She brakes gently. The car slows. Seven minutes have elapsed. A little later, when it seems likelier that there won't be an unfortunate digestive event on the codriver side, Thomas explains the scraping sound. "Did you see how big that one rock was?" she says. "Like 12 inches high, and right in the middle of the path I needed to take. The car before us must have kicked it out there."
She says she assessed her options during the two or three seconds between seeing the rock and reaching it: veer around the rock to the outside of the hairpin, which would push the car into the dangerous edge-of-the-road gravel shoved out by the previous racers and probably lead to a rollover in the ditch. Or aim for just inside the gravel, which would run the left front tire over the rock, probably blowing the tire and requiring five minutes' delay for a mid-race tire change. Or center the car right over the rock, ensuring a noisy direct hit to the underside, and keep going.
"Sounded like the exhaust pipe, at least," Thomas says. "I'm thinking maybe $1,400 in repairs."
She pulls her helmet off and stuffs it into the padded crate behind her seat. Maybe she can talk one of her sponsors into helping her out, she says. The car eases across some railroad tracks and back out toward the county highway, and then the next question comes, having taken some moments to take shape: Wait, you're saying you went for the $1,400 car repair over a five-minute tire-change delay during one stage of a race everybody knows you don't need to win?
Thomas looks startled, then interested. She will win her class today, but she doesn't know that yet; nor does she know that a few months later, in another Oregon rally, the car will flip at 60 mph on an even rockier mountain curve--Burnsie sailing off the road like a trampoline jumper and landing upside down in the brush. The roof will smash, the right side will cave in, the windshield will shatter, but Gauger and Thomas will crawl out pretty much intact, except that Thomas will be ferried down the hill on a stretcher, yelling that it's only a mild concussion, demanding that everybody stop fussing over her. She'll be fine. She'll end up rebuilding the engine and using salvaged body parts to replace the car's entire shell. None of this has happened yet, though, and now, for a moment, Thomas seems to be bouncing the $1,400 question around inside her head, considering. Finally she purses her lips and allows herself the smallest, fleeting visitation of a facial expression that might resemble helplessness. She purses her lips. She grins. "I'm a race car driver," she says.