No matter how much chrome and polish they give it, stock car racing remains an unpasteurized, purely savage American sport. Probably nothing has approached it in brute excitement since the days of bare-knuckle boxing, and there is currently no spectacle so wonderfully awful as those big cars in full cry. In the South, racing the stock cars is a rite of early spring staged at mud-spattered backwood tracks—but it is staged most grandly at Florida's Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 is the fastest and richest, the fiercest and biggest race of them all.
Last Sunday afternoon 84,200 people jammed Daytona's track in an atmosphere that somehow combined the moods of a church picnic and a four-alarm fire. There were earnest preliminaries designed to improve the image: bands played brassily, scores of pudgy-legged high school drum majorettes strutted, celebrities were introduced, there was a solemn invocation and a cannon boomed in the infield. But when the 43 racing cars started around the grandstand turn in a glinting, growling parade, the scene instantly became one of raw power.
In the past few months Grand National stock car racing has been shot through with technical disputes, mostly over engines and the dominant role played by Detroit's factory teams. Rules were changed, and there were dire warnings that the flap over specifications was spoiling the sport. Chrysler Corporation pulled out with its hot Plymouths and Dodges, and half a dozen of the country's best drivers—including Richard Petty, the defending 500 and national stock car champion—found themselves with no ride at all. But such squabbles have a way of wearying the public, whose main interest still lies in watching the cars go. If it was true on Sunday that some of the best cars and drivers were out of it, it also was true that some of the best cars and drivers were in it. And the 1965 race proved something important that the squabblers should learn: there will always be hubcap lawyers to argue over engines, but there will also always be stock car racing. They had best get back at it.
The Daytona crowds came to see racing, and Sunday's show gave them everything—in the space of a few frantic southern hours. In the motorized scramble for the $28,600 first-place purse—and an overall package of $141,165—43 cars rumbled away in sunshine and 24 cars finished in driving rain. The race was called at 332½ miles, and when the survivors braked to a stop in front of the grandstand there was not an unbent bumper in sight. The infield staging area looked like the waiting room for a body-repair shop. When the race was declared over, Ford had first and third place—and virtually everything else. Sister Mercurys finished second and fourth.
Daytona's two-and-a-half-mile track is a four-lane superhighway tilted up at a 31° pitch around the corners. There is a fifth lane around the inside for slowpokes. Nobody uses it. The track is a bobsled run done in blacktop.
In the first laps of the race six cars shouldered down the lanes meant for four, all rolling at better than 160 mph, weaving, slipstreaming, striking back-stretch sparks from steel against steel.
By the end of 50 laps Ford Driver Marvin Panch was leading. Ford Man Bobby Johns, Ford Man Freddy Lorenzen and Ford Man Ned Jarrett were in close line behind. At the 80-lap mark the rain started, and the average speed dropped to 149. (Richard Petty, at that same point a year ago, had been averaging 172 in a Plymouth.)
Lorenzen took the lead on the 119th lap—a lead he held fiercely and skillfully on a wet track until the race was called. Standing in the rain beside his car, he pointed to the dashboard. There, painted in script, it said, "Think. W.H.M.?" "It means 'Think. What the heck's the matter?' " said Lorenzen. "I have a tendency to charge too much in races. This helps slow me down."
In the aftermath of the race, with wisps of hysteria and exhaust smoke still hanging low over the track. Ford Motor Company could find satisfaction but not the joy of conquest. Ford still faced the critics' question of whether or not it could beat Chrysler in an engine-to-engine showdown.
The question will not be answered soon. During the week, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing issued new rules for 1966. Chrysler's hemi-head engine—the redoubtable King Kong—is, in effect, still barred by a rule which says a NASCAR engine must be a generally available production item. Ford, which had grumbled a little before—its so-called high-riser racing engine was barred along with the King Kong—but had elected to stay in NASCAR racing in a big way, was obviously prepared to continue at maximum revs. But now Ford is expected to get competition from the cars of mighty General Motors, which is said to have an engine meeting new specifications.
That would be just fine with William Henry Getty France. By Sunday night, rich in attendance and hamburger and beer money, Bill France was the one superwinner at Daytona. He is the man who started the engine dispute, who got it going splendidly and then stepped aside to hold the coats of the major participants. This strategy works as neatly for France in America as it does for Charles de Gaulle in France. The parallel is not unreasonable: France is a tall (6 feet 4), shambling, imperious bear of a man. He is the originator and boss of the speedway, the originator and absolute ruler of NASCAR, and he rises up calmly out of the storms he creates. Once a service station operator, once a racer (he drove in the 1950 Mexican Road Race and wound up in a ditch in San Cristobal Las Casas), France knows his sport well and his kind of people better. His track is a $6.5 million monument to speed, and his annual race is clearly the best. Serene in that knowledge, France now spends his off-racing days rubbing automobile manufacturers together.
