But you have ties to the area.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You were born here.”
“Not by choice.”
“Mr. Król –”
“How old are you?”
“I know, a gentleman is not supposed to ask a woman her age.”
“You sound much younger.”
Alex wondered if the woman understood that his question wasn’t intended as a flirtation. “Do you know who Mauri Rose is?” he asked.
“A former 500 winner?” Alicia guessed.
“A lucky guess. I met Rose at Indianapolis in 1967, when he drove the pace car. A nicer man you’ll never meet. Everywhere he went, he was lauded as a three-time Indy winner, even if the pretty girls had long ago stopped asking him for an autograph. Yet he considered his greatest accomplishment a device he invented that allowed amputees to drive a car. By the way, he retired to a Detroit suburb.”
“But I don’t wish to interview Mauri Rose.”
“You can’t. He died in 1981.”
“Well then, why did you –”
“I imagine your readers wouldn’t have a clue who I am any more than they would Rose.”
“All the more reason to remind them of your legacy.”
“Look, Miss…” Alex had already forgotten the woman’s name – but he’d never been good with names. “What did you say your name was?”
“Miss Abney, to your readers I’m just a face on a trophy.”
“One of the most recognizable trophies in sports.”
“I didn’t win the 1972 Indy 500. Gary Bettenhausen was the class of the field, leading a hundred-thirty-eight laps before his ignition quit. Jerry Grant would’ve won, but on his last pit stop he took tires from his teammate’s pits and was penalized. I inherited the lead and the win. But I didn’t win, not really. They lost.”
“You have to finish in order to win.”
“And I finished.”
“In first place. Had Grant not been penalized, would he have been any less deserving of the win after Bettenhausen fell out?”
Alex said nothing.
“They say winning the 500 changes your life.”
“Oh, it changed my life all right. My career in motor sports changed my life. Not all of it was good.”
“Well, here’s your chance to tell me about it.”
“Why would I want to air my dirty laundry to you?”
Alicia sighed in Alex’s ear.
“Look,”Alex said. “The sport – if it can even be called that anymore – has passed me by. When I started racing back in the fifties, it truly was a sport. Good equipment was a plus, sure. Drivers today are considered athletes. They’re better conditioned than drivers were in my day. They may even have better reflexes and eye-hand coordination. But a good driver back then driving by the seat of his pants, out-braving the competition, could put a mediocre car in the winner’s circle. Today they have wind tunnels, radio communication, and onboard computers. Drivers have engineering degrees. In the modern era, a winning combination is maybe forty percent driver.”
“So take me on a trip down Memory Lane.”
“And sound like sour grapes?”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. Believe it or not, some people long for the good old days. You lived through the golden era of racing. There’s a market for that. Back in the day, the drivers were colorful, larger than life, with names like Foyt, Unser, and Andretti. Today they’re all spokespersons for their sponsors, smile for the camera and offer thanks to an A-to-Z list.”
Alex said nothing, but he began to reconsider. He knew the kids today were embracing the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, because modern music left much to be desired. Alicia was appealing to his ego, he knew. She was offering him a chance to talk about his career – the fond memories as well as the not so fond. Comparisons to the modern sport. He’d often wondered about athletes who kept scrapbooks despite the fact that their records have fallen to other athletes – better, stronger, perhaps more skilled. Their moment in the sun. There were aspects of his career he wouldn’t have to bare.
“What if I don’t like your article?” Alex said
“Well,”Alicia said. “I don’t usually do this, but I’ll let you read the finished draft, and if you don’t like it, then I’ll rework it until you’re happy with it.”
Alex nodded. “What do you need from me?”
“I want to meet with you. It’s essential to my process. Mannerisms and expressions often find their way into my work. They add another dimension to my profiles.”
“You intend to fly out to Chicago for an hour-long interview?”
“For as long as it takes.”
Alex allowed himself a chuckle.
“I’m from Chicago. I often visit my family, so I’ll combine a business trip with pleasure. And I can expense the business part.” She then added, “Thank you. You won’t be disappointed, Mr. Król.”
“Call me Alex.”
“Only if you’ll call me Alicia.”
J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Paradigm, One Hot January, January’s Thaw, A Retrospect In Death, and 500 Miles To Go has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to write stories of action, love, mystery and morality; tales that cross genres, seizing the imagination of the reader. Though his novels are varied and original, the reader will find that each is full of life’s lessons—full of pain and humor, full of insight and triumph.