Me again, back with a bit more about Alan! Will edit soon.

1: Heavy Traffic

Tuesday afternoon in Birmingham, Alabama, near mile 495 of a grueling, 500-mile race-

He didn't want their help or their interference; wanted only to make his way through the world on his own. Tough thing to manage, though, when your last name was Tracy. No one accepted that maybe sheer talent and drive (and a bit of John's money) had got you all the way to the top. Instead, they all nodded, got that 'look' on their face and said,

"Well, of course he succeeded. Another dang Tracy, isn't he?"

Yeah. Even now, near the end of a dangerous race like the Birmingham Super-8, he couldn't stop thinking about all those knowing looks and half-smiles. They'd poisoned each race so far, distracting him from the business at hand. But not this time. This race, Alan was determined to win.

The red car thundered and screamed around her driver, quaking like she planned to come blasting apart at the seams. Gloved hands locked on the wheel, blue eyes flicking from the bumper ahead to the green-stickered blur 3 inches behind him, Alan fixed his thoughts on the present and drove.

Number 36, right behind him, was saving gas by trying to slipstream; riding along in Alan's 300 mile-an-hour wake, a dirty trick that was starting to get on the young driver's nerves. Any minute now, given the faintest sliver of daylight, the 36-Chevy would slingshot around him and break for the front of the pack.

"Not happening, buddy… Not this close to the finish."

No power steering, no glass in the side windows, no automatic transmission. Just Alan Tracy and two tons of snarling, aggressive machinery, so close to the checkered flag he could taste it… and all of the champagne-flavored kisses to follow. Steak, too. Steak would be nice... something like the ones he smelled grilling over on the infield.

Absolutely dang positive that Bobby Carrel was going to try something, Alan decided to scare him a little. Going into turn two, just before setting up to shoot the dreaded bottleneck, Alan eased off the gas a bit. Not much, but enough to cause Carrel's #36 Old Spice- Wonder Bread Chevy to bump his rear fender.

WHUMP! And he jerked sharply in his seat straps, bruising a side full of cracked ribs. Didn't hurt his car too much. Gave it a boost, in fact, but threatened to play havoc with Carrel's engine and front axle. 36 dropped back a little, like a still-hungry shark someone had punched in the gills. He'd be back.

"Try it again, butt-monkey," Alan muttered, though only his pit boss could hear him.

"Whoa there, Slick," came the radio-helmet response. "Easy on the theatrics. Two laps to go, you can't afford to start show-boating."

"Yeah, yeah… Tell that to Bobby Carrel. Better yet, I will, from Victory Lane."

"Less talk, more action, Slick. And watch out for the neck. You got some stragglers'll be passing through just before the main herd. It's gonna get hairy."

"Uh-huh," Alan grunted, over the noise of rattling nylon-strap window webs, shrieking air and dozens of volcanic engines. After four solid hours of racing, he felt steeped and pickled in sweat and exhaust fumes, but intensely focused. In all the world, there was nothing like racing.

Turn 2 was high and steeply banked. He had to shift gears like a madman, steer like a fiend, in order to stay in his lane while looping across the face of a steep concrete cliff. There were cars on either side of him, too, making for a tight, claustrophobically close turn. Worse, this was the curve where the sun flashed across his car's windshield, briefly dimming Al's vision. Couldn't afford to look away, though; not with the neck coming up.

Slamming the clutch and gear lever like he meant to smash them through the floor, Alan once more let off the gas. Had to do it just right. Too slow, and he wouldn't make the nearly vertical turn. Too fast, and he'd shoot right off the pavement and into the crowded stands. Timing was everything.

Up he skated, into the turn and lurchingly vertical, with nothing but sky and Dale Barnes' gold #8 Dodge in his right window. On the other side, to the left and below, his teammate roared along in car 22, close enough to flick with a finger. (If, like, he'd been crazy.) For just a moment, he seemed to be floating. Then the giant hand of centripetal force smashed him into his seat, making the springs creak.

Just ahead was Terry Lemieux, flashing a bunch of STP and Hostess Cupcake stickers that Alan was getting real tired of staring at. Rearview mirror was the place for those. Far, far in the rearview mirror.

