There is something about stock-car racing that appeals to the South as to no other section of the country. Last Sunday at Atlanta there was something special. Approximately 70,000 persons—20,000 more than a typical crowd for a big Georgia Tech football game—tramped through the clayey mire of Atlanta's International Raceway and settled in for a rattling good 500-mile grudge match. Like racing fans everywhere, they knew that Plymouths had risen from obscurity to smite the lofty Fords in February's Daytona 500, knew that Henry Ford II himself had witnessed that embarrassment and suspected that Mr. Ford had flicked a cat-o'-nine-tails here and there among his engineers as an encouragement to produce winning hardware for Atlanta.
Whether he did or not, they did. Tossing in a hurriedly revamped engine against the hemispherical-head power plants first sprung by Chrysler Corporation at Daytona, they enjoyed delectable revenge as Ford Driver Fred Lorenzen rolled in first at a record-breaking average speed of 134.25 mph. Ford had its moments of anxiety, though. Plymouth's Paul Goldsmith drove like Dillinger to lead strongly before taking a stupendous flip, and cars were cracking up or breaking down at such a rate that conceivably there might have been no finishers. At that, seven Dodges and Plymouths—out of the original 42-car field—were among the lonely 10 healthy enough to take the checkered flag, while just two Fords made it in. But at least they were dry.
The raceway is new—still abuilding in the rolling Georgia red-clay hills south of town. When it rains—which it does faithfully in April and did by the bucket and barrelful last week—the runoff drains into the infield and colors everyone standing there burnt umber. Racing operations are conducted from five house trailers parked hubcap-deep around the 1½-mile track.
Keeping his cigar dry at all times, Chrysler Racing Chief Ronnie Householder could not conceal his confidence in the factory-supported Dodges and Plymouths that were to engage the factory Fords and Mercurys. Understandably, the hemi engine is the corporate pride and joy of Chrysler and the personal pride of Householder, who talks about it in warm, affectionate language as though it might be alive.
"What shall we call it?" he asks, speaking around his racing cigar, "The King Kong?"
Chrysler's King Kong, he admitted, "is under...well, more than passing consideration for use in passenger cars. It could—and this is unofficial—appear in next year's models I would think." He smiled an unofficial smile. "It would be derelict for us to let this opportunity lag for more than a model year."
The chief reason for the racing success of the hemi is not its newness, but that Chrysler has put so much engine into its smaller cars. The basic hemi engines, before their redesign, were used from 1952 through 1958 to power the houseboat-sized Imperials and New Yorkers. In the smaller Plymouths and Dodges now they crouch doubled up under the hoods, looking mean.
There is no such stuffing problem at Ford, whose stock-racing engine, while of nearly equal piston displacement, comes in a much smaller package. A bit carried away, one Ford executive who came to Atlanta to look under the hoods murmured: "Ford's trouble today is that it has more car and less engine than any other manufacturer."
Racing fans who for years had concentrated on the drivers were quite suddenly caught up in the crisis atmosphere that came from the executive suite. And spectators whose Fords, Mercurys, Plymouths and Dodges were parked out there in the Georgia goo had something new at stake (in addition to the real possibility that they would never find their cars again).
"The past stress on drivers," said Householder, "is now transferring to product. It's a good thing, really. And we intend to keep our lead."
Ralph Moody of Holman & Moody, the concern that handles much of Ford's racing effort, agreed—in part. Said Moody, clearly anticipating that the Fords would rise again: "If competition gets too lopsided, racing ain't worth a damn."
The preliminary events to the 500 indicated that Plymouth's lopsided Daytona sweep would not be repeated here: the fastest cars qualifying for the race were two Fords. Then came a Plymouth, another Ford, a Mercury and a Dodge. But their times (146.470 to 144.849 miles an hour) were close enough to insure a rip-roaring battle. In Saturday's warmup race, Ford finished first, then it was Dodge, Ford, Mercury, Dodge.
Ford's Frank Zimmerman, the special vehicles manager, flew down to Atlanta for the 500, donned a sport shirt and a yellow golf sweater and pinned on an identification badge that read, "Frank Zim." Thus disguised, he prowled casually around the track looking like a corporation executive prowling casually around a track.
"At Daytona," explained Zimmerman, "we had engine durability trouble. Since then we have refined the engine. At Atlanta we can go faster. What's more, this is not a track where aerodynamics is a critical factor as at Daytona. This race is more a test of chassis design than of Daytona-style fiat-out speed."
But, chassis be darned, Ford was clearly counting on the good soup it had urgently put into its power plants. Far from being revolutionary, the new Atlanta engine had a lighter valve train and redesigned rod bolts ("You really wouldn't notice anything if you didn't know the changes were there," shrugged one Ford pit man), boosting engine performance from 6,200 to 7,000 rpm with an output of some 425 horsepower.
Chrysler had, Householder indicated, plenty of horses already, thank you—500, according to the opposition.
When a Friday rainstorm stopped all qualifying and practice runs—and further gummed up the infield—crews fell upon the cars with wrenches. Sponsors hovered solicitously by. Drivers fretted. Coffee flowed like motor oil.
Atlanta newspaper handicappers, taking no chances, picked Ford's pole position driver Fred Lorenzen (who had won the last two 500s, took the preliminary race and qualified with the fastest time) as the man to beat.
Meanwhile, back at the executive-house trailer, Raceway President Nelson Weaver watched the corporation-and-dagger goings on with a benign smile. Advance ticket sales and the crowd lined up outside the ticket house trailer showed the drama was paying off.
Sunday turned out to be a thoroughly miserable spring day—overcast and cold. To Weaver, however, it was a Sabbath of Sabbaths. After counting the house he declared it to be the largest sports gathering in Georgia history. Weaver's only worry as the day progressed was that this might be the first 450-mile 500 of his career. Goldsmith's was the most spectacular of the alarming number of accidents that threatened to obliterate the field. He had looked like the winner from the start, but after exactly one hour and twenty-six minutes of the 3¾-hour race he skidded into the guardrail, turned over and set an unofficial distance record for motoring upside down. Like all the others involved in wrecks, he was well-protected by roll bars and safety harness and climbed out unhurt.
Other favorites fell dramatically—Ford's Fireball Roberts in a smashup as he skittered out of a turn, Ford's Dan Gurney and Mercury's Parnelli Jones from tire failures. When Lorenzen eased into the lead after Goldsmith's crash it was, in effect, all over, although no one could be certain at the time. For a while it appeared that Dodge's Bobby Isaac, who was to finish second, could give Lorenzen trouble, but at the end he was two laps behind.
"The new engine is great," said Lorenzen in victory lane. "I knew I was ahead, and I didn't want to take any chances, so I ran the last 30 laps real slow." Your move, Mr. Householder.