First from the trainer, then the team doctor, and finally from Dr. Nambu himself. Ken's comment had also included something along the lines of paying more attention to the trailers, but by that time Joe was too angry to hear anything more.
Not that he minded racing, he actually loved what little he had done of it. But being forced to do it? No, he would rather be back training. So far it was just him and Ken working in this program. What if Dr. Nambu couldn't able to find anyone else suitable?
So, here he was at a racetrack, while Ken was still actively training in martial arts and working with an instructor on flying. Joe thoughtlessly kneaded the edge of his left bicep, the dull soreness continuing despite his administrations.
"Watch the accelerator. With this engine the car could get away from you right quick." he heard Ikuru Matsao say from the vicinity of the dark blue car sitting at the edge of pit row.
Joe shifted his shoulders against the pickup truck door as he glanced at the car that he had heard some of the researchers talking about using as a template for his team vehicle. The car had once been the high-end of its line, but was now on the way to being a racing favorite. As templates went, a worse one could have been chosen.
But his mind wasn't in the car or the race. Instead, it was obsessed on the last training session, the one that had resulted in him being shipped out to this race. He shouldn't have tried to block with his left arm while slightly off-center. Maybe if he had shifted first before bringing his arm up...
"Are you paying attention?" Ikuru suddenly barked out, making Joe jump.
"Yeah, watch the accelerator." Joe mumbled, glaring back at the older man.
Ikuru straightened up from the car, dropping the hood into place, "Your mind isn't on this. We'll just pull out of the competition, and you can take your frustrations out on the practice course."
Joe came up quickly from the truck, his young face stony but eyes glittering with anger, "I'm here to race, and that's what I'll do."
Before Ikuru could respond, Joe stalked past him towards the other cars already out in the pit area.
The stands were starting to fill with people, with several bright-colored shade umbrellas popping up. The dry early morning air promised to grow hotter and drier as the day went on. The local drought wouldn't be lifted today. Considering the path of the dirt and gravel road portion of the free-form race, it was just as well.
The cars Joe walked past ranged from expensive sports cars, to cars that looked as if they were barely held together by their rust. He quickly pinpointed the ones that would be the biggest contenders, and it had nothing to do with the outside and everything to do with what was on the inside.
"The mixture is good! We'll go with that." a young female voice shouted out above the sound of the engine of a deep burgundy sports car. Joe barely got out of the way as the door was flung open.
"Watch it, kid!" the mechanic hovering over the engine shouted at Joe.
"Sorry." Joe said, sticking his hands in his pockets.
The blond girl smiled at him, glancing at him as she closed the car door behind her, "Relax Hector, it's just another of my fans."
With her smile, Joe suddenly recognized her. Lucy Gallo, one of the top racers in the Northern Youth Racing Circuit. Or the Southern, for that matter. Her bright blond hair was combed away from a face that could be described more as striking rather than beautiful.
Joe cleared his throat nervously, finally finding his voice, "Uh, actually I'm a driver here, too. But I've watched you for years."
"Must be your first year." the mechanic muttered as he picked up his tools and made his way back to one of the vans behind the car.
"Good luck in the race, kid. Sorry to say you won't win, but it will be a good learning experience for you." Lucy said with a wave of her hand as she walked to the front of the car to look under the hood herself.
Joe knew he had been dismissed. He continued his walk, glancing at the engine in Lucy's car as he passed. Most of it was in shadows, but he saw enough to see that she had one of the most expensive and powerful engines he had yet seen at one of his races.
As he moved on, he heard Lucy say testily, "Move on, Arimato. Your cologne might catch on fire."
Joe stopped and looked back to see a tall dark haired teen in a racing suit. It took a moment for him to place the face, but he finally recognized him as Chuck Arimato, one of the more outspoken and hot-headed racers in the circuit.
"Not a bad engine, Gallo, but better on the polished surfaces of a traditional racetrack. It's going to choke on this race." Arimato said, glancing at her car.
