The night before Sunday's Daytona 500-mile stock-car race, Chrysler racing boss Ronnie Householder took a long sip on an after-dinner drink and began to doodle. "If Richard Petty loses tomorrow," he said, "it'll be because of a six-inch piece of wire on his Plymouth. Fred Lorenzen is smart, but it's very, very easy to outthink yourself in this game. Davey Pearson might lose because he thinks 2 and 2 is 5. Hell, you know something? If you do this long enough you can find reasons why nobody should even show up at the starting line tomorrow."
He wasn't far wrong. When the checkered flag fell Sunday it was for Mario Andretti, the Indy 500 refugee from Nazareth, Pa. who led his Ford teammate, Lorenzen, across the finish line. They were the survivors of a demolition derby that knocked out every other major contender for the $43,500 first prize in stock-car racing's biggest event.
Trial runs leading up to the 500 produced an ususual number of favorites—a dozen or more—and confirmed a grease-stained gentleman named Henry (Smokey) Yunick in his role as Daytona's resident devil. Yunick is generally conceded to be the sport's outstanding mechanic. For more than a decade no one has prepared faster racing cars for Daytona, and this knack has caused some of his opponents to imagine that he concocts a witch's broth for his gas tanks and gets more horsepower from his engines than God or the NASCAR rule book ever intended.
Yunick, who wears a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a big cigar, advertises his shop as "The Best Damn Garage in Town." Generally he doesn't give a damn what people think, but last week he was a little sore because people were being extra suspicious. Yunick's Chevrolet Chevelle qualified on the pole, at a record speed of 180.831 mph, and was not even a factory entry.
Where Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation had openly backed a wave of Fords and Mercurys, Plymouth and Dodges, General Motors was sticking to its policy of not participating in racing. Racing men who remembered Smokey's close association with GM when the Detroit giant was on the tracks, have had an extremely difficult time ridding themselves of the suspicion that there is an underground railway between Chevy's technical eggheads and Smokey's Daytona establishment.
And so the powerful and lavishly financed Ford and Chrysler teams spent a good part of the week grumbling about Smokey and professing amazement at the speeds run by his driver, the old hard-boot, Curtis Turner.
"That's a factory car," groused Householder, who could count Defending Champion Petty, Tiny Lund, Pearson, and Paul Goldsmith among his talented drivers. "Why, every time the Chevelle goes tire-testing there are three or four young men out there who look like they just walked out of the General Motors Building in Detroit. Every now and then we recognize one of them."
John Holman, who had prepared the Fords that finished one-two and had supplied his sophisticated racing hardware to other Ford entrants, felt no kindlier. "I went up to Henry," he said, "and put the needle in him pretty good. What did I say? Well, you might say it was in the nature of a private conversation. But Henry and I, we've been kidding each other in this game for 10 years now, and he's usually pretty cool. I've rarely seen him mad. But this time he turned positively purple. His face quivered, and he cussed at me. The next day, after I managed to get near him, I apologized for suggesting that maybe his car wasn't legal in every little way."
Perhaps Holman could be excused for his touch of pique. Besides Ford's top stock cars in the 500, he was in charge of its J-Car testing program, which went on nearly every night at the speedway for two weeks. The J-Car is the successor to the Mark II, the sports car that was so soundly thrashed by Ferrari at Daytona in early February. Last Friday the testing ended abruptly when the car went into a spin, sending it and Driver Bruce McLaren near the track's wall.
The panic caused by Turner's early speed did not recede until the last few days of trials, when other cars began crowding the 180-mph barrier. By that time it was too late to take the pole position from Turner, but five other drivers broke 180, and the fastest of all was Andretti, who turned a remarkable lap at 182.8 on Thursday.
Musing the following day on the year's sensational speeds, Andretti said, "Anybody going that fast in these cars has got to be cheating."
"But Mario," someone said, "there's nobody faster than you."
"Yeah, I know," Andretti smiled. "I'm cheating a little myself."
It was all good, clean fun, more or less, and the only cries of real anguish came from drivers and mechanics who heard things along the grapevine—mostly things about some subtle cutting and welding to improve aerodynamic qualities that they wished they had thought of themselves.
Two 100-mile races run on Friday foretold Sunday's Ford sweep and underlined one of the reasons why the Dearborn cars would be especially formidable. That reason was better gas mileage. Winning the second 100-miler, Lorenzen was the only driver to finish without a stop for fuel. While he made a big show of appearing to run out of gas and coast over the finish line, there was only space for 19.6 gallons in his 22-gallon tank when he had it refilled.
Said Chrysler's Householder: "I don't feel real confident like I did in 1964 and 1966 when we swept everything. We've got the drivers, the horsepower and the staying power, but Ford does have the economy. We'll probably have to make one more pit stop than they will. That could make a difference."
More decisive, though, was the toll that sheer speed took. Almost immediately after Grand Ole Opry Star Roy Drusky sang Swanee River and the race began, the pattern for the afternoon was established. Eight or 10 cars rode in a pack at the head of the field, and several laps of over 180 mph were run by the leaders. But almost as if a sniper was picking them off, the top drivers started falling out one by one.
First to go was Paul Goldsmith, who got caught in a violent current of air on lap 42 of the 200-lap race, got sideways on the banking and slid first toward the infield, then back across the track toward the outside guard rail. Behind him, Cale Yarborough went low to avoid a collision, hit the level part of the track, broke his suspension and retired. Goldsmith continued for another 133 laps but from the time of that early slide was never again among the leaders.
Dick Hutcherson's Ford went next, four laps later, when he ran over some shrapnel on the course, blew a tire and slammed the wall. In between those accidents, the clutch of A. J. Foyt's Ford failed. Then on lap 48 Petty began falling back with a twisted suspension.
As the plague spread, Lee Roy Yarbrough, another front-runner, blew the engine of his Ford on the 71st lap. Buddy Baker did the same in a Dodge on the 120th. Turner, who had driven a magnificent race and had held the lead, saw his engine fall apart on 143, and Pearson lost his 16 laps later.
That left Andretti, who wasn't supposed to be around that long, and Lorenzen, who was, to fight it out to the finish. Andretti had been at or near the lead for most of the race; Lorenzen's plan was to lay back and make his run during the last part of it. When both he and Andretti pitted for the last time, just 37 laps from the finish, it seemed certain that the race would fall into Lorenzen's lap. In fact, he led the 164th through the 167th laps before Andretti shot past him on 168.
Then a strange thing happened. Lorenzen fell back into a pack with Tiny Lund's Plymouth and Darel Dieringer's Ford and, try as he might, he never was able to shake those two. Andretti's lead, which had never been more than a few tenuous car lengths, suddenly widened to 2.5 seconds, then to seven seconds, and it was clear that Lorenzen could not catch Mario. There was a brief suspicion of collusion, but Ralph Moody, Holman's partner, said no. "These guys run for the money and the glory," he said. "In a situation like that, they are completely on their own."
Andretti's one seeming error turned out luckily. He didn't come in for his first pit stop—for fuel—until the 42nd lap, which was about 10 miles farther than a car is supposed to be able to go on a tank of gas. When he did finally heed the frantic beckonings of his crew, Goldsmith's spin brought out the caution flag, which saved Mario a lap on the field. Had it not been for the yellow flag, Lorenzen, or even Lund, might have been the winner. "The good Lord was watching after that guy," said Lund, "and it cost me a few bucks."
Funny thing, though. John Holman had not a single complaint.