On Sunday Mickey assembled the crew and announced that he had sneaked away late the night before, alone, for a sort of communion out on the desert. He also had driven the red car 185 miles an hour while communing.
"Man, it is reeely slippery out there on the No. 3 turn," he said. "I came skidding around that thing like you wouldn't believe. The sun and heat pull up the moisture from the salt, and it lies on the surface, see? I had her all hung out for about five miles, man. It's the greatest. Now you guys try it."
It was decided we would practice in the wine-colored car. "There ain't any spare practice engines for the yellow one in case someone screws it up," Mickey said, looking purposefully at me. "That's the engine we go for the record with. So you got to learn fast."
His face impassive—good drivers always have impassive faces; they practice the look secretly at night in front of their bathroom mirrors—Danny Ongais took Brock out in the Mustang. They came back in, ceremoniously changed places, and Ray began to drive. We stood nervously and squinted across the salt until we lost the car in the shimmering heat waves. Then it materialized, wavering on the skyline and finally roared up. Brock pulled off his helmet. What hair he has left was matted wetly on his head. He was grinning widely.
"Started off at 5,400 rpm right off the bat," he said. "And first thing, I spun it out, and next thing you know I was running backward. The course is not exactly in ideal condition. Huh. The salt is too grainy. Slippery out there."
I painfully buckled on my helmet and climbed in with Danny.
As I was hooking up seat belt, crotch strap and shoulder harness, Mickey leaned in the window. "Run it up to 4,000 rpm before you shift gears," he said. "It's geared for very high revs. If the sumbitch wants to slide, just take that wheel and pitch it into the corners. You got to feel it with the seat of your pants."
I nodded, the helmet waggling back and forth on my head, flicked on the ignition switch, then the start switch. We slammed away, howling into the first turn. Danny leaned back, folded his arms and began to watch me.
Coming off the second turn I had it down through the gears, and the tach began to inch up past 4,300. Ongais nodded approvingly. He should never have done it.
The inside of the course was marked off with four-foot-high stakes driven into the salt. I sighted down the stakes and planted the wheels as close to them as I could; they began flashing by in a blur. Then it hit 4,500 rpm and a bit more than 4,500. Third turn coming up. The noise was fantastic; the car sounded madder than anything I had ever heard. Let's see now. Pitch it into that corner. So I took a deep breath and cranked it hard into the No. 3 turn. It was like making a turn on tapioca pudding. And we started to slide. That is, before we started to spin.