Murder At The Finish Line
DIAGNOSIS: MURDER, "Murder at the Finish Line." 20th episode,
fifth season. The hour-long weekly drama features mysteries solved by an avuncular doctor,
played by Dick Van Dyke, and his police detective son, played by his real-life son Barry.
James Morrison plays Lloyd Nichols, a mechanic on a stock car racing team.
At the local race track during qualifying rounds for a big race, police Lt. Steve Sloan and Dr. Jesse Travis, a co-worker of Steve's dad at the hospital, check out the action. Steve, who used to race, runs into old friend Eddie Wallace who is now crew chief for Eagin Racing. Eddie's son Alan, who had been a child during Steve's racing days, is also a driver on the team. Interrupting the reunion is the team's abrasive lead driver Matt Thomas. When the Eagin team must take the track, Steve, Jesse and Alan go up to the owner's box to watch the action. The car makes decent time, but blows its engine.
At Community General Hospital, Jesse treats Matt for minor injuries. His sprained wrist will not prevent him from driving in the big race later in the week. Out in the hall, Steve and his father Dr. Mark Sloan visit with Eddie and Alan. Eddie acknowledges the team has had a lot of bad luck lately.
The team's owner, the widow Mary Ann Eagin rushes off the elevator. Mark remembers her from when he used to treat her late husband for thrombophlebitis. She confides to Mark she has kept the team, as a memorial to her husband but had no idea what she was getting into. Mark can sympathize. As the father of a former driver, his happiest day was the day his son gave up racing.
In the treatment room, Matt gives the young Jesse a rough time. Pathologist Dr. Amanda Bentley stops by to visit with Jesse, but Matt zeroes in on her with some blatant flirting. He gives her a pass to the owner's booth for the big race and tells her he expects to see her there.
When Eddie and Alan enter the treatment room, Matt chides them about the crew's sloppy maintenance. They argue about the cause of this misfortune, and Matt accuses Eddie of sabotage. Steve breaks up the argument.
Over dinner at Mark's house, Jesse shares what he recently learned about stock car racing, including the season statistics for the Eagin team. Apparently, despite all the bad luck, the team has had its best season yet with, as Jesse describes, "people nobody else wanted." Because she has other plans and doesn't like Matt anyway, Amanda gives Mark, Steve and Jesse the pass to watch the race from the owner's booth.
At the track before the race, Jesse gathers up fan collectibles from the various teams. Steve and Mark hang out in the garage, where tensions are brewing. The tire supplier is demanding cash, Eddie says, and the engine man on the team is out of town buying parts. Plus, although Matt likes to arrive in the nick of time, the driver is nowhere to be found. Backup driver George Halsey shows up, but he's not suited up. Saying it's too late to get ready anyway, George tells his crew chief he's going to enjoy some air conditioning and cold beer. Then, as if Eddie didn't have enough on his mind, Mary Ann arrives with a couple of French investors and asks him to show them the technical side of racing. Only one thing seems to be under control: Alan, according to Eddie, is already stationed in the grandstand to spot for the team.
Up in the owner's box with the French investors and the catered snacks, Mary Ann and the Sloans are concerned that the driver has yet to show. Jesse shows up with an armload of racing collectibles, including an Eagin Racing Team wristwatch, which quickly falls off his arm. Finally, the already helmeted driver hops into the car. The race begins.
During the first pit stop, which they watch on monitors in the owner's box, Jesse mentions how races are won because of tire quality and temperature. Tires must be kept warm in special rooms, he explains, because warm tires grip pavement better and allow for faster speeds. Mary Ann, nervous because the pit stop is taking too long because Eddie found some faulty lug nuts, adds that racing tires cost $1500 a set, and each race requires 10 sets.
With 100 laps to go, Eagin Racing takes the lead. In those remaining laps, they lose the lead for a short time in the confusion during a fiery crash involving other cars. With 3 or fewer laps to go, the Eagin car takes the lead and keeps it across the finish line. Unfortunately, the car develops the same problems as it had in qualifying, as the driver's edgy warnings are heard over the radio speakers in the owner's box. The car spins out and hits the wall. The driver staggers out of the car and hurls himself over the wall. When the safety crew reaches the accident, they announce the driver is dead.
