The P. T. Barnum, Florenz Ziegfeld and Jack Warner of north Florida is a tall, bulky character named Bill France. He is the proprietor of the Daytona International Speedway and promoter of possibly the gaudiest weeks of automotive speed the world has known. Wheels start rolling for France in early February and do not stop until he has extracted the last dram of emotion from his annual stock car extravaganza, the Daytona 500, on the last Sunday of the month. France is happiest when he can stage a gut fight involving Detroit's Big Three, and on Sunday he had a natural: Plymouth, the 1964 champ, making a comeback after a year of exile, against Ford, last year's bristling winner. To a Southland wearied by a winter of spitting weather, the urge to see France's show was irresistible. Cars and panel trucks and campers clogged the highways into town, bringing 88,000 spectators—the largest sports audience in Florida history—and what they saw was swift retribution for Plymouth. In a race cut five miles short by rain, Richard Petty in his bright-blue 1966 took the checkered flag a full lap ahead of the second-place Ford. It was officially recorded that Petty had averaged 160 mph, or six miles an hour faster than ever before.
The weeks leading up to the race also belonged to Petty, who was first on the track and fastest all the way. "You're early, aren't you?" asked a reporter. "I'm a year late," he snapped, and then he went out and broke Paul Goldsmith's old qualifying record with a speed of 175.
The reason for Petty's testiness was France's ban on the Plymouth (and Dodge) hemi-head engine for the 1965 season, a maneuver which, in effect, gave Ford the gravy for the year and kept Richard inactive until recently, when the hemi engine was reinstated. France's edict had been based on the suspicion that you were not jolly likely to find a hemi at your neighborhood dealer's; while he would be the last to claim that the stockers are the exact twins of showroom cars, he gets cranky when people put out-and-out racing engines in them. Cranky some years, complacent in others, that is. The hemis ran legally in 1964.
In any case, Petty was making his daddy mighty happy as Daytona warmed up for the 500. Dad is Lee Petty, who personally tuned Richard's No. 43 hemi to perfection. He is a man who knows a thing or two about winning at Daytona. In 1959 he captured the first 500 on France's 2.5-mile speedway. In 1960 Lee went over the wall on the high-banked fourth turn. Gravely injured, he recovered but decided that preparing cars for Richard was a better way to make a living.
When Petty wasn't spreading panic in the Ford camp his Chrysler Corporation accomplices were—such experienced and hard-charging men as Paul Goldsmith, Jim Paschal and Jim Hurtubise in Plymouths, and Earl Balmer, David Pearson and Lee Roy Yarbrough in Dodges.
Ford countered with a 174-mph lap by Dick Hutcherson—a relatively ineffectual thrust, as things turned out. A. J. Foyt snapped into action in a trio of Fords, which all snapped back. Crusty as always, the famed Indy driver began by quarreling with the man providing him a ride, the equally tough Junior Johnson. Johnson, who has done much to spin the stuff of which folklore is made—racing the revenooers with his pappy's hooch in the back seat and all that—was not in the 500 himself, but he was present, all right. By announcing right off that Bobby Isaac was his top driver, Johnson put Foyt into a blue rage. The first Johnson Ford given to Foyt obviously was not going to win any races. The second went even slower. In the third A. J. was still going nowhere.
Nowhere was also the destination of a couple of nifty-looking Chevrolets. One was tuned for the Indy rookie of the year, Mario Andretti, by Smokey Yunick, the Daytona mechanic. Andretti took a tug on his seat harness, smiled at the crowd of young lovelies that always seems to gather around his cars and whizzed away—about four mph too slow to be competitive.
One of the gumdrops France tosses to the fans is a pair of 100-mile qualifying races on the Friday before the 500. Petty and Hutcherson had already gobbled up the choice lead spots for the big one, but the order of finish for the remaining drivers was important. A bad run Friday meant the back of the bus Sunday.
What turned up for Ford, not unexpectedly, was a black Friday. Goldsmith, who had been finding extra speed in his 1965 Plymouth (stuffed with a 1966 hemi engine) as the week went on, edged Petty at the finish line in the first race, but it was still a Plymouth-Plymouth runaway. In the second 100 Balmer, in a 1965 Dodge hemi, nipped Hurtubise's Plymouth, Hutcherson salvaging a little for Ford by bringing his 1966 in third. It was bang-bang-bang across the finish line with a little extracurricular bump thrown in as Hutcherson caromed off the wall just before the end.
"We knew they were fast," said Leo Beebe, head of Ford's racing program, "but, wow! No matter how you try to steel yourself for these things they still come at you like—well, like death. Sudden and unexpected."
Beebe, suspecting that Ford's old wedge engine would be devoured by the hemis, had tried to pull the biggest bluff of the season. He had simply announced that Ford would race a sizzling new overhead-camshaft engine, hoping that after last year's desultory competition France would simply look the other way. No such luck. France said absolutely not. Can't find those engines at my neighborhood dealer's.
"Well, we tried," said Beebe.
Under ugly skies on race day there was a new and curvier Miss Firebird for Daytona fans who like change, and the old Miss Firebird for those who do not (she showed up as Miss Hurst Golden Shifter). France touched off three cannon blasts to get the race going.
By the time France had finished firing off his cannon, Petty and Paul Goldsmith had sprinted out front in a private run for Plymouth. But suddenly, after 20 laps, Petty's left front tire began to smoke alarmingly and, while his crew was quick to put things right, it was a pit stop he could have done without. Just the day before, Fred Lorenzen, the 1965 winner for Ford, had been explaining how he could catch the faster Plymouth by making one less pit stop than anyone else, then sneaking in behind the really hot cars for a bit of drafting—and letting them do the work. And there, by golly, was the extra stop by the hottest driver of them all, and it came just minutes after the start. "A lot of crazy things can happen in 500 miles," Lorenzen had said with the conviction of a man who has not only read that story about the tortoise and the hare but believes it. Petty, who is not as well read, had other ideas. By the simple process of keeping his right foot pressed firmly on the floor, he was clobbering the field at the halfway point.
A Ford driven by Cale Yarborough finished second, and Lorenzen proved that he needed horsepower more than philosophy: he came in fourth behind David Pearson's Dodge. It was a melancholy group of Ford executives that huddled near the pits as the rains came. Richard Petty clambered out the window of his car, navigated a course between Miss Firebird and Miss Hurst Golden Shifter to embrace his dad, and accepted the winner's purse of $28,150 from France. It had been a reasonable haul, but it would seem like petty larceny before the year was out.