What did ya think of that? Betcha never saw anything like it before in your life, did ya?" The thin, smiling Southerner asked me as we walked through the pit area after the race. I had to admit I hadn't.
"If you cain't write a story about that," he went on, still smiling as he savored the enjoyment of the race, "you cain't write about nothin'. I never seen so much goin' on in my life. Gosh all golly!"
You might have thought that this handsome, youthful-looking man of 45 in the slacks and blue woollen jacket had just watched his first auto race. He hadn't, though. He was Lee Petty, last year's National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing's driving champion, and only a few minutes earlier he had finished fourth in the Daytona 500-mile race for stock cars. Walking near us was Dick Petty, Lee's 23-year-old son who is his old man all over again whether driving or just standing there talking in his creamy, North Carolina hill-country accent. Dick's light-blue 1960 Plymouth had finished third in the race, just ahead of his father's identical car.
Lee Petty, the father, had plenty of reason to be excited over the drive he had just completed, and his voice was still pitched high with nerves. "Did you see that T-bird come apart over on the other side of the track?" he asked me. "Why I never seen the likes of that before. I had to drive right underneath him while he was still in the air. I even heard part of his car come down on me as I went past. Did you see my car? Did you see where he hit me?"
February 29, 1960
I went over and looked, and there were a couple of ugly holes in the right tail fin of No. 42, his Plymouth. I hadn't paid much attention to these scars when I first examined the car, for rare indeed is the stock car that comes out of a race without some such souvenir of combat.
Nonetheless, it was gratifying that not only Lee Petty but all the rest of the oldtimers were shaking their heads in disbelief over this race. To a novice observer of stock-car racing, the Daytona "500" had seemed like nothing so much as the early stages of doomsday. Even Bill France, the man who built and operates this fastest of all the world's race tracks, was saying, "I've never seen anything like it, and I've been in racing 25 years and more."
To go back to the beginning, this was only the second running of the Daytona "500," although as the first of the major races on the NASCAR calendar it already ranks as one of the most important meets throughout the year. So the best cars and the best drivers in stock-car racing showed up among the 68 starters. Fireball Roberts, the home-town favorite from Daytona Beach, was in the No. 3 pole position in a 1960 Pontiac. He had qualified at 151.556 mph, the fastest lap ever turned in stock-car competition and 5 mph faster than last year's best qualifying time at Indianapolis. The Pettys had brought their new Plymouths down from Randle-man, N.C., where they had prepared them themselves. Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, who are to this sport what Ruth and Gehrig once were to baseball, lined up in 1960 Fords. From as far away as Canada and California, bearing names like Banjo and Runt and Pappy and Speedy, had come all the other stock-car headliners.
A HUGE POPULAR SPORT
Forty-five thousand people, many of whom had paid up to $20 a seat and driven hundreds of miles to be there, crowded the Daytona grandstands and infield. For make no mistake about it, stock-car racing is the sport of sports in the southeastern part of the U.S. A fellow who once operated a professional baseball team in that area was making this point recently when he said, "You ought to play a Sunday game sometime when the stock cars are running in the neighborhood. They'll murder you."
Just why this should be was not immediately apparent to this particular pair of eyes and ears as the Daytona "500" got under way. Though most of the cars were the very latest Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Plymouths and Fords, their designers' handsome lines were almost completely obscured by the welter of signs the cars carried on their sides, advertising the garages and restaurants and hotels and tire dealers and other sponsors who were helping to foot the rather hefty bill for racing.
The ear-cracking noise the cars made was more like the splat-splat-splat of a Venetian blind in a windstorm than the deep and stirring roar of the usual racing engine. With more than 60 of them traveling at varying speeds over the two-and-a-half-mile track, every bit of which is visible from any seat in the stands, there was no significant spacing of the cars and hence no obvious leader of the race; instead you got the effect of a carrousel of multi-hued sedans going round and round. It was quickly evident to this newcomer that stock-car racing must be as much of an acquired taste as ripe Camembert.
