The stands and his chest rumbled as a pack of cars raced by, a chain length fence the only thing separating the spectators from the action. The smell of racing fuel and burnt rubber filled the air, making him feel right at home.
A little boy, wearing a shirt with Carter’s face on the back, glanced over his shoulder, eyes widening as Carter grinned at him. Tugging on his dad’s arm, the kid pointed behind him. Both turned to Carter and this time it was the dad who got that holy-crap-it’s-you look on his face.
“Come on up,” Carter mouthed at the duo, with an uptick of his chin.
Grinning big, the kid and his dad made their way to him.
“Hi, I’m Carter. What’s your name?” Carter shook the boy’s hand.
“Kyle.” Kyle’s grin nearly split his face in two, as he continued to shake Carter’s hand. “I knew it was you, Mr. Ambrose.”
“C’mon now, Kyle, Mr. Ambrose is my dad,” he said, finally getting his hand back. “You can call me Carter.”
“My cousin, Beau, is racing right now. He wants to be just like you, Mr. Carter, only without hitting the wall twice in one year.”Kyle’s skin went white under his freckles, as though he’d just realized he’d insulted him.
“Ouch.” Carter gave the kid a mock wince, then tapped the brim of Kyle’s baseball cap. “Beau sounds like a smart kid.”
Another pack of cars approached and all conversation stopped as the three of them braced for the next mini-earthquake.
“Stanley Phelps.” Kyle’s dad extended a hand. “Hope we’re not bothering you, but Kyle’s a real big fan, just like the rest of us. My nephew has posters of you all over his room.”
Carter clapped the man on his shoulder, a puff of dirt floating up. “You’re not bothering me at all. I’m mighty honored that y’all are taking time away from watching your nephew to come talk to me.”
“There he is,” Kyle shouted, pointing to a bright green car. It broke sideways on the corner, then righted itself on the straightaway.
“He’s good.” Carter took a pull of his beer when Beau almost painted the bumper of another car. And seriously reckless. The kid was going to get his ass kicked after the race if he didn’t watch it.
“Can we sit with you, Mr. Carter?” Kyle sat down on the bleacher.
Nodding, Carter sat down beside him and Stanley took the opposite side of this son. They watched the race, the occasional hiss of breath and cheer from Kyle breaking their silence.
A woman waved a flag over the track, signaling that it was the last lap.
“Go, Beau, go,” Kyle shouted, but the kid’s enthusiasm didn’t help. His cousin came in next to last place. “Well, crud, tonight was his last race. Daddy said he couldn’t spend any more money, until he won one.”
Stanly and Kyle stood, shoulder slumped and faces glum.
“Thanks for letting us sit with you,” Stanley said with a tip of his hat.
“Beau won’t believe it when I tell him who we sat with during the race,” Kyle crowed, jumping up and down on the bleachers.
Carter stood, craning his neck to find the driver of the bright green car. Beau emerged, tossing his helmet to another kid, then kicked at the dirt. Carter knew exactly how he felt.
“Would it be alright if I said hello to Beau?”
Stanley nodded and Kyle grabbed Carter’s hand. He followed them down to the Pit. Memories bubbling to the surface of his first race, his first wreck and the first time he got his ass handed to him. Carter couldn’t fight the grin. So much better than all the frowning and grimacing he’d been doing in the past twenty-four hours. The tightness that had worked its way deep inside of him eased and he exhaled, blowing away the frustration.
“Is that Carter Ambrose?” A sandy-haired boy’s mouth dropped open, gum falling to the ground.
Winking, Carter put a finger to his lips. He didn’t mind people discovering he was here, but having it advertised was another. The fans in the bleachers should be cheering on their local favorites, not him. Taking away another driver’s fifteen minutes wasn’t anywhere on his radar.
Carter hung back as Stanley talked to his nephew. All of seventeen, with hair the same shade of green as the Sprint car stuck up in clumps, Beau pointed to the track and shook his head. A silver hoop pierced his lip while dirt streaked his face and his suit.
Beau walked over to him, an expression of chagrin on his face. “Holy shit, it is you.”
“Watch your mouth,” Stanley shouted.
Rolling his eyes, Beau leaned into Carter. “He gets on my ass all the time for my language but my aunt’s the one that curses like a sailor. Uncle Stanley don’t say a damn thing to her.”
“Yeah, well…happy wife, happy life,” Carter said. He sliced his gaze to the Sprint Car. “Can I take a look?”
“Have at it. Maybe you can tell me what’s wrong with her.”
Carter ran his hand over the roof, sliding his fingers down to the hood that was still hot. The kid’s ride was sweet. Popping the hood, he checked out the engine. You could tell a lot about a man by the cleanliness of his engine. Or lack thereof. Chrome glinted under the track lights, shiny and mostly free from dirt.
Beau cared alright. A point in his favor, but would he be able to take some constructive criticism? Being able to not only take, but follow a season racer’s advice took a good driver to great, maybe even outstanding.
“Ever consider it might be the driver and not the equipment?”
Beau crossed his arms. “Maybe.”
Kyle ran over and climbed in the window. He began to make racing sounds.
“You a betting man?”
“Sometimes.” Beau lifted his chin, all cocky attitude. “If the prize is worth anything.”
“Four hundred says you come in the top two the next time you race, if you listen to my advice.” Carter pressed the hood down and looked Beau in the eye. “If you don’t, I’ll pay your entry fees for the rest of the season and for your fuel. Either way, you win.”
Beau grinned and stuck out his hand. “You got a deal.”
An hour later, Carter was four hundred short and covered in dirt from head to toe as he headed back to his truck. Sometimes everything worked out just right. Beau was teachable and not totally stubborn or hot-heated.
Turned out, the kid and his family had just moved to the outskirts of Holland Springs, from Forestville. He would be starting Holland Springs High School next week.