Friday, March 19, 2010

"Elimination Race"

I mentioned in an earlier post that John D MacDonald was a prolific producer of sports fiction, that he wrote at least 29 such stories in the early days of his writing career, and that most of these stories were written for now-forgotten pulps with names like Sports Fiction and Super Sports. Those old pulp magazines are some of the rarest and hard to find collectables around, and old issues rarely show up for sale on eBay. It seems like these were the most dispensable of fiction magazines and were not collected with anything near the fanaticism of science fiction or, to a lesser extent, the mystery pulps. I own one story from the sports pulps -- "Blue Water Fury" -- and that's only because MacDonald included it in his first short story collection End of the Tiger and Other Stories under the title "The Big Blue." The two previous sports tales I've written about came from a men's magazine and a Sunday newspaper supplement, and "Elimination Race" will be no exception: It was printed in the most mainstream of mainstream slicks, Collier's.

Appearing in the magazine's September 13, 1952 issue, "Elimination Race" is all about auto racing. Wade Ralson is a middle-aged race car driver with a wife and kids. His day job is running a small garage, but he's an experienced racer with twelve appearances in the Indianapolis 500. He trying to arrange a car to enter in his thirteenth appearance but is having trouble. His problem is he's never won. He came in third once, then fourth another time, and those were his best results. Last year he crashed and burned. He feels he's simply the victim of bad luck and believes he still has a big win in him. But sponsors won't talk to him, and when he tells his wife Sally that he is looking for one, she reacts like a lot of racers' wives must:

"She dropped a dish in the sink and he heard it smash. She turned slowly and said, 'It isn't for you to decide. I saw you roll and burn, Wade. I saw it happen and I knew you were dead, because nobody could live through that, and I was sure you were dead. And I sat by your bed all those weeks while they were doing the grafts and giving you the plasma. So you can't say I ever backed out before. All the stinking wrecks and the clunker heaps you drove, and that smash at Cleveland and over the rail in Miami...I won't stop you. I know that. But I won't be there. I won't even let myself think about it. And if you come back, maybe we can make some kind of life, but it won't ever be the same again. Ever, ever, ever.'"

All Sally manages to do is leave Wade with a sense of "righteous anger" and a determination to race. "One more time. One more chance to show them all." He continues looking and Sally doesn't bring up the subject again. Eventually there is no one else to ask. No one but that man Oliver Banderson down in Florida, who tells Wade over the phone, "I can't promise anything, but come on down if you can, and we'll talk it over."

"It was a bad thing dealing with Banderson, because there was something strange about him. He's put the money into the big cars, and money into the drivers, and it never seemed to mean much to him except the power-sense, the indirect way of killing a man. He got good drivers and they would work with him once and never again."

Wade goes down to Florida anyway and meets Banderson at his lavish Gulf-front beach house. He's a familiar MacDonald "type":

"He was a crisp little elderly man with a mocking smile and a faint and disconcerting slant of his eye, so that it was difficult to look directly at him and make any guess at what he might be thinking."

Wade makes his pitch but Banderson isn't biting. He tells Wade that he is entering one car in the Indy 500 and that he's using Johnny Harvester as driver. He offers Wade $200 to cover his expenses in coming down, and tells him to enjoy his drink and to stay around for a party he is throwing. Wade tears up the money and throws it into the pool, but he does hang around for the bash.

Johnny Harvester arrives, along with a crowd of "kids," teenagers who love cars and love to race. Wade drinks too much and ends up with one of the girls on his arm, a "lean young girl with taffy hair and bold, undisciplined eyes." After dinner everyone piles into cars and heads for Banderson's local track, where he races stock cars. A couple of the party boys were supposed to be driving two of Banderson's cars that night, but they are too smashed to get behind the wheels. Banderson then makes an offer, one it seems the whole evening was leading up to: Wade and Harvester will substitute for the two drunk boys, and whoever wins will drive Banderson's car in the 500.

There is a long, exciting race that ends with a predictable result, and Wade finally realizes something about himself he didn't know before.

MacDonald writes about racing the way he writes about everything: with the knowledge and confidence of an expert. As far as I know he was never a fan of auto racing and did not harbor a lot of love for the automobile in particular. In 1971 he wrote, "I really do not care that much about cars. If they go from here to there without drawing undue attention to themselves because of failure to perform properly, that is all I ask." Still, in "Elimination Race" he manages to convey the world of racing and the particular psyche of the driver with the same insight he did everything else.

The story was anthologized once, in a 1963 collection titled High Gear, edited by Evan Jones. It is tough to locate and the collector would probably have an easier time finding a copy of the original Collier's.

No comments:

Post a Comment