Which is not to say there was anything approaching monotony in the Daytona "500." These cars, from the very start of the long haul, were averaging close to 150 mph and competing almost recklessly for first place, a fact which the shrill voice of the P.A. announcer never let us forget.
The first really heart-stopping incident came when the car of George Green, an Army sergeant who had flown in from Germany for the race, burst into a ball of red flame in front of the grandstand. Green brought his car to a skidding stop on the infield grass between the track and the pits, and squirmed out of the window on the driver's side before he was fried alive.
Shortly after, the white Thunder-bird of Tommy Herbert, traveling flat out, hit the iron guardrail on the top side of the west turn, somersaulted a couple of times and broke into countless pieces. The hood of the car went in one direction, the front axle soared some 30 or 40 feet in the air, an unidentifiable section of flaming wreckage (most likely the engine) took flight independently, and what was left went sliding down the track upside down, with Herbert inside. Another car that was trying to avoid this explosion of metal and fire went end over end into the infield, while several other cars, including Lee Petty's, navigated successfully through the hailstorm of disembodied machinery. Herbert miraculously survived the accident. Almost losing an eye and an arm, he was the only serious casualty of the day.
With less than 25 miles to victory, Bobby Johns, who was leading the race by six seconds in his 1959 Pontiac, lost control as he straightened out into the backstretch. The car spun viciously into the infield but remained aright. Once he had regained his bearings he was able to resume the race at the same violent pace. But his lead had gone to a big broth of a fat boy named Junior Johnson in a 1959 Chevy, and that was the auto race as far as Bobby was concerned.
Anyone out to cultivate a taste for stock-car racing need look no further than Junior Johnson. Johnson fits right into the colorful folklore and legend of the southern stock car. He comes from the Blue Ridge Mountain country of North Carolina, which has been the breeding ground for so many of the great drivers, like Turner and Lee Petty and Banjo Mathews. By profession Junior is a truck farmer in that region, but on Sundays when he gets behind the wheel of a stock car he can do things they never dreamed of in a sweet-potato patch.
"Was it a tough race?" someone asked Junior after a scrawny movie starlet had handed him his trophy.
"Not putickly," said Junior.
"Did you have any close calls?"
"Oh, just a couple a times I got nicked here and there," he said, looking at some ominous dents on his car.
"Have you had any tougher races?"
"Oh shore, lotsa times on some of them dirt tracks," said Junior, who is widely regarded as one of the wildest, woolliest competitors on the hairy half-mile circuits that are the week-to-week backbone of NASCAR racing throughout the South.
The legend goes that the tradition which has produced drivers like Junior stems from an innate aversion among the mountain people of the Carolinas to the Federal tax on liquor. People aren't going to stop drinking, so someone has to get the local moonshine from the stills to the consumer, and this task has fallen to an intrepid breed known as ridge runners. They learn the art of the high-speed controlled skid as they wind their way through the back roads of the Carolinas on dark nights with revenooers on their tail. Of course, there are plenty of topnotch NASCAR drivers who never laid eyes on a jug of Carolina hooch, but the legend is not groundless, and it is one of the things that brings so much color and enthusiasm to the sport.
However, it is easy to be beguiled into reading too literally the backwoodsy role that so many NASCAR drivers and owners and mechanics like to play. Turner and Weatherly and some of the others have substantial business interests outside of racing, and they travel about in their own private aircraft just like the peerage of Dun & Bradstreet. The cars they drive, though hardly things of beauty on the outside, are as infinitely and intricately perfect on the inside as any machinery in the world. It is the technical perfection of them, in fact, that lifts the sport above a plane of mere noise and occasional bloodshed. You might buy the bare bones of one of these stock cars off a dealer's floor for less than $3,000. But if you could persuade one of the truly great mechanics—like Smokey Yunick of Daytona—to get it ready for you to race, you would have to part with at least $11,000 before it reached the starting line.
Apparently enough people around the country are willing to spend the money. If you had been at Daytona, you wouldn't wonder why.