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In 1970 Texas, hot-headed Corky Curtiss works as a race car mechanic in order to participate in small-time dirt track races, and to support his wife Peggy Jo and their two young sons. Boastful and brash, Corky is nevertheless brought up short one day when his boss, Randy Dover, informs him that he has replaced him as driver in the next major contest with fellow mechanic Steve Tunder, as Corky's recklessness is losing Randy money. Sensitive to Corky having a family to support, Randy offers him a raise and agrees to let him remain as back-up driver. Frustrated, Corky arranges to get a car to drive in an upcoming "figure eight" competition in which Steve is also participating. Just before the race, Corky purposely unlatches the hood of his car. Speeding along the figure eight-shaped track, whose contours ensure the high possibility of crashes, Corky carefully times his driving to meet Steve in the center of the figure. Popping the hood up just before reaching the crossing point, Corky slams into Steve's car, sending it into a rollover that is witnessed by an angry Randy and a dismayed Peggy. As Steve is taken away in an ambulance, the furious Randy fires Corky, who insists the open hood impaired his vision. At home that evening, Peggy asks Corky if he purposely crashed into Steve and reflects that she has sensed his long-simmering anger and frustration for some time. In response, Corky throws some items into a paper bag and announces that he is going away for a while. Alarmed, Peggy asks how she is to care for the children and pay for their rented house, and Corky tells her that Randy owes him a week's pay. Vowing to send the stunned Peggy more money soon, Corky drives away in his customized pink 1967 Barracuda. Later, a drunken, bellicose Corky stops at the apartment of his best friend Billy and demands that he accompany him to Georgia, where the two can break into big-time stock car racing. Although reluctant, Billy agrees. Nearly penniless on their journey, the two men enter numerous small competitions on the racing circuit at which Corky is moderately successful. Upon winning sizeable prize money after a first-place showing, Corky and Billy celebrate at a nearby roadhouse one night. Buoyed by his win, Corky brazenly spends his winnings drinking and gambling, attracting the attention of lonely former beauty queen Rhonda. Taken with Corky's boyish charm, Rhonda is nevertheless bewildered by his alternately frenetic then despondent behavior, not knowing that Corky has suddenly thought of Peggy. Meanwhile, back in Texas, Peggy visits Randy to ask about Steve's condition before hesitantly inquiring if Randy has any idea of Corky's whereabouts. Disturbed by the implication that Peggy has been abandoned, Randy offers her Corky's back wages and insists she take an additional two weeks of severance pay. Suspecting that Randy pities her, Peggy declines the severance pay, but Randy insists it is a legal requirement when a worker is fired. At the next race in another town, Corky struggles in fourth place until the three leaders simultaneously spin out on a curve. Galvanized, Corky takes first place, but his overconfidence leaves him unprepared when his tire blows out. Rolling across the finish line first with his car pointing backwards, Corky is allowed the first-place trophy but denied the prize money. Soon after, Corky attempts to sell the remaining good racing tire at a junkyard and is incensed when the black proprietor will only pay him eight dollars. Billy watches in disbelief when a livid Corky makes to attack the yard owner, only to draw back when threatened by the man's large guard dog. Later, Billy is again disturbed when Corky runs a black man driving a convertible off the road for no apparent reason. A few days later, in the rain on a country road, the Barracuda's engine sputters and Billy pulls over to check it. When a car with a long-haired man and his friend stop and offer help, Corky angrily threatens them and Billy intervenes. After Corky abruptly punches him in the stomach, Billy realizes that he can no longer accept Corky's chaotic, unpredictable actions and, taking his belongings, leaves with the strangers. Continuing alone, Corky later stops at a pawnshop, where he gets fifty cents for the racing trophy. Arriving in Atlanta, Corky is delighted by the huge Speedway 500 track and watches in awe while a few drivers make practice laps. Later, Corky meets speedway manager Tobin Hayes and, showing him a cherished framed newspaper picture of Corky posed with famed race driver Richard Petty after a long ago race, insists he knows Petty. After contacting Petty, Hayes tells the stunned Corky that Petty has no recollection of him, but wishes him well. Breaking down, Corky confesses that he is desperate for work and Hayes promises to put him touch with a local jalopy race track owner and assures Corky that he can find work as a mechanic. Realizing that he is right back where he started, Corky thanks Hayes, then sells the picture frame for gas and leaves Atlanta. Driving through the next day and night, an exhausted Corky falls asleep at the wheel and has a minor accident off a country road. Deciding to sleep in his car, Corky wakens the next morning to find two young boys staring at him. When the boys run to a nearby swimming pond, a dirty Corky enthusiastically takes off all his clothes but his underwear and joins them, only to be ordered out by a rifle-totting man who accuses him of being "queer." Some days later in Texas, Peggy arrives home one afternoon to see the Barracuda parked in front of the house. Entering to find a drunken Corky pretending to be racing, she tells him she has hired a divorce lawyer who has advised her that she cannot stay with him in the same house. Insisting that she wants nothing from him, Peggy pleads with Corky to go and not make trouble. Finding a book, Corky asks Peggy why she is reading, and she reveals she is taking classes to earn her high school diploma. After noting her new dress and washing machine, Corky asks after the children and, learning that they are at a nursery, asks how Peggy can afford these luxuries. Explaining that she has two jobs as a part-time bookkeeper with Randy and another businessman, Peggy admits she makes a hundred dollars a week. Although shocked, Corky scoffs and laughs at Peggy, accusing her of becoming like everyone else, and then crudely suggests that Randy is paying Peggy in exchange for sex. That night, a drunken Corky drives to Randy's shop and fires a handgun at several mechanics, killing one and wounding another. He then flees to the nearby race track, where he joins a derby in progress and proceeds to slam into numerous cars before the police cordon him off. Panicking, Corky attempts to escape, but flips the Barracuda, which bursts into flames. Crawling away from the wreckage, Corky imagines himself back on the Atlanta Speedway track, competing against famous drivers while Peggy and the children sit in the stands cheering him to victory.