"Put your driving where your mouth is. Oh wait, you've already done that!" Lucy gave a short laugh, "Hasn't done you much good so far, has it!"
"Today is different. The great Gallo is going out of this Circuit with a thud instead of applause."
Lucy laughed at the statement. She didn't seem concerned at the fiery words of Chuck Arimato, but Joe suddenly was. He tensed at the way Arimato was leaning forward towards Lucy, the body language telling him that the intent was more hostile than simple competition.
Joe slowly walked back towards them as Lucy smiled at Arimato with a smile that didn't reach her steely eyes, "You've been saying that for years. This is my last season in this circuit, and I will cross the finish line today before you. Mark my words."
Arimato started leaning further towards her, when Lucy suddenly reached up. The next second the hood of the car came flying down. Arimato jerked back, barely avoiding having his head hit.
"Better get your own car in line, Arimato. You'll need every bit of edge you can get." Lucy said with another false smile.
Arimato looked ready to continue the argument when he caught sight of Lucy's mechanic watching him carefully with a thick crowbar cradled in his hand. Joe stopped and waited to see what the guy would do.
"See you on the road. You can eat my dust." Arimato finally said, turning to leave. As he passed by Joe he sneered, "Another wannabe kiddie racer joins the circuit?"
Joe's eyes narrowed as he watched the driver walk to the next car.
"I appreciate the protection, but it really wasn't needed. Arimato is all bluff and no show."
Joe turned back to find Lucy watching him with an amused look on her face. "He acted like he wanted to start something."
"And you think you could have taken him on if he had?"
Even with a strained muscle in his arm? "Oh yeah. If it had been necessary."
The amused look on Lucy's face faded a little as she studied his serious face. After a moment pause, she gave a short nod, "Yes, I believe you could. What is your name?"
"Joe Asakura. I'm in car number 2."
"I have a feeling I'll be seeing you in my rear view mirror, Mr. Asakura. See you on the starting line."
Joe continued his walk among the cars, but was no longer looking for a distraction. He noticed how Arimato continued his walk, studying each car he came to, sometimes lingering longer than politeness allowed. Several times he watched as mechanics came out to run him off.
Eventually, he returned to his own pit area. The dark blue car sat quiet, its hood down. Ikuru sat in the shade of the truck on a foldable lawn chair enjoying a cold drink.
"Almost time." Ikuru said, toasting Joe with a glass that was dripping with condensation.
Joe reached into the back of the car and pulled out his driving suit, "I'm ready."
As he sat behind the wheel two hours later, behind the second line of cars at the starting line, he flexed his left arm. It twinged, but no longer gave the shooting pains it had a few days ago.
The seat was more comfortable than he thought it would be, as it had been altered to fit his short height. Considering that he was starting to shoot up, he didn't think he would need it for long. At least he hadn't endured the embarrassment of needing extenders for the pedals like some of the youngest drivers needed.
The exhaust fumes of the other vehicles around him quickly filled the cabin of the car. Joe coughed a few times as the car in front of him revved the engine, blasting his car with even more exhaust.
Joe blinked his eyes to ease the stinging while keeping them on the light set up over the racetrack, just past the starting line.
Over the sounds of the engines around him, he could hear the sound of the crowd in the stands suddenly roar. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel in anticipation.
"Ready in there? Looks like it's about to start." Ikuru voice said in his ear.
"I'm ready. The engine sounds great." Joe answered back into the voice activated mic mounted in the helmet.
In the next blink of his eye, the light changed to yellow. The thundering noise of all the vehicles around him gunning their engines immediately drowned out any sounds coming from the crowd.
With his hand on the gearshift, Joe tensed, watching the light.
The light turned green, and instantly the pack of cars surged forward. Joe stayed in the midst of them as they circled the racetrack, managing to pick up several places.
As they again circled the track, the pack began to stretch out. Joe tucked in low in the curves, managing to pass one of the fancier cars.
"Way to go, boy!" Ikuru said. "One more lap and you'll be heading out the gate."