"Stock car racing," France said one afternoon last week, plopping huge, rubber-tired shoes on his desk, "has in recent years been in danger of being taken over completely by the big, wealthy companies. Cost of engines crept up from $1,000 to beyond $2,200. Manufacturers were constantly changing them—and on short notice—and turning out special engines to dominate racing. Well, all this interest is fine, but racing is for everyone. The little independent stock car racers were being forced out of the picture."
For 1965 racing, France wrote a set of rules last October specifying that engines had to be in volume production—not limited, one-or-two-of-a-kind specimens. It was, to his way of thinking, the way to return a piece of the sport to the back-country racing mechanics who still come roaring out of the garages in every small town south of the Mason-Dixon line.
"My espionage tells me that these rules are popular within the industry," he said. "And I think that in 1966 you will see more makes of cars back on the track."
France's network of secret agents may have been listening at the wrong factory keyholes.
"Ridiculous. This is ridiculous." snapped Ronnie Householder, who heads up racing activities for Chrysler. "I don't think we are ever going to get together again. Now, look here. The idea of racing is to go fast. Right? It is elementary."
(Householder cars have done that well enough. In the 1964 race his Plymouth cars and drivers finished in one-two-three order. And then came a Ford in fourth place. Paul Goldsmith's Plymouth King Kong had qualified at 174.91 mph, a track record, and Petty had won the race at an average speed of 154.3 mph, another record.)
"Engine restrictions, my foot," Householder growled. "I can't see where people will come out to watch cars run 150 miles an hour when they know there are cars that can go 175. Go fast. That's the idea.
"Another thing. France's rule about engines in volume production. I would like to point out that the Chrysler Corporation would like to decide for itself how many engines it is going to build and docs not need any instructions from NASCAR."
But if the 1965 regulations upset Chrysler's man in racing, the new 1966 edition turned him purple. Among other things, France wants a spot check of engine production lines. Engine assemblies, he decided sweepingly, should cost no more than $1,000 or so—a sum France considers quite large enough for any independent to put under the hood. The hooker comes in a new France idea to keep the big companies honest. All Grand National races next year will, in effect, be claiming races, he has decreed. For a $2,000 deposit, posted with France before the race, one competitor can claim another competitor's engine. And Householder, known in every racing garage in the country as a man who puts something special into each engine, made it clear he does not like the idea. "I am not in the habit," he barked, "of building engines and then passing them around."
Meanwhile, Ford people stood around the speedway in company blazers and winning smiles and took the news levelly. It was the look of a company whose engines currently fit into all the patterns cut by NASCAR. John Holman, who is round and tough, and rich from assembling racing cars for Ford, said, "All competitors are racing under the same rules. Ford engineers have put as much horsepower into our engines as you can get. We simply pull the engines off the production line. They are all built on the same line that turns out the car that dear old Mother drives to the store. Look, $1,225 can buy one. The only difference is that our drivers have mechanics who feel they can tweak the end of a sparkplug better than anyone else can tweak it."
Angrily absent from the race, Chrysler was doing a little tweaking of its own down the road a ways. Far back in the thick, wet Florida woods, out beyond the bright night lights of Daytona Beach, on an abandoned, crumbling and grass-pocked airstrip, drag racers in furious cars that ripped the night with noise were conducting their own version of Daytona Speed Weeks. Screaming crowds clustered along an improvised wire fence to see Richard Petty, the champion stock car driver. Petty, who earned a $35,300 purse in winning the Daytona 500 last year and $98,810 in cash across a winning season, gave the affair the touch of big time it needed. His car was new: a raking Plymouth Barracuda, powered by Chrysler's forbidden hemi engine. On its side was painted OUTLAWED. Petty was making $1,000 a night.
"Oh, I've had offers from practically everybody to drive for them, to change sponsors," said Petty. "But I've been with Chrysler a long time, and I intend to stay with them. I'm just drag racing now because a guy has got to do something to stay in business.
"When we were stock car racing only, we sat around and put all our eggs in one basket," Petty explained. "Then we got the basket pulled out from under us.
"Drag racing is all right," he said. "The money I make here is mostly profit, all right. But there isn't that excitement."
For his excitement Petty spent his days at the Daytona track watching the accepted cars race. "It costs me about $500 just to stand here and watch these things," he said. "That would be the money I could make if I just started." He sighed. "I don't know how much longer this ban will go on, but we're trying to get Chrysler and NASCAR back together before the year is over. I don't know how it's going. One day it looks pretty good, and then another day it looks awful.
"This Ford domination," he said, watching the Fords go by, "is hurting stock car racing. Most of the people come to see one make of car beat another make of car. You know how it is. People like to stand around the store or filling station and argue about cars. Who can beat who, and that kind of stuff. But this year they got nothing to argue about. Now racing is down to where people got nothing to do but pull for maybe a blue car to beat a white car or a green car, because all of them are Fords."
It was clear that Plymouths Were not in the running at the Daytona Speedway, but how were they doing back in the woods? Well, Petty was blowing everybody off the track nightly, including Atlanta's champion dragster, Hubert Platt. And what was Platt driving? "It just happened," grinned Petty, "to be a little old Ford."