Bill Klein cranked the engine. A tongue of flame leapt from the carburator. It wanted to relight the Salem dangling from Mike Broyhill's lips. He paid it no mind. Buddy Thorpe said: "Well, at least we know she's got some fire in her."

Klein cranked the engine again. This time it went. Thunder shook the cinder block walls of the garage. The air grew acid and blue. Broyhill, like a man deep in a chess match, nailed his senses to the engine block. He began tinkering, setting the idle, turning the distributor, checking the water.

He grabbed a light and scooted under the car, looking for loose oil. Klein opened the garage door so he could breathe. Outside in the fresh spring evening a dead engine lay in the driveway; beyond that, a backhoe. A pair of low white trailers lurked in the pines. Not far down the road stood the abandoned post office of Hoadley, Va., a cross-roads town that had become a ghost. Life in these parts had been amalgamated, centralized, into the town of Woodbridge, seven miles distant.

Broyhill raced the engine a few more ear-splitting times, scrutinized the block once more, and then shut it down. The engine was hot enough for a final setting of the valves. It was Thursday night. On Saturday they would race.

To earn a living Mike Broyhill is a cookie distributor and Buddy Thorpe a mechanic. Mike Klein installs air conditioning. With Mike Buel they comprise the pit crew for Mike's father, Wyman Buel, who races when he isn't busy digging sewer lines and basements with his backhoe. They are weekend racers, proud that they can stay competitive, gnawed by a desire to go full time.

There are moments when they are lost out there in the 9 to 5, their heads back at the garage behind Wyman Buel's house. "I'd like to be able to get up in the morning and just have to worry about racing," Broyhill says.

That takes money. Last year, their sponsor, who owns a flooring store in Manassas, spent $18,000 on the car. It won back $4,000. To race full time and be close in their class -- late model sportsman -- takes an annual investment of about $200,000. To race the Grand National circuit, the next, and final, step up, you plow in perhaps half a million a year.

Sponsors of big-time racing are people in need of big-time tax write-offs. Or an advertising outlet. A big name in racing these days is Winston -- the cigarette company. "When they couldn't advertise any longer on TV," Buel says, "they had to put their money somewhere." The chase for Grand National supremacy is called the Winston Cup. Look at the wall ringing a lot of tracks, Buel says. It is painted red and White, the Winston colors.

Buel and his crew make up for little money with lots of labor. "We're here 'most every night," Buel says.

"There always some way to make the car go a little bit faster," Broyhill says. "There are so many variables." He ticks them off: Tire size and rubber compound, shocks, springs, sway bars, differnetial gear ratios. The bank of the track. The temperature of the air. He could go on. "For every race I set the car up a little different."

Broyhill keeps a log of all races and specifications he has used for the car. He has been doing this a dozen years. Now, with a statistical opus on his hands, he feels he is beginning to understand this sport. But it grows more like a science every day. "We used to build our own car and engine for $3,000. This is not a backyard operation. If you don't get your car built by a profession builder, you're not going to run," Buel says.

Their engine cost $10,000. At 7,200 r.p.m. it cranks out 545 horsepower. It has pistons that cost 10 times those in a street car. It must be rebuilt every 800 miles. The money Buel spends keeps him close, but he isn't blowing competitors away. Broyhill fears they will be hard-pressed to keep up. They will lose ground to competitors who can out-spend his team in time, money and energy.

So Broyhill was working over the carthat Thursday night. He circled it like a pool shark, lining up some shot on the table, the next five in his mind. lBuel looked on with arms crossed and face impassive. He is a man cut from oak trunk. "I guess I've totalled about three cars. I've never really been hurt. I guess if I thought about it, I might not do it."

He was born on a 40-acre farm, one of eight children. "My father died when I was 12." The farm could not support him; at 16 he went north on a bus. The trip took three days. "We came around all the crooks and curves in the road. It seems like in Tennessee we stopped at every cow pasture to see if anyone wanted on."

Buel got in Virginia, having followed a brother three years his senior. "The next Monday I went to work in a brickyard." Buel says he doesn't like to get way out front in a race. "You're just out there waiting for something to happen." He prefers "running nose to tail" with the competition. He likes the constant challenge.

He seems the right man to drive this car -- a '79 Chevrolet Malibu Classic, but in name only. Any resemblance between it and the model in the local Chevy showroom stops at the first coat of paint. This car is sheet metal hung on a $12,000 steel cocoon, a rollcage. If it took Buel through the wall at 100 miles an hour, he could walk away with a bad headache. The car is braided steel fuel lines coupled to that big engine with aluminum aircraft fittings.At the other end is a plasticized fuel cell. Inside foam rubber floats free to keep it from implodging on impact. The dashboard has three gauges no bigger than knotholes -- oil, water, tach. A big red light is at the left of the steering wheel. If it glows, it spells disaster: no oil pressure, a blown engine. A fire extinguisher lays next to the seat, within reach of the driver's right hand.