Joe was ready. As they came out of a curve, he saw that the road out of the Arena was now open with flashing green lights on either side of the road. Joe took the chance and stepped hard on the accelerator. He managed to pass one more car before they shot through the exit and out onto the main Arena access road, now blocked off for the race.
"How am I standing now?" Joe asked quickly.
"Sitting in the fifth slot. The cameras they set up are showing you fine. We can see everything on that Arena big-screen, the crowd loves it. We'll see if we still get the same coverage once you enter the forest. See if you can get past a few more cars before you hit the Coastal Road." Ikuru answered.
"I'll give it a shot." Joe said, the sunlight momentarily blinding him as the pack of cars merged onto a section of blocked-off interstate.
Joe hugged the tail of the black car in front of him as they climbed the on-ramp. The moment the constraints of the on-ramp concrete barriers disappeared, Joe swerved sharply to the left, gunning the engine. The car shot forward in immediate response. He caught the surprised look of the driver of the black car out of the corner of his eye as he surged past him.
The next car wasn't so easy. The driver seemed to have an uncanny sense of which direction Joe would try to pass.
"Car number 12 is being a pest." Joe said in frustration.
"Don't let him make you take chances, this race has just started. You're coming up on the off-ramp." Ikuru warned.
Coming up fast, Joe thought to himself, seeing the blinking red lights and bright orange barriers up ahead, showing the racers where to exit off the interstate.
Joe shifted down, cautiously applying the brake as they approached, still looking for a chance to slip by the 12 car. But, the driver was onto him, taking the middle of the road and countering any move Joe made. The only consolation was that they were keeping up with the leading two cars of the race.
As they flew down the exit and past a short area of blocked off businesses, where crowds of cheering fans waved flags, Joe asked, "Who is in the lead? I think I see Lucy's car."
"Lucy Gallo? Yep, she's in second right now, right behind Chuck Arimato." Ikuru said.
"What? How did that loser get up there?"
"Hold on." Ikuru said distractedly. As the road narrowed down to a two lane country road, Ikuru came back and said, "Big pile-up just happened behind you on the off-ramp. It'll be holding up the rest of the pack until they get it cleared. Keep your nose clean, Joe, and you have a chance at this. Right now it's just the three cars in front of you, and two behind you."
"At least the road won't be so crowded." Joe muttered to himself low enough that it wouldn't trigger the sound-activated microphone.
The road began to weave its way through pristine forest, interrupted only with the occasional rest area. With the road having been blocked off, the cars took advantage of using both lanes.
And still his efforts to pass the 12 car continued to fail.
"Only getting intermittent views of you now. How's it going?" Ikuru asked.
"Same problem as before, but the four of us are keeping really close together. No sign yet of the cars behind us." Joe said back, shifting down right before a curve.
For a moment, he thought he would be able to ride the curve to the outside to pass. But, he should have known better. The yellow car swerved, cutting him off. Joe hit the brakes, preventing them from colliding.
Joe narrowed his eyes as he picked up his speed again. This was getting old.
Taking the time as he caught up he scanned the road in front of them. The two front cars were now slowly leaving them behind. He knew if he wanted to stay with them, he had to get ahead of this yellow car.
The two front cars disappeared around a corner, and Joe concentrated on the curve up ahead. Once again the car swerved to take the inside of the corner, and then quickly swerved again to take the middle of the road. Joe was prepared and gave the rear of the yellow car plenty of space.
And that space made all the difference.
"Look ahead at all times. Know what is ahead of the car directly in front of you. Know what is ahead of the fifth car in front of you." Ikuru and several other driving instructors had drilled into his head.
As he came around the corner, Joe caught the barest glimpse of Arimato's car suddenly swerving behind Gallo's car. In the next instance Gallo's car rotated slightly to the right as if impacted, and then spun harshly to the left. As it did, Arimato's car slipped past to take the lead.
"Did you see that?" Joe yelled as he hit the brakes, heading to the right side of the road.
"You aren't on in a camera field. What happened?" Ikuru asked.