In the ambulance, Amanda determines a preliminary cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage from a blow to the temple. Suspicious of the cause of the accident, Steve takes the faulty lug nuts replaced during the race to the police forensics lab for examination.
At the hospital, the three doctors and Steve discuss recent findings in
the case. Forensics had determined the lug nuts were sabotaged beyond any signs of normal
wear and tear. The car's brakes, despite the driver's radioed warnings, had turned out to
be okay. Jesse suggests they examine the team's videotapes of the race.
When the others leave, Amanda and Mark discuss medical concerns about the untimely death. Mark wonders why the bad accident earlier in the race caused only minor injuries while a less serious accident resulted in the death of the driver. Amanda decides to hasten Matt's autopsy.
In the team's office, Mary Ann allows Steve access to the team tapes. A call on her cell phone interrupts them. A nervous investor who has heard about the death of the team's lead driver needs placating. Mary Ann reassures him, despite the necessary use of the backup car and a secondary driver, as she walks into the garage. Once she hangs up, Lloyd mentions things are not so rosy, especially with the police interrupting their work. "We'll never be ready by Sunday," he states.
When Steve walks through the garage, Eddie pulls him aside. He tells his old friend the investigation is getting in the way of their work and they may start to lose investors. Steve points out that Matt Thomas lost his life. Eddie, who has known Steve a long time and has worked his way up from minor tracks to crew chief of a major racing team, asks Steve not to tear down the career he has built over the years. Showing disappointment in his old friend, Steve tells him the investigation is now a police matter.
Over dinner, Amanda reports the autopsy findings. As she had expected, the cause of death is a cerebral hemorrhage. However, she does note that the liver temperature was much lower than expected, by a good 20 degrees. Mark says the lower temperature indicates Matt didn't die at the end of the race. Using the figure Amanda reports in the autopsy, Mark determines Matt died more than three hours before the race.
The three doctors study the video of the race. When they see Matt vault over the door into the car with what is supposed to be a sprained arm, they know he did not drive in the race. Yet, his voice had been heard over the radio.
Mark mentions the autopsy report states an abnormal amount of blood had been found in the body cavity. Amanda confirms that Matt's blood had not been clotting properly. Jesse says the team's annual physicals would rule out hemophilia and then suggests something artificial may have created the condition. Amanda says the toxicology report should be filed soon.
Steve shows up with evidence found in the infield. He holds a broken Eagin Racing Team wristwatch in an evidence bag. The watch couldn't be Matt's, Amanda says, because he was wearing it when she first examined the body. Jesse reminds them how easily the watches fall off. Steve suggests the team's bored backup driver may have had something to gain from Matt's death. He decides to return to the garage to confront the team and see what happens.
Mary Ann Eagin scoffs at the idea of George killing the lead driver. Steve holds up the watch, asking if she recognizes it, and she tells him she has given away dozens of them. After she leaves for a meeting, a car veers into the garage and causes Steve to jump out of the way. Backup driver George apologizes and remarks how out of practice he is. Steve suggests he drove a pretty good race on Sunday, as the secret substitute for Matt. George has an alibi, a meeting with another team owner for a position as lead driver. George did suggest Steve check out Alan, who might see an opportunity had he known the backup driver would be leaving the team.
Steve questions Alan in front of his father Eddie. Lloyd watches from the background. Both Eddie and Alan maintain Alan was up in the stands keeping an eye on the team's position in the race. Lloyd steps in to point out that the only one who knows that for sure is Eddie, who had been the only one talking to him over the radio. Eddie wonders aloud if Lloyd had really been away buying parts. He cracks that Lloyd had been a fine driver once and suggests he ruined his own career. Lloyd calls Matt stupid, to which Alan gleefully replies, "Not so stupid he couldn't see what a lousy crew chief you were." Lloyd calls him "a smart-mouth punk" and shoves him. Steve steps in and breaks up the argument. Eddie chides Steve for causing disharmony among the team.
The doctors listen to a cassette of the driver's radio chatter.
Apparently, what they supposedly had heard Matt say during the race was exactly what he
had said during the qualifying rounds. Someone had substituted the taped radio signal for
actual transmissions. Steve joins them, and they speculate further. Mark theorizes that
the killer had stored Matt's body in the tire storage room to keep it warm.
