It was a long time coming, but perhaps it had been inevitable. The Daytona 500—stock-car racing's biggest payoff—was the only major prize that A. J. Foyt (see cover) had coveted but never had been able to win. The three-time Indy champion and co-conqueror of Le Mans (along with Dan Gurney back in 1967) hardly needed the money, but he sure did want the glory. Indeed, there were some faithless race fans who reckoned Foyt might be over the hill. Not so. Last Sunday, with an awesome display of canny driving and superb preparation, Super Tex finally turned the trick. He won Daytona wheels down, and along with it $38,400 to add to the zillions that already line his coffers in Houston.
But winners and paychecks are only the skeletal stuff of stock-car racing. The flesh is something else again, particularly at Daytona. There is a kind of virile ugliness about Daytona's Speed Weeks and that climactic 500-mile race that somehow manages to transcend venality and, at the end, convert it into affection. First there is the weather—not the come-on-down chamber of commerce pipe dream, but the wet, windy reality of a northern Florida winter. Last week Daytona dripped, and when everyone was soggy enough a gale-force wind came swirling down from the north—"a keen of a lean wind," in e. e. cummings' phrase—to frazzle the STP banners and freeze the Southern drawls like syrup poured on snow. It was unwise to walk in the lee of a female stock-car fan; the lacquer chips blown from her beehive hairdo could flay a man alive.
The wind was beneficial in one sense. It dispersed the usual miasma of gasoline fumes and fried chicken smoke that makes the Daytona International Speedway Florida's most pungent air polluter. Beyond the weather, and last week's was hardly unusual, Daytona was a gathering of like-minded souls from every region and every station (of gas, that is, not life). In the black, axle-deep mud of the infield, Michiganders talked shop with their counterparts from Georgia and Mississippi in long, almost mystical dialogues conducted over the hoods of freshly simonized sedans or on the roofs of campers. The men punctuated their exchanges of automotive wisdom with chugs from their omnipresent beer cans while their wives kept busy by manufacturing hefty sandwiches or shrilling at the kids. Valves and half-shafts uttered into the air like so many benedictions, pickles and salami and remonstrances drawing the dialogues back to earth.
Finally, the atmosphere of this year's Daytona 500 was spiked with a new ingredient—not just another "miracle" engine additive or another frustrating rule change by NASCAR, but that headiest of American stimulants, politics. Bill France, the founding father of stock-car racing and boss of NASCAR, if not Daytona, is serving as George Wallace's campaign manager for the Florida Democratic primary. Since France's speedway is Daytona's main claim to fame, and since any fool who reads the racing press must realize that half a million American voters—many of them Floridians—congregate at the speedway during the weeks that culminate with the 500, it was inevitable that politics would intrude on sport. Though France himself has stepped down as president of the speedway, turning that function over to his son Bill Jr., he saw to it that the announcer at every Speed Weeks race or time trial made an appeal for Wallace contributions. Indeed, Wallace's wife Cornelia, described by the local press as "an ebony-haired former beauty queen," was scheduled to drive the pace car for the 500. Those who had unhappy memories of last year's Indianapolis 500, where an amateur pace-car driver crashed into the photographers' stand, were reassured that Cornelia Wallace was no Eldon Palmer. She had driven the pace car during a race last year at France's other speedway, Talladega, and even though she popped a tire at 115 mph, Cornelia kept the car under control. "A real stud, that lady," said one NASCAR official. "I guess you'd have to call her a good ol' gal."
February 28, 1972
For those who preferred to keep their racing undiluted by politics, there was plenty of authentic white lightning in the way of new developments. For instance, the unlikely alliance of Richard Petty, the sport's superhero, with Andy Granatelli of STP fame, Richard—long, lean and casual—has always seemed to epitomize the down home best in stock-car racing. His daddy, Lee, was one of the first stars to rise over the moonshine trail back in the early 1950s and the first to win three Grand National season championships—a feat duplicated only by David Pearson and Richard himself. Like hardware businesses of yore, stock-car racing has managed to maintain the 19th century tradition of sons following in their fathers' footsteps, and the fact that Richard has won more Grand National races (141), and more money ($I million plus) than any other stock-car driver in history has been reassuring to most GN fans. These same folks, however, are contemptuous of Granatelli, a man who is not only plump and non-Wasp but comes from USAC. When Richard this year allowed his pristine, Petty-blue Plymouth to be anointed, or desecrated, by vast, gaudy daubs of Granatelli Day-Glo orange, it was as big a shock as if George Wallace had been revealed as a closet pot smoker or Robert E. Lee as a sissy.
Petty relieved all tensions, however, by winning the season's first race at Riverside under the new colors (the car remains Petty blue on top, where it counts in the high banks) and then announcing that "Andy has promised not to kiss me when I win. It's in the contract."
Richard was clearly the man to contend with, but then again Cale Yarborough was back after a season's absence with USAC. The good ol' boys welcomed him warmly, joshing Caleb about his scraggly yaller mustache and his red-trimmed "fruit boot" racing slippers. Cale, who is as tough as he is short and happy, took it all with glee, though he admitted that his car, a 1971 Plymouth, was hardly as hip as his new appearance. The same sort of joshing was directed at Mark Donohue, whose experience in road racing had not quite prepared him for the jests of the stockers. When the good ol' boys poked fun at Mark's golden racing suit, and more pointedly at his "boxcar"—a blunt and aerodynamically dirty American Motors Matador—Donohue went into a sulk. Wandering through the garage area among all those bulking, guttural cars, one of which bore the slogan "With God you're always a winner," Donohue looked more and more like Charlie Brown. It took Roger Penske to snap things back into focus. "We may look slow right now," said Penske, "but looks can be deceiving."