Joe didn't bother answering. Gallo's car spun across the road. As it hit the gravel on the left side of the road, the tires caught, and then suddenly the car shot off to the right side of the road backwards.
Joe yanked the steering wheel to the left, managing to avoid a collision as Gallo's car flashed by the front of his car. Gravel and vegetation sprayed into the air as it disappeared into the deep gutter and forest beyond.
The yellow car was not so lucky. Seeing Gallo's car at the last moment, he tried to turn, and then over-corrected. The yellow car launched across the left gutter, ended up cradled in a thicket, tilted at an odd angle.
Joe's car had come to an abrupt stop, angled across the road just past the two wrecked cars. He saw the driver of the 12 car angle himself out through the driver's window, obviously furious, beating the roof of the car with his head shaking and mouth moving quickly.
"Another pile-up, Ikuru." Joe finally said, "Car 12 is out, and it looks like Gallo is as well."
"Gallo was in front and I think Arimato tapped her. The driver of 12 is okay, but I haven't seen Gallo yet..."
He was interrupted by a banging on the passenger side. Angry female eyes flashed at him through the visor of a white and red helmet before the door was flung open. The next second he found Lucy Gallo sitting next to him.
"Move it! Do you want the slimy worm to win?" Lucy fumed at him as she jerked the seatbelt on.
Joe stared at her for one brief second, and then back at the yellow car. With a jerk of the gearshift, the car was moving forward again.
"What is going on, Joe?" Ikuru asked.
"Lucy Gallo is currently sitting next to me. I'm heading after Arimato." Joe said as the car flew down the road.
With no one in front of him, he let the engine wind up, taking the curves hard inside with as much speed as he dared.
Suddenly, he heard in his helmet, "Not bad, freshman, but that little tumble, and your delay, cost you plenty of time."
Joe dared a glance at her.
"Just dialed into the right frequency. Hope you don't mind." Lucy said, tapping her own helmet.
"So, what happened?" Joe asked.
"What do you think? The little jerk tapped me. Revenge for finally passing him." Lucy said with fury.
"And get you out of the rest of this year's circuit?"
"Nah, the car isn't that torn up, but I'm finishing this race, one way or another. Hit the gas!" Lucy demanded.
Joe shifted up a gear as he came out of another curve, and then bit out, "You drive your car the way you want to, I'll drive mine my way. I want to actually finish this race."
"If you would take some friendly advice you just might win it, not just finish it. You aren't shifting up fast enough when you come out of the curves. Those partial seconds could win or lose you a race. Just try it. A half second before you are doing it now." Lucy said, her voice dropping to a calmer note.
To his annoyance, he noticed Ikuru wasn't saying much, although he was sure the man could hear everything being said.
Then, to Joe's further irritation, when he tried it, the advice seemed to work. As they came to a series of tight turns, he found that he was slowly gaining on the other racer. But, the instinct to delay in shifting into a higher gear was hard to overcome, especially after seeing so many of the professional drivers he liked spinning out of control for that exact same mistake.
As they rounded a sharp curve to run parallel to the coastline, heading back towards the Arena, Joe finally caught sight of the car. Arimato's car was a bright red streak in front of him, appearing and disappearing among the gentle curves of this part of the road. This was the driving he excelled at. The red car grew closer and closer.
"We see you on the camera's again, Joe. Looking good." Ikuru said. "Ms. Gallo, I have informed your crew that you are alive and well."
"Thank you, sir." Lucy said. Joe noticed she was flexing her hands, and he imagined she was itching to take over the wheel.
"You still have time to win the circuit. This is just one race." Joe said hastily.
"Oh I know, and I will, I assure you." Lucy said. He saw her turn her head towards him, "I fully intend to leave my mark before leaving racing."
Joe almost faltered as he took a shallow curve. He made up for it by taking the next one a little faster than was prudent. Fortunately, the car held true to the road.
"Leaving racing? You aren't graduating to the adult circuit?" Joe finally asked.
