The sun peeks around the corner of a skyscraper. I don't know the name of the tall building but I do know it looks like a big pirate ship and holds lots and lots of lawyers. We're wearing coats, or at least we were. Like many things in this great state of Georgia, the weather is temperamental. It shoots from hot to cold and back again in just a twenty four hour period. It's the kind of wishy washy weather that makes you wish zip off khakis were considered Business Casual.
"So Dan Quinn, huh?"
A loaded question flows forth from my co-worker's mouth, his tone and words pregnant with conversational possibility. I look at him and shrug a "Who's that again?" shrug. He captures the inference of the gesture.
"Yeah, no clue on him."
"His Seattle defenses are nasty," I offer.
"He's never been a head coach," comes the reply.
"The Falcons need a defense," I retort.
"But that'll take a few seasons. Is the patience there?"
"It's going to have to be. The Falcons are stepping into a revved-up, seven-hundred horsepower V8 strapped to some aluminum, fiberglass, and rubber."
My co-worker looks at me incredulously, as many of them are oft to do. He then shakes his head.
I've killed the conversation without having to offer my opinion. The potential hire of Dan Quinn is a divisive one, as is the retention of Comrade Dimitroff. I don't like to play my cards very often, and when I do, they remain fairly close to me; I have a habit of reining in my opinions based on my audience. It's a great, chameleonic conversation tactic but it hides the true thoughts in favor of crowd-pleasing efforts. Not a strength and not necessarily a weakness, but a flaw all the same.
We almost make it back up the thirty story flight in the elevator in total silence. As we exit, I start walking one way, he the other. Before I can turn the corner, I hear,
"What the hell does that mean?"
I can imagine the same thought is dancing on many of your tongues too, so allow me to expound upon my conversation-killing idiom.
My dad is a wizard, and I'm not talking magic. For most of his life and all of mine, my father has been able to take two looks at a small or large engine, flick his wrist, and return it to its original intended function. I've seen him use a socket wrench taller than I am to tighten a bolt in the engine of a tractor (the type that pulls a trailer east bound and down, loaded up and truckin'), rebuild a full size transmission in a hour, and rig a push-button ignition on an ancient Japanese car. Whatever mechanical problem comes my dad's way, he can have it fixed for you in two shakes of a torque wrench.
This talent of his netted him some pretty sweet gains over the years, besides his day job. His "off hours" work paid for my full size basketball goal when I was young, helped net him some free tin-snipping work for a roof, and many other "sweet handshake deals" over the years. Free turkeys, NASCAR tickets, gift certificates, cold hard cash, etc. You name it and he probably bartered for it.
For me though, the richest "get' he ever got was his connection to a man that owned and operated a painting business that I will call Mr. P. It just so happened that this man loved to drag race as a hobby. It also just so happened that my dad knew how to build one mean four-block that could turn alcohol into pure fire-breathing, wheel-spinning nastiness. You could say it was a compatible match.
This relationship between my dad and Mr. P wound up giving me one of my most memorable life experiences. Mr. P got heavy into drag racing, so much so that he was competing on a regular basis. Memory fails me on whether or not he was ever sponsored by anything but his painting business but I do remember lots and lots of stickers on his car the first time I saw it. Now is the time for me to switch to full on narrative mode. I'm going to savor this memory and you're going on the journey with me.
As my dad drives through the gates on onto the dirt track, I'm a little taken aback. Tonight's a major tournament for the Montgomery Motor Speedway. Racers from all over the SouthEast are coming to compete, to see whose alcohol fueled, wheeled-nightmare is the fastest. And here we are, two Schultzes in a pickup truck, arriving at the track hours early, driving across the round dirt track, by the staging area of the half-mile strip, and into the pit area, DRIVERS AND CREWS ONLY PLEASE. We pull up beside a camper and two large trucks set up just behind the retaining wall that separates a wild, crashing, fire-spitting racing behemoth from the bags of flesh and bone on the other side. I can practically smell the strip of asphalt cooking in the burning day sun.
Mr. P walks up to greet us as we disembark. His image is a memorable one: jeans, loose t shirt, long hair, thick mustach. He is a race car driver, in the flesh. Lithe and wiry, a hard jaw, a tan that whispers "hard work outside" rather than screaming "RECREATION!" The archetypal Southern racer is standing before me. I almost want to bow out of respect. Instead, my dad and Mr. P start talking about something. I strike up a conversation with Mr. P's son, a slightly older boy who will be racing in the junior bracket tonight. He's soft spoken, slightly shy, and slightly wary. He's definitely softer than his dad, but that's likely due to his youth rather than any mixed genetics.
Things get loud, very loud, very quickly. The racers are going through their practice runs. Mr. P doesn't appear to be in a hurry; he's accustomed to the track, knows it well. He'd rather gab. I hear my name. I turn away from the roaring mechanical monsters mere feet from me.
"Think you can take Adam for a spin?"
It's my dad. He just flat out asked the race car driver if I can ride in the dragster.
"Oh heck yeah. You ready?"
I'm shy, shocked, and nearly silent. I manage a head nod and a noise two rungs below the "intelligible" notch on the conversation ladder.
"Then grab your helmet, boy!" cries Mr. P, gesturing at me like taking a pudgy red headed teen for a 200 mile-per-hour spin in a very expensive dragster is the only thing in the world he wants to do right then and there.
My dad tosses me my old motorcycle helmet (a story for another day, I'm afraid) and looks at Mr. P.
"Keep it under 140."
Mr. P nods with about as much commitment as I had to a healthy diet at the time.
