The DealLate one Friday afternoon a voice over the phone says, "Let's go racing!" It's James Brown, from whom I have rented race cars over the last four seasons. An established drag racer with several national and regional event championships, I have seen him do things in a Pinto that Ford engineers never thought possible. Always looking for an adventure, I jumped at the chance. Dragging an empty trailer behind his father's dually, he tells me we will purchase the car I am going to rent on the way to the racetrack. We found the address where the "race-ready" '87 Mustang has resided for the last two years; it needs a fan shroud, two tires, and a set of rear shocks-not exactly race ready but workable. James swings a deal for the car: $1,300.

The HuntAt 2:30 p.m. we knew it would be tight to make the 5:30 p.m. driver's meeting at Ventura Raceway in California. But first we have to stop at Associated Tire, where the manager pitches in and mounts new tires as fast as we can get the old ones off the car-which is still on the trailer. Next, we detour to pick up new shocks and a can of spray paint. I know James doesn't care for the powder-blue paint any more than I do, but there isn't time to do anything about it right now. While we install the new shocks in the store's parking lot, we find a lower shock bolt missing; this requires another quick detour to James' house to steal a bolt from his Modified. With the clock ticking, we stop just outside the speedway and wolf down a burger and fries while checking the oil and tire pressures, the radiator, and spray a big number three on the doors and roof. I can't believe it-I finally get to drive a #3 car.

The "Renter" Rides AgainThere were no lines to get into the track. Most of the people were already at the driver's meeting, but the few left gave us the once-over as we cruised the pits. The usual look was, "Who's that?" They soon realized it's just the guy known as the "Renter" and went back to their business. We unloaded and hustled over to tech inspection, where the missing fan shroud came back to haunt us. We promised to fix it before the next race and were waved through.

I jogged over to the driver's meeting, and the butterflies hit when I heard the track's director inform the assembly that 38 Pony Stocks have shown up. At least 18 would be going home early. After being out of the seat for more than a year, and in a car just pulled out of retirement, things didn't look too good to make the show. The painted number on the door is still so wet that I accidentally smear it as I get into the car for hot laps.

During the first hot-lap session I noticed what I thought was a lot of wheelspin, but otherwise the car felt strong. After the hot laps, I jacked the car up, spun the rear wheels and found out the rear end wasn't locked, causing the extra wheelspin. It looked like a definite disadvantage at first, but I soon realized that it allowed me to drive around the track without throwing the rear end out around the turns like the other drivers. It turned out that my way was actually quicker through the turns, proving you don't need a locked rear end to go fast.

The First RaceStarting fifth of 10 in my heat race, all I need to do is pass one car to qualify for the main event. James leans in and gave a few choice words of advice: "This is a fast car, but it's not happy being speed-shifted."

On the track as the flagman signaled one lap to green, I was chugging around in second gear. I fed the gas going into the third turn, hoping to build momentum for the green. The plan worked very well, and I passed two cars by the second turn with an inside move. The powder-blue Mustang seemed to like the bottom of the track. I let it drift to the outside going down the backstretch and dove to the inside of the third-place car. As I passed him, I found the last two cars to pass. They were battling each other from the center to the top of the track and leaving the inside open. Again I dove to the bottom and passed them both as they slid up the track. With the lead in hand, I protected the bottom, forcing any moves to the outside on a slippery track. It's a good night when the "Renter" can celebrate his first night back with a checkered flag.

Unfortunately, being the consummate sportsman that I am, I allow James to race the car in the Last Chance heat race. He doesn't qualify for the main, so we finished our night a little earlier than expected.

Back for MoreAfter our successful debut, the Pony car got a new coat of black paint, and we were back for more. I never dreamed what a black paint job and a #3 would do to the fans and drivers alike. James and I were faced with smiles, scowls, and thumbs both up and down as we pulled the previously powder-blue Ford Mustang through the seaside town of Ventura to the raceway. The drivers were as split as the public. Much as they tried, there was no ignoring the black #3 Pony Stock. Many came over, excited to meet another fan of the Intimidator. Also racing this night happened to be the white-and-blue #2 along with the #24, which is always a contender.

Ventura Racing Association's Pony Stock class is open to cars with four-cylinder stock engines. Street tires, a rollcage, and a fuel cell are the basic requirements. Pintos outnumber Mustangs, Dodges, and Toyotas nearly four to one. The class of Pony Stocks at Ventura is so large the first four in each of the four heat races qualify, then a semi-main is run, adding four more to the main event.

Having raced only once previously this year, I earned the pole position for my qualifying race by having the least points. Starting the action, I brought the field of 10 into Turn 3 at a snail's pace, then jumped on the gas midway through the turn and passed the flagman at full tilt. I found a line that seemed to carry a lot of momentum yet worked fairly defensively. The rhythm came, and I started clicking off laps; the car was surprisingly neutral, and depending on my driving, I could make it push or loose. I found the car liked being just a tad loose.

My line worked like a charm, and I wasn't passed. Taking the checkered flag, I hear the crowd's approval over the din of the Mustang. Pulling into the pit, I see several children running along the fence, yelling. Climbing out of the car. I hear congratulations from other drivers and crewmembers, and I could still hear the group of fans behind the fence, holding hats, programs, and T-shirts for me to autograph. Wow! A guy could get used to this.

The Main Event The shock hit me while checking out the starting lineup. Car #3 starts on the pole, but this time the race is for 20 laps, the car is a Ford Mustang, and I'm the driver, not one of the all-time greatest, Dale Earnhardt. Reminding myself just to run my own race, I take the green flag and quickly get into my rhythm again. I'm high on the straights then dive to the bottom for the turns. Lapped traffic starts getting in the way with five laps to go. The flagman waves the blue-and-yellow flag emphatically, but for the most part, everybody keeps their line. More than once the action got a little hairy as I charged into a dust cloud, hoping there wasn't a car inside. An out-of-control car hit me on the backstretch. He went headlong into the wall, but other than knocking me off my line, I was OK.

As the laps wound down, I held the top spot but thought I would lose it at every turn. A hard charger was trying every move in the book but couldn't quite get around me. Finally, the flagman waved the white flag, signaling just one lap to go. I held my breath the whole lap and earned my first main-event win.

The crowd of kids lining the fence have doubled in size, and they all wanted autographs. I know it's only Pony Stock, but to a guy in a rented car, it feels like winning the Indy 500. Not bad for a race car you can rent for $200 that just a week ago was pulled from retirement.