"Unfortunately, no. Time to be a grown-up and enter the family business, pain that it is. But I'll succeed there as much as here." Lucy said with what to Joe sounded like a mixture of both regret and excitement.
The sun glinted hard off the waves of the ocean, sometimes making Joe squint his eyes even with the protection of the tinted visor of his racing helmet. As they approached the end of the Coastal Road, Joe wondered if that was what his voice would sound like one day when it was time to end the training and go into battle. He loved racing, feeling the power of the engine vibrate through both him and the car, the feel of gliding down the road.
At another set of lit barriers, they turned onto the short gravel road that would lead them back to the main road that led back into the Arena. It was here that the stocky little car proved its worth. Arimato's car fishtailed as it went around a curve. Joe slid his car into a gentle sideways skid around the corner, barely losing any speed as he did so.
"I see someone has been training on the back roads!" Lucy said with a trill in her voice.
"Best place to train without being seen." Joe said with a grin remembering Dr. Nambu's reaction when he found out what Joe had been doing on the back roads behind the house with the Doctor's car. Fortunately, once he had calmed down, and sent his car out to have the scratches and dents taken care of, Dr. Nambu had decided to use the interest to his advantage.
His arm twinged slightly as Joe wrestled the steering wheel. Injury or not, he was going to take this race. He might as well train for his future in a different way. And he had a perfect tutor sitting next to him. Someone who had gone head to head with this guy and come out on top multiple times.
"Our odds of getting past him before the Arena are poor, at best. Any tips on doing it once we're in the Arena?" Joe asked.
"Now you're asking?"
"Yes, now I'm asking. Do you want the jerk to win?" Joe said with a grin.
"Well, when you put it that way!" Lucy said in a teasing voice. "Arimato's attention span is that of a gnat. Stay as close as you can, but don't let him get near enough to tap you. If he does something stupid, take advantage of it. Otherwise, wait for those other two cars to join us in the Arena for the final laps. That's when you move in for the pass."
Joe concentrated on getting as close to Arimato as possible before they hit the paved road leading back into the arena. Both cars burst past the entrance of the Arena and out onto the racetrack. Joe smiled as the crowd on the stands rose and started waving, fist-pumping and waving little flags with team insignias on them.
At first, Arimato skittered back and forth in front of Joe. Joe watched his movements, but made no attempt at passing. As they continued around the track, Joe smiled, enjoying playing with Arimato's mind.
As if wondering himself, Ikuru asked, "Going to make a try for it? It's just the two of you!"
"Not yet. Not just yet." Joe answered.
Lucy laughed at his answer.
As it turned out, it took two laps in the Arena before the other two cars finally joined them. At their arrival just in front of them, Joe immediately noticed the difference in Arimato's driving. The man's focus was definitely on the cars in front of him, not on Joe.
"He's going high!" Lucy warned.
But Joe had already seen the movement. Arimato was going to try and pass the first car on the top of the curve.
Joe took a chance and ran as far down the curve as he could. As the curve straightened out, Joe shifted into a higher gear sooner than usual, and he heard Lucy express her approval. As the new car drifted towards the middle of the racetrack as it came out of the turn, Joe slipped past on the left. He didn't take the time to see where Arimato was. He floored the gas, letting the souped up engine carry them down the straight-away as fast as it could muster.
"Hah, he didn't expect that one, the moron! He'll be coming up behind you soon, make sure he can't tap you!" Lucy yelled into her microphone at the same time Ikuru was shouting at him, making Joe wish he could turn the sound down in his helmet.
Joe glanced in the mirrors and saw that she was right. Arimato was right behind him, having also successfully passed the other car.
One more car in front of him.
Arimato surged up behind him, and Joe went high on the racetrack to avoid him. Arimato was obviously focusing on him, as he followed closely. As the next turn approached, Joe downshifted suddenly, and then shot down to the bottom edge of the turn. Arimato was left trying to keep up.
The final car slid past Joe to the right.
"You have it, Joe, if you can keep a handle on the next two laps." Ikuru said in his ear. "Arimato is still stuck behind car 34."