That night, Mark, Jesse and Steve check out the Eagin team tire storage room. Steve lifts a short stack of tires to reveal blood stains on the floor. Alan walks in on them and picks up a tire iron as if to attack. His father calls him off, and Steve escorts them to the police department.
In the interview room, Eddie tells Steve and Mark how Matt had worried about Alan being after his job. Before the race, Alan and Matt had argued to the point of Matt taking a swing at the young driver. Alan punched him in return, only to see Matt fall down and die. Eddie admits to engineering the cover-up. He didn't want his son's driving career sullied by even the suspicion of a wrongful death. While giving a run-down of what all he did to cover up the crime, Mark's cell phone rings. Amanda has the results of the toxicology report. Mark hangs up and announces Alan is not responsible for killing Matt. Someone else had killed him.
At the hospital, Amanda, Mark and Steve discuss the details of the toxicology report. Amanda says the test found excessively high levels of the anti-coagulant drug Warfarin. Mark explains the drug is a standard treatment for phlebitis. Amanda explains to Steve that Matt had been "a walking dead man." A minor injury would have led to lethal internal bleeding, even an accident caused by, say, faulty lug nuts on a car. Mark wonders who could have had the motive, the opportunity and the knowledge how to sabotage the car, plus drug Matt.
In the garage, Steve grills Lloyd during an engine test with Mary Ann watching the whole thing. Over the roar of the revving engine, Steve demands proof of Lloyd's alibi for being away from the track during the race. Annoyed at the interruption, Lloyd whips out his wallet and pulls out dated receipts documenting his trip. He stares at Mary Ann when he adds, "Gotta do that or you won't be reimbursed."
The engine revving higher and higher finally blows spewing parts, smoke and oil. Mary Ann cries out, "Two engines in one week? Are you trying to ruin me?"
Lloyd is less concerned about his reputation than what happened to the engine. Instead of angrily defending himself, he crouches on the floor to examine the oil, which is dotted with solid particles. He runs his fingers through the puddle and then rubs them together. Without his usual defensive bristling, he tells his boss the explosion has "nothing to do with me or my work, Mrs. Eagin." He reaches up to pass the oil to her. "Feel that grit? Somebody spiked her with metal filings. Tore her heart right out."
Steve asks who had access to the engine. Still in shock over the engine sabotage, Lloyd says, "Who didn't?"
At dinner at Mark's house, Steve grumbles about every suspect with a
motive having an strong alibi. Mark said whoever poisoned Matt knew the limitations of the
drug, that it would be metabolized after 12 hours. Then, he realizes who probably
committed the murder.
Lloyd stands in the middle of the clamoring race crew and lists the disadvantages shadowing the team. Then he gives them advice he plans to take himself: "I say we all try to sign on with a new team while we still can." Mary Ann protests, but Lloyd reminds her their season ended when the last engine blew. Steve quiets the contention by returning Eddie and Alan. Steve got the charges reduced, Eddie and Alan say, plus arranged for them to get a new engine for the car. Everyone rejoices, but Lloyd points out the team's lack of a driver. Steve suggests Alan, especially after he had won Sunday's race. Most of the team is happy to be back in the race, except for Lloyd, who quietly walks away.
That night, in the darkened empty garage, a gloved hand pours metal
filings into the engine.
The next morning, Lloyd conducts more engine tests with Matt and Steve watching. As the engine revs higher and higher, Mary Ann attempts to leave for a meeting with more investors. Mark takes her by the elbow and firmly keeps her standing beside the growling engine. As the engine revs faster, she fidgets more. Finally, when it redlines, she dives out of the way. When no explosion happens, she jokes about her nervousness.
However, Mark and Steve accuse her of sabotage. Eddie had discovered the damage and had repaired it before anyone else had arrived at the garage. Mark suggests her knowledge of phlebitis due to her husband's illness made her aware of the anti-coagulant drug found in Matt's bloodstream. Steve points out a search of her financial records, which indicates she oversold shares in the racing team to cover up gaps in her finances. She couldn't afford to have a winning season, which would require paying off the investors. Lead driver Matt Thomas died because he was having the best season of his career. Uniformed police officers lead Mary Ann away.
Eddie offers Mark and Steve "anything" for all their help. Mark gets to take the car for a spin around the track.