The story is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, Finn's Car, an adventure novel for children, the second book in the Finn's Travels series.
Waiting at the starting line, Axel reviewed the go-kart racecourse in his mind. When he reached turn two, he tried to proceed past the crash site. Just like the sleepless night before, slow motion footage of Garret's accident rolled across his screen. Axel sat in his kart with clammy hands, clutching the steering wheel. Get a grip. He, Donovan and Garret had been favored for first, second and third, but Garret wouldn't be racing today.
On Wednesday drivers and parents had arrived at the track for Saturday's race. At the team dinner, Donovan had asked, "What do you get when you cross a driver with a screw?"
Axel smirked. "Don't say a screwdriver."
Garret snorted. "Was that supposed to be funny? I'll show you funny." Garret shoved french fries into both nostrils, flopped stomach down on the table and barked like a walrus. The coke Donovan meant to swallow sprayed from his nose like a fire extinguisher. Garret clapped and barked again while Axel shook his head. A harried waitress threw paper napkins and dirty looks at them.
After dinner in the hotel video arcade, Axel beat his teammates in six straight rounds of Jet Ski Racers and Motocross Madness. Finally, during Ski Jump, Garret cried, "You're cheating!"
Before Axel could reply, Fat Brad the crew chief chased them up to their rooms. "Morning comes quick, gentlemen. Breakfast at seven sharp."
Thursday, Axel drove his chariot like the Greek god Apollo drove the sun across the sky. Fleet and true. Climbing out of the kart, he looked forward to the elimination heats the next day. He headed to the team tent, but paused outside when he overheard a conversation.
"I'm telling you, there's a vibration in the front end I've never felt before." Garret's voice strained with anger and something else. Fear?
"I checked everything ten times," Fat Brad answered, "and I got nothin'. You need to be driving more aggressive. Don't let Donovan show you up. Or Axel. Who is that guy? Flash and no substance."
"Fine, Brad, more aggressive. But I can't do that if the kart is broken."
Axel turned and walked away. Typical. Garret whining. Fat Brad putting everyone down. He'd show them.
Friday, the sun sulked behind clouds. As the green flag fell on Axel's first heat, rain showers littered the track with oil slick rainbows.
Completing a clean first and second lap, Axel decided to make his move. He prepared to overtake Donovan at turn two, a tight right-hander. Coming around the outside, Axel's pass should have been easy. But at that moment, Donovan's kart spun on an oil slick, landing sideways across the lane. Axel veered wide to avoid a collision, but spun on the same slick. G-forces pushed him into his seat like a giant, invisible hand. He saw the track swing around and oncoming karts fly past. By some miracle, none hit him but Donovan wasn't so lucky. Axel watched him jarred in his seat like a bobble-head figure when kart number seven struck Donovan broadside, creating another obstacle on the track.
Six karts squeaked by unharmed. Garret appeared and steered straight over stranded kart seven's nose, launching into the air and flipping, once, twice, and a half like a spinner fish on a line, twisting to get free. Garret landed on his head with the kart strapped to his butt.
Yellow flags flew. People rushed onto the track and pulled out Donovan and the kid in number seven, both shaken but walking. Meanwhile, Fat Brad helped safety personnel push Garret's kart over. Had Garret's supposed front end vibration been a factor? The crew chief unbuckled and removed Garret, and laid him limp and unmoving on the track to wait for a stretcher.
Hands pulled Axel from his undamaged kart and stood him wobbly-legged next to it. He tried to sit on the pavement, but strong arms urged him forward. Seating him under the tent, Dad removed his helmet and peered at him.
"Are you okay, son?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Garret was loaded into an ambulance that hurried away with him. Axel avoided the question in his mind. Was Garret dead? He wasn't, they quickly found out, but the world's scariest video looped in Axel's mind.
Later, Axel's lackluster performance in the elimination heat earned him starting position eight.
Saturday at the starting line, Axel forced his mind through the racecourse. Fleet and true. Green dropped. His chariot flew forward.
Axel shadowed the two karts ahead of him, Donovan and another kid, noticing how they approached the curve. Donovan drove with confidence, powering down and attacking the inside edge. The other guy hesitated, hung on Donovan's shoulder, hid in his shadow and lagged far enough that he didn't draft properly. Coming through. Axel drew even with the kid, who visibly flinched to see him, backed off and let him by.
Donovan showed no intention of giving way. Axel dogged him and watched for an opening. The karts were evenly matched. Axel applied pressure, driving as close as possible without contact, then a millimeter closer at the exact moment when he knew Donovan would dive into the curve. Only Axel was there first, so to avoid a collision, Donovan had to yield. Axel blazed past him toward the lead pack of three in the distance. His kart screamed down the straightaway. He caught the leaders and tailed them an entire lap, looking for a chance to overtake. He edged closer but before he could take his shot, the first kart crossed the finish and the race was over. He had run out of track.
Frustrated and angry with himself, he pulled off his helmet. He should have won this race.
Dad was there in an instant. "Way to go, son! Way to battle back!"
"I got fourth, Dad. Not even podium."
"Your laps were fastest. You outdrove every car out there."
Axel shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I lost."
Mom leaned in for a hug, which he allowed, then pushed away.
He walked the edge of the track like a caged panther pacing. He nearly threw his helmet, but its price tag flashed across his brain like a neon sign. So instead, he tucked it under an arm and said to his parents, "Help me load up?"
Karts had to have their weight verified. At the weigh station Fat Brad said, "Tough break, man."
Axel glared. Strangers patted him on the back saying things like, "Way to fight back." Axel nodded and smiled, hating their sympathy but forcing himself to return their greetings.
A little kid came up. "My kart broke and I didn't finish."
"My friend crashed in the wall." He widened his eyes. "His mommy said no more racing."
Axel winced. "Was he hurt?"
The kid shook his head and looked at Axel's kart. "You didn't crash. Why you sad?"
Axel remembered being at the track at his age. The teenagers seemed like adults and he hadn't had the guts to speak to them, let alone give pep talks. "You're right, I'm good. See you next week?"
The boy frowned. "If my cart gets fixed."