IT WAS RISING race time on Friday night at Beltsville Speedway, and crew chief Jim Morgan was elbow deep in transmission grease as he worked rapidly but methodically on the Chevy's broken gearbox.
"Might can do it, might can do it," Morgan muttered as his driver, Danny Bennett, looked anxiously over his shoulder. "There'll only be third and fourth gear, but it ought to run."
Then the loudspeaker gaved a preliminary hum, and Morgan tossed his wrench aside, knowing already the words that were coming: "Street/stockers let's get 'em on the track."
Damm," Morgan said. "Couple of more minutes would have done it."
"I'm sorry about that, Dave," Bennett said. Then he and Morgan turned their attention to car No. 03, which was the one Morgan and Bennett had been working on all weeks to prepare for Bennett's 28th stock car race of the season.
The car they had tried and failed to fix in time belonged to Dave Wolfe, a fast and crafty driver who has been beaten Bennett before and will beat him again. On the other hand, Bennett once beat Wolfe while using a distributor cap Wolfe had given him when Bennett's cracked under the strain of running upwards of 90 mph on a tight half-mile asphalt oval.
"That's the way it is in street/stock," Morgan said. "Guy needs help, or parts, or advice, you give it to him. You need the same, you go to him. That's what makes this class so much fun."
Street/stock cars are, it says in the rule book, automobiles containing only factory parts (except safety equipment) and modified only within the limits of factory specifications. Headlights, taillights and side window glass are removed and the doors are welded shut, but in other respects they are automobiles that might be lawfully driven on the street. (No doubt, in Bennett's case, the police would stop him from time to time to inquire why the bumpers and all four fenders are bashed in. The answer would be that he's been driving the same car for the two seasons he has raced, and he doesn't have any money to spare for the sheet-metal shop.)
Street/stock is the amatuer class of NASCAR racing. The cars are assembled and maintained by backyard mechanics using their own time and hard-earned money and using up the patience of their long-suffering wives.
"We've all in the same boat and most of us help each other," Bennett, 24, said as he squirmed through the window into the cockpit of his orange-and-red 71 Camatro.
All up and down pit row unmuffled engines screamed and thundered. Bennett stuck his head out the window for a last word. "But there's a saying we have: 'When the green flag drops, the BS stops.' I don't have any friends out there on the track."
He didn't have much trouble out there either. Starting from fourth position according to the luck of the draw, Bennett passed the third car on the first turn, the second on the back straight and the leader on the third turn. On his first pass down the grandstand straightway he was several car-lengths ahead.
"Doesn't he drive ," Morgan said. It was not a question. As Bennett cruised through the first half of the 20-lap race it became obvious even to an unschooled observer that he was pointing the Camaro lower in the high-banked turns and holding his chosen line far better than any of the half-dozen drivers who took turns trying to overtake No. 03. During the brief moments of relative quiet between the clots of flying cars, the fans in the stands could be heard counting down Bennett's completed laps.
Crew chief Morgan, 27, (the rest of the crew is his brother Billy, 16) was trying not to boast, but he couldn't help looking smug.
"Anybody in racing will tell you they'll take a good mechanic over a good driver every time. The driver's about 40 per cent of it; the rest is the car and the crew. Of course Danny works on the car too, we're both mechanics."
The other cars on the track laid back as though sulking until the last three laps, when several tried again, and vainly again, to gain on Bennett. Some drivers could close on the straightaways, but when they attempted to tail him in the corners their cars fishtailed or drifted sideways toward the guard rails.
When Bennett took the checkered flag it was his 20th victory in 28 races at Beltsville and Old Dominion speedways, but he acted as though it were his first.
"You could have took somebody from the stands and won in it tonight, it was running right ," he said as he and Morgan simultaneously danced and bear-hugged under the lights over the finish line. The crowd, invisible in the dark stands, cheered a little longer than the two men embraced.
The winner's purse of $100 didn't seem like much, but "$1,800 in purses, plus a few wins late last year, bring us just about even on the car," Bennett said. "There's no such thing as sponsors in this class, But L&M Motors gives us a good break on parts, and D&R Tires is real good to us too. Maybe next season we can make some lunch money." Bennett, already Beltsville and Old Dominion champion, will race again Friday and on Sept. 2 at Old Dominion.
After lashing the car on a trailer, Bennett and Morgan sat back to watch the big boys in the feature race, cars with shiny smooth sheet metal and engines that cost $5,000 and up. Those drivers get their names in the paper and, if they're good and lucky, become Pettys and Pearsons with suites at Darlington, factory teams behind them, willing women around them, fans that fight over them, and homes that have long winding driveways with a guard at the gate.
Does he have an urged to move up in class?
"Hell yes," Bennett said. "These guys are good, but when I watch 'em I can't help wondering what I could do if I had a car like that. I think I could beat a few of them with this car.
He grinned. "You know, if you write anything about me it will be the first time I've ever seen my name in, you know, a big newspaper. I guess it might be nice to be famous.
"But I don't know. I like racing with my friends.