The car is white, covered in stickers, and surprisingly innocent looking besides the big parachute bag on the back of it. It's a Chevy, a Monte Carlo to be exact. I never learn the model year but know that its the style that had four separate headlights. The hood is bolted on. The tires are huge in the back, skinny in the front. It's front end is low to the ground, it's back end hilariously high. No spoiler, just some stabilizers bolted to the rear undercarriage. It looks mean.
It turns out, Mr. P had planned to let me ride with him the whole time. He motioned to the passenger side, which had a bucket seat with a five-point harness. He had installed it strictly for the purpose of taking me for a ride, at least that's what I want to believe at the time. He helps me lower into the seat and buckles the harness for me. I put on my helmet.
The inside of the car has been gutted and replaced with an steel roll cage. There's a fire extinguisher, nobs and dials. Switches. A weird green button on the steering wheel. A red switch with "Ignition" stamped above it. I'm in a race car.
"Ready?" Mr. P asks me again as he straps himself in.
"Yeah!" I scream, having found my voice as wanton testosterone pumps throughout my extremities. I am in a race car!
"Ok, here we go!"
The noise. Oh the noise that car made. I had ear plugs on. My ears were covered with a helmet. It was still too loud. Mr. P was shouting something at me. I couldn't hear him. All I could hear, all I could smell, all I could feel was seven or eight hundred horses roaring through gnashing teeth, threatening to shear the front of the car from the back. And we were just idling in the pit lane.
"Huh?" I yelled.
Mr. P cut the engine.
"Hell of a sound, aint it?"
"Ok, here's how it goes," Mr. P began, grinning like a Falcons fan after the Saints lose.
"This here is the ignition. This is the fire extinguisher, hope we ain't gotta use it. This is the launch button."
He pointed to the green button on the steering wheel.
"When you see them staging lights start, I rev the engine and hold his button. It keeps us in a high rev state so when them lights hit green and I release the button, I just go man. I just go."
I nodded again, not understanding a word of it.
"Ok, ready for real?"
Once again, I moved my head up and down. Then the world started shaking and roaring and moving and I was elated. Mr. P maneuvered the car slowly through the pit lane, past the gate keeper for the track.
"Practice run," he yelled. Mr. Gatekeeper waved us through.
Mr. P gets to the staging lights. As he gets closer, the lights tick up from green, to yellow, to red, to black. A man with a hose sprays the concrete behind us. He says something to Mr. P. I can't hear it.
With a lurch, the car shoots a few feet behind the start line and I'm lifted up. Rubber sets on fire. Smoke fills the cabin. I start coughing. I can't hear anything but a loud buzzing, as if a thousand angry bees were screaming just behind my ear plugs.
Another lurch and we're in front of the staging lights. There's a guy in a yellow polo nearby beckoning Mr. P to get closer. The staging lights answer in kind as we inch closer, from green to yellow to red to black. We get a solid black. Mr. P waves his arm. He revs the engine. It growls in protest and he revs it higher. The lights turn yellow once, twice. Mr. P slams his thumb on the green button, holding it there.
The lights turn green.
In the small window of time I have to think between me witnessing the lights turn green and watching Mr. P's thumb release the green button, I realize something.
"I can die doing this. I am really in danger here. This isn't motorcycle riding. This isn't rollerblading. This isn't swatting at a bee's nest. This is downright dangerous. I'm sitting in a metal cage strapped to a block of metal that's consuming alcohol so it can create fire that pushes pistons that spin a metal bar that makes the car go way too fast."
In other words, "This could go horribly wrong."
All thought is erased milliseconds later.
Traveling at high speed is more of something you feel rather than see. In milleseconds of the lights going green, I am being forced into the back of the bucket seat, the harness growing looser and looser as my face desperately tries to split itself and slide to the back of my helmet. My eyes feel as if they're being pulled away from my skull and I start to get some tunnel vision. Everything's a blur. My world is no longer the rich, beautiful world it once was. It's the wind fighting a wild, fire breathing dragon a few inches from my face. No sound to hear. Nothing. Just a heart beat and the blur of a world going way faster than a hundred and forty miles per hour.
And that's what I mean. The Falcons hiring Dan Quinn and his staff is a risk of the same level as flying down a strip of asphalt at ludicrous speed.
Dan is untested. The Falcons might not have the exact talent he wants or needs. We have to wait on him due to the Super Bowl. There's no guarantee he can transfer his defensive success to the Falcons. The Falcons aren't known for making smart coaching hires (Mike Smith one of the few shining outliers).
But what if, after two or three seasons, the Falcons get to the end of the drag strip and find a Lombardi trophy waiting for them in the pit lane. What if Dan Quinn is the next Bill Belicheck? What if he gets returns day one and 2015 turns into the best season we've ever had? And if it ends in ruin? Does it matter? How lower can we go from here?
I have my doubts to be completely honest. I'm not that confident. But the Falcons have strapped themselves in and this race is about to start. Whether or not they crash and burn on the way to the end of the strip is up to lots of things: Intelligence, strategy, timing, and luck. But they're taking the risk and like it or not, we're going along for the ride with them.
It's over entirely too quickly. I'm alive. Mr. P's turning onto the pit lane at the end of the drag strip. He guns it once more down the pit lane, I guess to give me one last thrill before disembarking. We park. I get out. My dad asks me a muffled question.
"it was awesome!" is the response I want to give.
Instead, I take off my helmet, remove my ear plugs, and sit down on a concrete barrier. My dad sits down next to me.
I look at him and smile. "Thanks Dad."
Author's note: Mr. P was not just a painter and semi-pro drag racer, he was a great human being too. He donated to many causes and gifted a large parcel of land to his town for the purpose of building a pee-wee sports complex that is still serving his community. He passed away a few years ago of complications with an illness but his legacy lives on.