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A portrait of the writer as a racer

Editor's note: Sunshine Speedway columnist Bob Boyle attended driving school last summer before driving in a regulation stock car race in front of a regular Saturday night crowd at Sunshine. Here is his account:

The little guy and I finally went racing.

"Everybody who races should have a little guy sitting on his shoulder telling him what to do," Late Model driver Larry Moyer said at driving school a few months back. "Don't be afraid to talk to him and listen to what he tells you, even if people think you are crazy."

After coming out of a turn, getting hit and nearly smacking the wall during warm-ups, I decided I'd better haul the little guy out of the pits of my mind before the real race started.

Loyal and ready (let's call him Bud Miller), he was there when I started the B-Main feature at Sunshine Speedway a few Saturdays ago. The strange thing was, he sounded a lot like Larry Moyer but not nearly as kind and much louder. So loud, in fact, he only spoke in CAPITAL LETTERS!

The B-Main is not the primary drawing card for the speedway. About the only thing on the quarter-mile oval that goes slower is track photographer Clyde Beard's golf cart. But it was a real race against real race car drivers in a real race car _ a bright yellow 1973 Chevy Malibu, No. 99.

I want to thank the car's owners, Jim Keelin of Clearwater and Widdy Davis of Tampa, for volunteering their car. Actually, I kind of persuaded them with everything short of outright begging. We took the racing school together and I used the "old school chum" guilt trip to con them into it. To my delight and Widdy's disappointment, the car's first and only sponsor, Glen Bonner of Mosquito Coast Pirate's Delight spices, gave me the only extra engraved baseball cap he brought.

I only had one real problem with the car. Keelin and Davis are over 6 feet and I'm, well, not. The seat was so far back that even by slipping down and stretching out my plump 5-foot-7 frame, I couldn't push in the clutch, and the shifter was untouchable. A couple of couch cushions helped me reach the pedals but the shifter might as well have been on Uranus. I stuck it in second and left it there.

As Widdy buckled me in, I reviewed my goals: (1) Don't wreck the car; (2) finish the race; and (3) pass at least one car. My unstated goal was to start in the back, fly through the pack and win the race with the roar of the crowd thundering in my ears. As it turned out, I did start at the back but the only thunder I heard was from an approaching storm.

The last thing Widdy told me was not to start pushing the car until the temperature gauge reached at least 180 degrees.

"CHECK THE TEMPERATURE!" screamed Bud Miller.

Okay, Okay, oh no, it's not even 160. What now?

"NO PROBLEM! YOU'LL HAVE A COUPLE OF WARM UP LAPS!"

So I hung back and kept an eye on the dial. Meanwhile, the officials had apparently taken notice of the light show and the dark clouds on the horizon and decided to speed up the show. As I passed under the starter's stand, I noticed the green flag was waving.

"YOU MORON! THE RACE HAS ALREADY STARTED AND YOU'RE NOT READY! DO SOMETHING!"

What?

"GO FASTER!"

I tried not to fall too far behind, but that's not the way it worked out. By the time I hit the first turn, the leaders were already half a lap ahead. This was not the race of my dreams.

By the third lap of the 12-lap race, the temperature had reached 175, almost. "THAT'S CLOSE ENOUGH! GO!"

I did. Sort of.

Look out, spin-out!

At first, getting in and staying in or near the fast groove of the track was easy. There wasn't another car in sight. Then, coming out of the second turn, one of the other back runners spun. Another one went high to avoid him. I'd seen that scene a thousand times from the stands. The right thing to do is go low and squeeze through the small hole. However, actually being on the track, I realized there was almost enough room to fit a small planet. I slowed and aimed for the hole.

"DON'T SLOW DOWN! REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED TO JIM (Keelin) LAST WEEK!"

The week before in Jim's first race, he missed the chance to pass four cars because he assumed a yellow light would go on after an accident. He was wrong.

"GO! YOU NO DRIVING SON-OF-A- . . . !"

I'm going. I'm going. I went. Not so bad.

Ahead on the track, I spotted the red, white and blue No. 11 of the car registered to Jimmy Thompson of St. Petersburg. He became my goal. My target. My reason for being. It took half a dozen laps but I caught him and, when he went wide coming out of Turn 2, I went low and passed him. Just like a real race-car driver.

Somewhere along the line before the checkered flag fell, I passed another car or two and finished ninth with five cars behind me. I was surprised and pleased but it was over quicker than I expected. I was sorry for that, but glad to put that obnoxious Bud Miller back in his box.

"You did good," Keelin said. "You didn't spin out."

I strutted my stuff through the stands to where Deborah Wilson and Bo O'Keefe, who were the only non-regular racing people who came to watch me, were sitting.

"Oh," Deborah chirped. "Was that the race? I thought you were just warming up."

Popped that balloon.

At the party after the races, Dave Pletcher and Moyer said I did all right for a middle-aged never-will-be. I felt much better.

"Since you raced, does that mean we get to write your column?" Sportsman driver Tony Watson asked.

My mind flashed back through my entire racing career and the possibilities for the future. Bud began to stretch. It was my turn to smile.

"Tell you what, if I can drive your car . . . "

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