To the 62,400 spectators at Florida's Daytona International Speedway last week, the annual 500-mile race—the Indianapolis of stock car competition—was essentially a swift and noisy automotive circus. They paid $5 to $20 each to watch 48 American passenger cars parade round Daytona's 2½-mile track at quite astonishing speeds (up to 159 mph), and they got their money's worth when hometown boy Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, in a 1962 Pontiac, disposed of a 1962 Plymouth contender toward the end and won at a record-breaking average of 152.529 mph.
What they did not see was the fearful struggle going on inside those familiar and innocuous-looking sedans—a nerve-jangling battle against invisible forces that are more powerful, more insidious at Daytona than at any other track in the country. Invisibly, as the drivers hurtled around the track, a stream of turbulent air moved with them. Invisibly, engines and running gear labored under stresses that are placed upon them at no other track. Nowhere else in stock car racing are Daytona's speeds remotely approached, and only through their fingertips, tensely steering, and by the seats of their pants could the drivers read the ominous, unpredictable signs of the currents that might spin their cars or get them airborne.
So relieved was Roberts when his eerie afternoon's work was done that he grabbed his chief mechanic, Smokey (Best Damn Garage In Town) Yunick, and scandalized that salty character by kissing him on both cheeks. Roberts said he had had "about three thrills a lap," had "got sideways" a number of times, had accidentally bumped two cars when wind-buffeted and once "scraped the fence." Every other driver had similar tales.
Despite the implications of its name, a racing stock car is an animal sharply different from its showroom counterpart. Putting racing brawn and speed into a showroom passenger car has become a highly specialized art. Some experts in the field, like Smokey Yunick, are inclined to be secretive. Others, notably the racing partners John Holman and Ralph Moody, assume that there is nothing very mysterious about "building" stock cars, and since they not only build, race and sell cars but also make and peddle all sorts of racing parts, they invite the curious to have a close look at what they are doing.
Holman, 44, is a wide-backed, blocky, gregarious man; Moody, 43, is slender and laconic. Both were involved with Ford's and Lincoln's racing efforts in the early '50s when Detroit automakers were more or less openly in stock car competition. When Detroit abandoned racing in 1957, Holman and Moody stayed on at their Charlotte, N.C. headquarters and continued to turn out Ford stock cars on their own. Since then, theirs have been the topflight Fords in competition, whether campaigned by themselves or, after being sold, by others. A Holman and Moody racer costs $7,000; essential spare parts add another $1,000 to the price.
"When we take a showroom car and begin to make a racing car of it," says Holman, "we have two things in mind. First, we want to make it safe at racing speeds. Second, we want to tune it up to get the job done as it should be done; we want as much speed as we can squeeze out, under the rules, and we want the car to handle properly. When a car is going belly down and full bore everything in it takes a terrific beating."
Like all other builders of stock cars, Holman and Moody start with a high-performance factory model. In their case it is the Ford 406—so called because the big V-8 engine has a piston displacement of 406 cubic inches. (Despite compact cars and a new emphasis on fuel economy in standard-sized models, Detroit continues to boost the size and output of engines for the extra-performance market. Ford sold 5,000 such high-performance cars last year, expects to double that in 1962.)
Holman and Moody first disassemble their racing-cars-to-be. For strength and safety they then weld all frame seams. Then they start building. They replace shock absorbers with a heavier, stiffer racing type, replace the rear axle with one of their own which, by means of special fittings, removes all customary weight stresses from the axle itself; they install heavier leaf springs at the rear and coil springs in front, double the thickness of the A arms of the front suspension system and fit a front stabilizer bar of such stiffness that the car will not lean during hard cornering. They also install their own 22-gallon noncorrosive fuel tank, asbestos-wrapped for fire prevention and with a protective aluminum plate underneath, and replace steering components with heavier parts to withstand the prolonged strains of racing.
With this done, Holman and Moody surround the driver with a three-dimensional roll bar—really a cage—of 1¾-inch steel tubing that is welded to the frame, assuring a "complete molecular bond with the parent piece of vehicle," as Holman nicely puts it. The body fits right over this, but all the interior furnishings are stripped away, and just one bucket seat, with belt and shoulder harness, is put in for the driver. A simple Holman and Moody instrument panel with essential gauges replaces the standard panel.