But now wasn't the time to make his move. Not with the neck coming up. In a herd of tightly-packed racecars, Alan screamed around turn 2, shifting gears again and tapping the gas for speed on the straightaway. A shaft of glaring sunlight flashed across his windshield, but the helmet's heads-up display had already cut on, projecting wireframe ghosts of the racetrack and cars on his darkened faceplate.

The pit boss cut in with some noise about engine pressure. Sounded serious, but at this point only an earthquake or alien invasion could have slowed Alan, and those were mighty rare in Alabama.

His teeth were clenched and his mouth smoke-dry as Alan pulled out of turn 2 and back into flat, level driving. Gained a little on Lemieux, even.

"Full scan," he rasped at his helmet computer, while jamming back up into seventh gear. All at once Alan's wireframe view enlarged, displaying the entire field of racers along with the whole long, narrow figure-eight track.

"An exotic shape is more exciting", its designers had claimed… and they were right; exciting that figure-eight was, and scary as all unleashed fury. Especially at the place where the tracks crossed. Most of the cars were bunched in a pack, but some (fresh from a pit-stop or having an engine malfunction) lagged behind. Shooting the neck wrongly, they could wind up intersecting the main pack. Most looked like they'd make it, but car 85, the bright blue Amazon Ford, was running slow.

"C'mon, c'mon…" Alan muttered. "Pick up the pace, Derek. Get the heck outta there."

Good advice, only Derek Prentice wasn't able to follow it. Having engine trouble, maybe, or low on fuel, his speed had dropped below 250 miles per hour, and he was pulling into the neck from one direction, just as the pack leaders came blasting through from the other.

Alan's gut and buttocks clenched. His breathing and pulse rate accelerated. Close to the middle of the pack, there was not a dang thing he could do but watch, as #4 shot past the nose of Derek's struggling racecar. Then #50 roared across behind Derek, who so far was running the gauntlet like a cast-iron champ. But now three more cars were coming through, only a few rows in front of Alan.

If he'd had any spit left in his mouth, Al would have swallowed hard. As it was, he had to content himself with a harsh, rasping, 'uhnf!'

One more car got past… two… and then the third bumped Derek's rear fender. With a terrific screech and shower of sparks the fenders locked, sending both vehicles spinning like a two-car ninja star, right across the bottleneck and onto the green, rutted infield.

Directly in front of Alan, Lemieux lost control and jerked too hard on the wheel. He side-swiped the car to his left, which spun wildly, taking Alan's teammate out like a two-ton wrecking ball.

Somehow, Alan drove on. Bits of vehicle, patches of dense smoke and sudden fireballs flashed past him like flak. The pit boss was screaming something, but the words didn't make any sense. He was too busy dodging those bouncing and rolling chunks of debris, swerving past tatters of shredded chassis, to listen.

Times like that, you don't think. Just like a fighter jock, you kick into super-fast autopilot. All sound was abruptly cut off. Everything slowed to a syrupy crawl, and he seemed to react just as languidly. A thousand years later, the caution flag dropped, and with it a speed-damping force field. Alan felt his car power down, as control was hijacked by the race computer.

Black-and-white service mechs darted onto the track to clean up or scrape off, whichever proved necessary. All at once, Alan felt nauseous.

"Into the pit, Slick," he heard very faintly. "We'll top you up, change the tires and check that pressure trouble while the caution lasts. You hear me, Al? Bring her in."

"Yeah… sure," Alan whispered in a voice dry and pale as scraped bone. "Everyone okay?"

"Not sure, Slick, but you'll know the second I do."

Alan nodded by way of answer, mechanically signaling intent and then pulling out of the damper field to the narrow alley where his pit crew hovered. By this point his throat was so tight from smoke and worry that he could hardly breathe. And as for the others… Stacy, Lemieux and Derek… who could say?

John. That's who. His older brother would be monitoring the race, up there in Thunderbird 5. Braking to a smooth halt, Alan activated a certain dashboard switch, giving himself utter privacy. Only then did he whisper,

"John… You there? What's the story on Stacy and the rest? Everybody make it through okay?"

He didn't wait long for an answer.