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"Good now," said the mechanic.
Parnelli looked around—the tires had been changed, the gas tank filled, Se�ora Josefina satisfied. Perhaps he disregarded the thatched roofs, the pigeons playing tag in the halves of tire cases dangling from the roof beams, old tire cases painted a shocking purple to match the desert sunset; certainly he failed to see the goat sleeping in the dust behind the cantina and the tents of the campers . spread so brightly in the riverbed behind the rancho. But his racer's eyes did not miss the fact that this was the main chance.
"Fire up," he said. The engine let loose a tremendous roar that spooked the dogs and the goat from their somnolence, and Parnelli dug out of Santa Ynez trailing a 10-yard spume of dirt.
Bobby Ferro limped in a few minutes later. It had been bouldersville all down the line. His skid plate was gone, ripped off by the fangs of the Baja. His brakes were shot, victims of the same bite. His gearshift would not work, and he tried to fix it with that magnificent nostrum of racing, gray tape, winding yards and yards around the housing. Sure cure for cancer, they say. "Somebody threw a firecracker at the car back up the road there," he said, "and it blew up in my lap. Not that this race ain't tough enough anyway."
So that was the end of Bobby Ferro. He forged ahead, as a true Baja racer must, but he failed to finish. Parnelli seemed to be home free. That night at the midway point of the race, a dusty, dying mining town called El Arco, Big Oly roared in and out in mere seconds, disappearing down the road to La Paz with an angry blast. Parnelli's headlights lit the town church like a postcard. The dust of his passage reddened in the glare of cook fires built from dead cactus roots and those who were not racing—the observers, spotters, officials—settled down to their strange suppers. Beer, Scotch, Fig Newtons, Kahlua, a culinary delight called "Baja Mix"—the enlightened combination of canned beans and corned-beef hash—rendered all the more tasty by that grand sauce, hunger, and the absence of real sustenance. But all the racers had to eat was dust, starlight and a nightful of air that registered only 38� Fahrenheit on the thermometer. For dessert there were coyote yowls and a few owl hoots, if one could taste them above the sound of the engine.
One who failed to enjoy the dessert was Preston Petty, no kin to the stock car racer. He stalked into El Arco at sunrise, huge in his leather jacket and bulbous crash helmet, marching toward the fire like an updated Frankenstein's monster, replete with lace-up boots. "Gimme heat," he seemed to say. Cactus failed to stop him en route to the nearest camp-fire. Crash, slap, slam—they all fell down, but not the man himself. "Damn rear end broke last night when I was gettin' here," Preston said finally, toasting his hands over the campfire. "Thought I'd get some shut-eye but then they told me they'd welded her back together again and I took off cussin' and, by dang, I got about some 15 miles down the road out of El Arco running real smooth through the dark there, when she just plain broke again where she'd broke before. It was weird there whistling through the weeds and in a way I was glad to get quit of it, but now that I've been walkin' out of the desert towards this here campfire for a couple of hours I'm not so sure. Got any coffee?" A few minutes later the rising sun dissipated Preston Petty's malaise: the snarl of an approaching engine announced that his Volkswagen Safari was well again. He churned off into the dawn. The monster lives, as perhaps it should.
Same thing with Parnelli. Approaching La Paz on the last leg of the journey, he felt his brakes fading. "It started at EI Arco, and by Villa Constituci�n the pedal was just lying there on the floor," he said later. "There was a mix-up about the gas at the Villa, some Meskin poured water down Stroppe's back and about 14 miles out of La Paz it looked like he'd poured some into the gas tank as well. Or maybe he poured gas down Bill's back and none into the tank. Anyways, we were stuck there for nearly 40 minutes, maybe 45, flat out of gas. Finally we flagged down a Meskin in a Volkswagen. He had a tequila jug with him. I paid him a $20 bill to empty it and refill it with gas at the nearest station. We fired her up and made it into La Paz just about three o'clock in the morning."
When Big Oly crossed the finish line the crowd-control fences came crashing down. "Viva Parnelli!" was the only coherent sound. Then the local cops went home, the judges disappeared, and the remaining finishers—some 97 of them—had to steer sharply as they entered the hysterical throng.
The main drag into downtown La Paz doubled as the finish line and the only thing that stopped the racers—most of them half hypnotized by the last straightaway—was the frantic waving of a checkered flag and the ever-narrowing human alley of cheering Mexicans.
One man-and-woman team, obviously not speaking after their night desert run, whipped their buggy to a stop and sat staring stonily ahead, both coated evenly with a rich crust of grayish sand that made them look as if they and their vehicle had been sculpted simultaneously out of sandstone and were ready for the bronze casting. The only touch of color was the bright pink polish on the tips of the woman's fingers.