The other garage gossip centered on unexpected absences and formidable presences. Fred Lorenzen and Donnie Allison, two of NASCAR's best known veterans, had no rides in the 500, and the promising young driver who had won the race in 1970, Pete Hamilton, was slouching in the shadows hoping for one. "Not just any ride," said Pete. "I've got a good engine business going in Atlanta, and that's keeping me busy. There are only about five really competitive cars here this year—Petty and Buddy Baker, A. J. Foyt, Bobby Isaac and Bobby Allison—and even though I could probably get a lesser ride, I don't want to back into victory."
Despite the drought of money that has hit Hamilton and other drivers, obviously someone was spending on Chevrolets. Though there is no actual factory sponsorship, Chevy is slicing some American pie with a levee of drivers including Bobby Allison and Coo Coo Marlin qualifying high in race after race. Foyt was campaigning once again in a Mercury prepared by the Wood Brothers, sponsored this year, and for two more, by Purolator, whose canny, craggy president, a former aviator named Paul Cameron, is probably as tough as Foyt himself. A.J. could be seen from time to time last week urging young boys to get their hair cut and other drivers to give him more of a challenge. Like John Wayne, Foyt has become more than a man: he is now an institution. Last year, bothered by a torn tendon in one arm, he tried cortisone but ultimately healed himself with the same liniment he uses on his quarter horses. "Would you believe it worked?" he chuckled. "Everyone laughed, but by golly it did."
The two 125-mile races that set the field for the big 500 are usually a bit of a drag, but this year they proved memorable—in the worst way possible for motor sports. In the first race, won by pole sitter Bobby Isaac in his quick, steady Dodge, death paid a rare visit to Daytona. After an early yellow caution period, which had been precipitated by James Hylton spinning out on the front straight with a blown engine, the pack went surging through the high banks at the western end of the 2½-mile oval. Coming out of Turn Two a tire blew on a car near the front. A driver right behind saw rubber in the air and figured it to be a complete tire. At 180 mph all images are best regarded as potentially dangerous. He maneuvered to avoid the rubber, another car hit him, another car hit that car and...a grinding of metal, a stink of burning rubber and the pale blue smoke of disaster rising in a gentle ribbon all down the back straightaway. In the chain collision, which eliminated 12 cars, a driver from Tennessee named Friday Hassler was killed. He was 36 years old and had four children; his wife was in the stands. Friday's top year had brought him $32,825, and he had never won a big race.
Bobby Allison and his heavy Chevy won the second 125-miler. It was a race unmarred by accidents or yellow flags. Foyt, who offered the only strong challenge during the 50 laps, had a leaky right-front tire—so he said afterward—but was able to stay close, hang tough, psych the opposition and still sit in the front row of the big race. Petty parked with a weary fuel pump and Buddy Baker with a busted cylinder, so Granatelli's dynamic duo was relegated to the 16th row on the grid for the 500—a long way back to be considered a challenge.
Allison delivered a somber and impromptu eulogy for Friday Hassler after the heats had cooled: "Friday was a personal friend of mine since 1959. All these years in racing—it broke my heart. But all I could do was hurt for him." He paused, thinking perhaps of the unspoken question: How do you go out and race after your friend has been killed in the race just previous? "We all know the risks and we have to do it—that's the only way I know how to say it. All I could do was hurt for him."
Race day proved disappointing to any number of people, among them Cornelia Wallace. A virus—might one call it Asian flu?—zonked her on the eve of the big day, and she retired to a hospital bed in Montgomery. Young Bill France drove the pace car in Cornelia's stead, cheered on by both his dad and his dad's presidential candidate.
With the green flag it became evident that Foyt had the most horses. He blew past Isaac with ease, then diced briefly with Allison before establishing his supremacy. The early going was most memorable for the hard charging of Petty and Baker. Starting from their positions far back on the grid, the Day-Glo duo blasted to the fourth and fifth positions within the first four laps. Then on the 19th lap Baker tangled with a Ford driven by rookie Walter Ballard, who lost it in the high banks of Turn Four, flipped onto his roof and skidded a full quarter of a mile while Buddy spun, bent and finished but unhurt, into the infield. During the ensuing caution period, Donohue quietly retired his uncompetitive Matador with a broken pushrod. Oh, well, you're still a good man, Charlie Brown.
Then came the most exciting part of the race, a tit-for-tat duel between Foyt and Petty, with each man seeming to toy with the other while exchanging the lead. By this time Allison was out of contention with a rock through his windshield. The NASCAR-oriented crowd of nearly 100,000 cheered Petty on, but a sense of gloom set in when it became clear that Foyt was merely stringing Richard along. Then, well before the halfway mark, Petty popped a valve spring. Streaming smoke, he wheeled behind the wall to join Isaac, who had retired earlier with ignition trouble. They were followed soon afterward by everybody's wacky favorite, Coo Coo Marlin. Two more minor yellows permitted Foyt to renew his rubber and cement his dominance.
By the time Super Tex took the checkered flag, and the lion's share of the $183,700 in prize money, he had reassured the racing world that Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. of Houston, Texas is still America's No. 1 hot dog.