The effect may be Malibu; the reality is something else.

Buel has been "running" for a dozen years now, working his way up, taking on more speed as he goes. In his first season he won 11 races; the next, 20. In his third, racing in the class below his present one, he won 34. No one has done better in a single season. Buel was named Virginia state champion.

He is 43, in his prime. He has experience, "feel," as Broyhill puts it. He can sense the track through each tire. He can outsmart a younger man driving a faster car. He has learned to ignore the fatigue in his upper arms as he wrestles the car through the turns, the sweat that drenches his body as the engine blasts away on the other side of the firewall. The G force like a big hand laid on his chest.

"I get hyped up. I like to go fast. When you're out there, all you're thinking about is passing the guy in front of you. That's all there's time for."

Saturday and the sun is late. Deep shadows in the pit row. Racing tires are stacked like sandbags against flood. Men, up to their elbows in engine, probe and plumb for some last minute speed. Buel has run his practice and qualifying laps. "It felt a little weak."

He looks distracted. He has raced three times this year. Each time little things have gone bad: a sparkplug, tire trouble, a lousy air wrench hose coupling screwing up a pit stop. Deeper still is a haunting correlation between speed and money. Buel is giving away horsepower because he can't buy it. "It used to be these guys would bring their cars off the street, run in the race, and drive on home." Now they drive $30,000 tax write-offs. Racing fuel costs $2.85 a gallon, a tire $115. In a 200-lap race such as this one a driver could use up as many as eight tires. "Nowadays your winnings just about cover your tire bill."

Broyhill looks at his stopwatch and says, "Not enough." Buel is a fourth of a second slower than the top qualifier around the 3/8 mile oval -- a big gap to close.

Klein says: "The race don't start till the last 30 laps. You stay out there that long and survive. Then you go out and burn 'em." Broyhill smiles, wanting to believe. Klein is gluing lungnuts on spare tire rims. During a pit stop there isn't time to fumble with nuts. You jam tire to wheel. You hammer it down with an air wrench. They can change a tire in 18 seconds. Given the edge that Buel lacks on the track, hope will lie here in the pits.

Racing tires are as soft as putty. The race progresses, the track gets veneered with hot rubber and oil. Tires lose "bite." The time to change them is when something happens -- spin out, spilled oil. The caution flag comes out. The field slows to 30 miles an hour. A driver can dash into the pits, change tires, and not lose ground. If a slower driver can beat a quicker one back out on the track, he stands a chance of holding him off the rest of the race. It is a cool night. Broyhill figures a caution flag halfway through the race will be ideal.

Night comes on. Buel puts on his red helmet and climbs deep into the car. He looks ready to go to the moon. The guttural throb of engines builds the length of pit row, and the low-to-the-earth machines ease toward the track.Smoke rises in the night. Klein puts on his headset. It connects him to Buel and the radio taped onto the Car's door.

The race begins. It grows distant, surreal. Glossy cars shoot through shadowy turns like summer lightning. They drift out of corners and come thundering up the track. The storm's eye is here. Broyhill drags on his Salems and worries with his stopwatch. Klein crosses his arms and fixes his gaze on the distance. At their feet are four Goodyear tires, the air wrench hose in a taut coil. The asphalt is spotless.

Buel had started sixth. By the 90th lap he has clawed his way to third. He trails Butch Lindley and Morgan Shepherd, a pair of hot, well-funded full-timers. Lindley has a quarter million dollars behind him, two full-time mechanics. Shepherd is out of Eden, N.C., the current leader in points for the national championship. His message is: Driving for Jesus.

Buel's engine blows on the 97th lap of this 200-lap race. He coasts in, trailing water and smoke. The light on the dash glows. They push the car out of the way. Buel's bad luck brought the caution flag out. They know what is coming next. Half a dozen cars roar in like jets landing on a carrier deck. Men slam jacks and gas cans under and into them. Air wrenches whirr through the smoke and confusion.

Buel extricates himself from the car and takes off his helmet. His gaze is as stoic as that of his crew's. The competition is feasting on the team's bad luck. This was to have been their pit stop. Their reed of hope. The only things left to do are to pack up, to rebuild machine and faith in it for next Saturday. Broyhill disconnects the air wrench. Klein unplugs the radio. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Wyman Buel's Chevy Malibu runs third at Old Dominion Speedway. Buel's pit crew readies tires for a pit stop change.; Picture 3, Buel discusses performance of car with Bill Klein. Note welded-in headstop, radio taped to door, insulated shift lever, microphone on helmet.; Picture 4, Part-time stock car racer Wyman Buel; Picture 5, Mike Klein, Wyman Buel and Mike Buel watch the rest of the race in frustration after the Malibu's engine -- worth $10,000 -- self-destructed on the 97th lap of the 200-lap race. Photographs by Bill Snead