Dust rises red and fine in the fading light, mingles in the air with the smells of burnt rubber and gasoline and chili dogs. Saturday night at Old Dominion Speedway, and the rickety, splintery grandstand in Manassas is filling with men in white T-shirts and women with pink lipstick, boys with a swagger and girls with a bounce.

Thirty minutes to race time. In the center of the oval track, the place called the pits, the cars, maybe 50 of them, are lined in colorful rows. They resemble vaguely the driveway kind, mutant strains of Camaros and Novas with great, fat tires and long, needle noses, swollen fenders and a single seat inside. Crews of men swarm over them, changing shocks and adjusting springs, wrenches glinting fury.

In the middle of it all stands Al Dailey, roofer and race car driver, carving grease from under his fingernails with a key. He is wearing a yellow Nomex fire suit, tight around the stomach and loose around the seat. The face is square and ruddy, with fine, thin creases around the eyes, a cigarette dangling from the mouth.

Soon he will pull on his helmet and squeeze through the window of his Ford Fairmont, buckle himself into the contoured seat and drive down the pit road to the track. He will feel the butterflies, and then, when the green flag drops, he will punch the gas and feel the surge. The guardrails will blur and his ears will hum and his stomach will pin against his backbone. He'll look ahead and never back, run it for all he's worth.

Up in the stands the fans will be running it, too. Last year, auto racing drew 3 1/2 times more paying spectators than did NFL football. They come to the races to hear engines roar and sheetmetal crunch, maybe to see a fire. They understand men like Al Dailey, know what it's like to spend great chunks of life lying on your back and staring into the gritty undersides of a machine. Fans know, as all these drivers know, that in their world at least, manhood is measured in cubic inches.

To Dailey, cars mean freedom. Not the abstract kind watchdogged in Washington, but the personal kind, the get-in-the-car-and-go-when-you-want kind. Cars can be understood, controlled, tinkered to perfection. When your car breaks down, you fix it. Not much else in life can compare.

Yet even in control there is loss. Dailey, 40, works on gutters and chimneys for a living, but the gutters on his house in Alexandria are falling down and there's a water stain in his ceiling because he hurriedly installed his chimney upside down. He works 40 hours a week on the job, 35 hours a week on his car, taking only Wednesdays off to have root canal work done on his teeth. He's away from home so much that the oldest of his three daughters used to call him "Uncle Daddy."

"Why do I race?" Al Dailey asks, the voice slow and Virginian. "I don't have no off-the-wall answer . . . The best way I can describe why I race is because I want to. If you go through life saying, 'I want to do things,' and then don't do them, what kind of life is that? The best thing in life I can say is that I wanted to race and, damn, I did."

Dailey has drawn position two for this 35-lap feature, one place off the pole, and as the cars circle the 3/8-mile track in the pace lap, his neck is cramped, his hands sweaty. He smiles tightly as he passes the pits, flips up a thumb. "Got to win this one," he thinks. "It's about damn time I won."

Al Dailey hasn't won a race all season. He hasn't even finished a race. It's not like he hasn't won before. In 1969, his first year driving, he was named Old Dominion's Most Improved Driver. He was track champion in '72 and '80.

Now it's the fifth week of the season, and he knows his luck will turn. Dailey knows this because he's always raced and because he's good at racing, excels in this charged-up world where nothing counts but the way it feels, and the way it feels when he wins at Old Dominion is "like 10,000 orgasms."

He started racing in the early 1960s, 1/24 scale slot cars, even made the traveling team for Grand Prix Raceways in Clarendon.

For a while he raced go-carts, but that was crazy dangerous. Top speed of 90 and nothing between him and the asphalt but skin.

For most of the last 12 years it's been stock cars. And now, as the green flag whips down against the darkened sky and the fans are whooping and the pit crews are holding their breath and 19 stock cars with 19 hell-bent drivers rage into the first turn, Al Dailey, in car No. 41, shuts down his mind and tromps on the gas, sends 108 octane aviation fuel to 350 Ford horses.

Around turn two, then 400 feet straight away, and Dailey steers high toward the rail until it seems he'll crash, then takes it 20 feet farther and turns the wheel left, half a turn, into the low side of the 11-degree banked curve.

He takes the curve hard, so hard that centrifugal force would throw him into the passenger side of the car if it weren't for his special, wrap-around seat. On longer races he'll attach a suction cup to his helmet and chain his head to the roof to reduce the strain on his neck.

Dailey knows what he's doing by instinct and experience, but says he can only do as well as his car will let him. Racing, says John Findley, Dailey's brother-in-law and partner, the motor man in the team, is innovation and experimentation, a fight not so much among drivers as between the car's builder and the forces of nature. Except for the car's body (salvaged from Bill's Junkyard in Woodbridge for $550), the front part of the chasis and the engine, Dailey and Findley crafted No. 41 from scratch, choosing their design from racing magazines and books Dailey bought Findley for his birthday and from nights lying awake, wondering what would work. They are known around the track as master builders, having crafted five of the cars that are running this day.

They put five springs in No. 41, four over the wheels plus one in the center to give it more bite on the track. They made the car eight pounds lighter by designing their own gearshift, saved 65 pounds putting in an aluminum rear end, and cut still more weight by drilling holes in the trailing arms and the front rotors, and using aluminum parts where most use steel. When they were finished, they had a car 400 pounds lighter than Old Dominion's 2,950-pound minimum. Then they could put the weight back where they wanted it, in the form of lead bars, the more to fool nature's power.

Dailey is in second place now, five laps down, running at the leader, steering for his backside. In racing there are two kinds of drivers, hard chargers and strokers. Strokers are sissies. They lay back. Couldn't win a race if they were the only ones on the track. Dailey calls himself a hard charger--"an animal."