"That won't last for long." Joe muttered.
"Don't be so sure. He's behind Merson now, and Merson can be hard to pass. You surprised him by switching positions so fast." Lucy said with a pleased note, "But be careful of Merson. He'll be looking for a way to pass you again himself."
Joe quickly found out that she was right. Merson gained on every turn. Without anyone in front of him, Joe took the curves as tight as he could. He noticed Lucy's right hand twitched about the same time on each curve. Taking it as a clue as to when she would have shifted gears, he then shifted himself. The first time he found it too soon. The car slipped a little under him, but he quickly brought it under control. He ignored Lucy's glare as they came out of the turn and into the straight-away.
The next turn he shifted just a little bit later, and found that the car took the turn more solidly. Joe smiled to himself. He was finding his rhythm now.
Ignoring Lucy, Joe concentrated on the heat-wavering track in front of him.
As he came around the last turn, Lucy yelled, "He's right behind you! Merson let him slip by!"
Joe had noticed.
And he wasn't about to give up his lead.
As the car shot out of the turn, Joe stomped on the accelerator. The car practically jumped in response.
Oh yeah, he loved this feeling.
The wind whistled by the open windows as the dark blue car shot down the track.
Lucy let loose with an ecstatic yell that nearly deafened Joe as they crossed the finish line.
Joe let the car slow down naturally as it went around the next turn. He then guided it into the pit area, with Arimato streaking past him at a speed that was far from safe. As Joe brought his car to a stop in front of his designated pit area he then noticed a grinning Ken standing next to Ikuru by the pickup truck, giving him a double thumbs up.
So, someone from his new adopted family had decided to show up after all.
"Not bad, not bad. Especially for a first-timer." Lucy was saying, having taken her helmet off. Her perspiration-damp hair clung to her forehead.
Joe unstrapped the helmet and took it off, "Not bad? I won!"
"Not without a little help." Lucy said with a saucy grin.
Joe could feel anger building up inside him as he climbed out of the car. No matter how much, it was never enough. Lucy was out of the car in a flash herself, dangling her helmet from two fingers.
She seemed to feel his anger, and she grinned at him from the safety of the other side of the vehicle, "Don't get me wrong. You're good, Joe. You have the raw talent and drive, but do you have the heart to go for the long haul?"
Joe then noticed a face glaring at them from a pit a little farther down the row. Lucy turned around to look at where Joe was staring and noticed Arimato watching them. She gave a pert wave with a wide smile. Arimato started to raise his hand in what Joe was sure would be an obscene gesture, and then suddenly stopped.
Joe then realized why. A group of race officials and reporters were heading straight for them.
Lucy turned the smile on him as she came around the car, "I'll be watching out for you for the rest of the season, freshman. See if you can pass me on the next race."
She gave him one wink and then quickly walked away. A few reporters splintered off the main group to follow her, but the majority continued straight for Joe. Joe had a sudden feeling of being caught in multiple cross-hairs.
The next second Ikuru was at the car. "Knew you had it in you! You're taking the turns better that I've ever seen."
"Really good, Joe." Ken said, his thumbs hooked in his belt loops.
Joe looked back at the direction Lucy had left, briefly seeing her blond head farther down the pit road. He let go of the anger, and smiled slightly, "I still have a lot to learn. I almost bought it several times out there."
"But you kept control of the car. You almost lost it on that curve and you brought it right back." Ken said.
"Having a pretty little bird whispering in your ear didn't hurt, either." Ikuru whispered to him. Then the man clapped Joe on the back so hard that Joe almost lost his balance, saying in a louder voice, "Take the limelight, boy!"
The crowd had now reached him, and Joe stepped away from the car. As the first set of questions were shouted out at him, he briefly thought that Lucy had questioned the wrong thing.
He had the heart. He just needed to control the talent and drive, and he was already well on the way to doing that. Lucy would be seeing a lot of a certain car in her rear-view mirror for the remainder of this season, and if he had his way, she would be worrying about passing him and not the other way around.