Racing wheels nearly double the width of a standard car's are fabricated from ordinary wheels to accept the huge stock car racing tires, which give high traction and long, safe wear. Price of a set of four tires: about $250.
While making the car drastically different from a road model, these modifications do not, of course, increase its speed. That is a more subtle art and, according to Holman, possibly an overrated one. A normal Ford 406 at concert pitch, says Holman, will do nearly 150 mph anyway, and to tune his racing engines he merely follows factory blueprint specifications with scrupulous care. He uses factory camshafts and pistons (although special ones within factory catalog tolerances are permitted) and extra-heavy-duty valve springs, tappets and push rods from the Ford high-performance catalog. As for carburetion, all cars are limited to one four-barrel model.
Since stock cars are normally required to turn left only, they are set up for left cornering at maximum speed, with the weight of the car distributed ingeniously among the four wheels to insure minimum tire wear. "If you tried to turn right," Holman says, "you'd probably wind up in China."
A chance on a star
When Holman and Moody arrived in Daytona in early February with five new Ford racers, they were short a driver. They made news by taking a chance on an American star from the very different field of road racing, a man who just a week before had excitingly won the brand-new Daytona Continental sports car race (SI, Feb. 19).
Dan Gurney had raced a stock car only once in his life, and that was way back in 1958 on the road course at Meadowdale, Ill. Shifting from tiny, nimble sports and Grand Prix cars to the ponderous 4,000-pound Ford was, on the surface, a little like jumping from a panther's back onto that of a jet-powered elephant.
Gurney quickly confirmed that Holman and Moody had assembled a first-rate car for him. Just as quickly he sensed the battle facing him to conquer Daytona's special, invisible enemies—the turbulent air, the ever-present possibility of mechanical failure and perhaps a smash-up at frightening speed. He had just survived one engine breakdown at Daytona, on the very last lap of the Continental, and had coasted in to win the race, but now he was in a great tank of a car that had to be nursed, not maneuvered, and he was apprehensive.
"Feel safe out there?" Holman inquired chattily after Gurney came in from one blazing practice run. "Well, no," said Gurney. "And, to be truthful, I feel nervous just standing around here." The cause of Gurney's tension, however, was the track rather than the car. "All cars are more or less alike when you're driving on the limit of tire adhesion," he said. "The thing is, here you are on the limit all the time. I'm not thinking about the differences in size or looks or about not using the brakes and gearbox as I would in a Grand Prix car, but about keeping within that limit.
"I have great respect for this track. You have to be right there, concentrating, every minute. The least lapse and you're likely to be sideways and in trouble."
If Gurney had heard about an experience of Fireball Roberts' the week before, his tension would probably have gone up several notches. Leading a pack of cars in a practice tour, Roberts' Pontiac suddenly left the pavement and came down 30 feet to one side, a few inches from a guardrail. The cause of this unsettling maneuver was a car behind him that suddenly cut across his slipstream. "Crossing that slipstream is like slamming into the wake of a speedboat on water skis," Roberts said, "but unlike a speedboat it affects the lead car as well as the car doing the crossing."
Gurney, an apt if apprehensive Daytona pupil, finished a careful, solid fourth in one of the 100-mile races preliminary to the 500. He was more impressive in the 500 itself two days later. Gurney led all the veteran Ford drivers for most of the distance that he lasted and was running powerfully in third place after 300 of the 500 miles. With what appeared to be icy assurance, he was neatly slipstreaming other cars, riding close behind in the partial vacuum created by the leading car. But after 340 miles his engine seized up. Reacting swiftly, he let out the clutch and rolled to a safe stop.
Asked later if he was becoming more comfortable on the speedway, Gurney said, "Well, yes, but with the G forces you have [i.e., centrifugal force developed in Daytona's high-speed turns] you gel tired and you're likely to misinterpret the messages you get. I was going as fast as I could every lap, and while it may not have looked like much from the stands, I was fishtailing several times a lap."
His Daytona stint done, Gurney headed for Tulsa to inspect a novel turbine-powered racer that Owner Jack Zink is preparing for him to drive in the Indianapolis "500." He has never raced at Indianapolis; in fact, he has not yet even seen the old Brickyard. But after Daytona the new boy will have to be taken very seriously.