"I'm the type of driver that does much better chasing than leading," he says. ". . . when I'm in the back of the pack, trying to catch the leader, I drive like a madman. My instincts take over."

Up in the stands, his wife Joyce is shaking. She always shakes during a race. Really, she loves racing, even took a ride with Al a few years ago. "It was the thrill of my life," she says.

You could say Al and Joyce Dailey met over cars. Actually, Al was matching quarters at the White Tower Restaurant at Wilson and Washington Boulevards in Arlington, But of course the White Tower in 1959 wasn't about food or matching quarters. The White Tower was about the Fabulous Fifties, and the Fabulous Fifties, at least in Arlington, were about the White Tower parking lot, the place where you parked your car and idled your time between cruises.

The boys wore penny loafers with white socks and pegged pants with scalloped pockets and shirts with the collars turned up. They talked a lot about fast cars and a lot about "doing it" and a lot about a certain waitress who was supposed to do it with just about anybody, though nobody present had ever done it with her.

The girls wore crinoline under their calf-length skirts and bobby socks, and they loved Elvis, and as a matter of virtue they never did it with boys who talked about it, preferring instead to drive around with them, or maybe go necking at Topps Drive-In at Lee Highway and George Mason Drive.

These were the days when the most important thing in life, aside from the White Tower parking lot, was getting a driver's license, and then a car, so you could cruise to the White Tower on a warm summer night. These were golden years, and the kids were the among the first to know the joy of owning their own cars, and they were convinced that the only reason people lived and worked was to have one. After a while they changed, got mortgages and kids. But when Joyce met Al, life was White Tower and the car.

Al was nicknamed Juvenile in those days. He was 17 and looked like an outlaw with the greased ducktail and the Luckies in the sleeve and a restless look that Joyce, who was 15, thought was cute, just like James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."

But Al Dailey wasn't an outlaw. Sure, he once paid a girl two dollars to steal a friend's shoes from the Alexandria Roller Rink, and, sure, he and his friend Eddie Teel busted a lot of windows in their time. But Dailey became Juvenile for the measly offense of speeding in his baby blue '46 Ford coupe. What Juvenile Dailey was, mostly, was a kid who had grown up early, who quit school at Osbourn Senior High School in Manassas and left home when his father took his stepmother's side one time too many.

That very night Joyce and Al went cruising, that very weekend they went to the drag races at Old Dominion Speedway. Two weeks passed and Al went out and had Joyce's name tattooed on his right forearm and told her he was going to marry her. She told him he was crazy. Three years later they were married.

At first Joyce wouldn't let Al race. But after seven years and the birth of their youngest daughters, Al started building his first car. Today, Joyce is a wisp of a woman with big green eyes framed in curls and a dimple in her chin and a job as a secretary at Fort Belvoir. She looks forward to the races every Saturday night.

"We've missed a lot because of his racing, usually the things you can't plan, everyday living, each other," she says. "But I sit up there in the bleachers and I hear what people say about him, how he's good at what he does, and I see other women kiss him, and I know I'm in the background. But when the night's over, I know he loves me, and I know we're going home together. So maybe we don't do a whole lot. He works all day and then goes to work on his car, so when he gets home all I do is fix him a little supper, maybe an omelet, and we watch TV and go to bed.

"We do want to start living--does that sound funny? He came home the other night and said this was going to be his last year. He said he was tired, that we need to build a life. I almost dropped the omelet. Now that he's older he looks back and sees things he's missed. I don't know if I like the idea. The kids are growing and I'm so used to having my life--the church and my work--as well as ours.

"He couldn't stop anyway. He needs his racing, needs something to do besides work. What would life be with nothing besides work, something to look forward to? Right now, we're the happiest we've ever been."

Lap 30. Five laps to go, 15 cars left. Dailey's orange, beige and brown Fairmont is running second, but No. 48 is on his tail and charging. In the pits, on an elevated platform, the scorer's stand, the men on Dailey's crew turn around and around and around, watching their driver and their car hurl around the track.

There is Findley, the partner, a rounded man who says he works for the government and leaves it at that. Something secret. With him are F.D. "Bubba" Matthews, a truck driver looking for a job, a big man, 220 pounds, with a wild beard and a Lil' Devil tatooed on his right arm; Bill Hamlin, a carpenter, slight and groomed with permed hair and glasses with his initials in the corner; Wayne Morris, a boiler engineer for the FBI who wears his official red-and-black Al Dailey pit crew shirt.

These men are proud to be on Dailey's crew, proud to change his tires, load his car on and off the trailer, go-fer things. They are rewarded with their names in orange letters on the trunk of Dailey's car. They are to driver what manager is to football team. They bask in Dailey's rpms.

At this moment, Dailey's race is redlining. His car keeps trying to scoot up toward the rail in the turns, to spin out back end first. Something is wrong from the last crash, maybe the frame is bent. Dailey fights the wheel, yanks it around turn two, lets up a little and . . . BANG, Car 48 hooks his left front bumper into Dailey's right rear bumper and tears it half loose. They look like planes refueling in flight, stuck together at 70 mph. Dailey feels like he's driving on ice.

Dailey's crew--Findley, Matthews, Hamlin and Morris--fly down the steps from the scorer's stand and pick up rags in case Dailey heads for the pits for them to yank off his bumper. The two cars drive a lap this way, until No. 48 suddenly slingshots past and Dailey drops to fourth, where he ends the race.

In the pits minutes later, the bumper hangs from the Fairmont. The sky is black and the crowd silent as Dailey squeezes back through his window while Findley, Matthews, Hamlin and Morris gather around. No one speaks. Dailey's face is red and his fire suit drenched. He has lost five pounds. He pulls off his helmet, runs a hand gently across the roof of the car he built.

"Well, John," he says to Findley. "At least we finished this one."