Remember those carefree, smog-filled days when any fool could whip into any gas station and bellow "Fill 'er up"? And the pump jockey would actually smile and say "Yessir"? Remember when there were thousands of drivers who didn't know what the "E" and the "F" on their gas gauges stood for? Remember the time when motor racing—that grotesque guzzler of gasoline—was considered a good, clean, red-blooded American sport? Well, Bill France Sr., the Iron Duke of Daytona, remembers, and as far as the racing part is concerned he is determined to save what's left of the good old days.
To that end, the man who virtually invented stock-car racing nearly a generation ago took steps this year—some sound, some a little silly—to assure that public reaction to the energy crisis would not include a sudden revulsion toward motor sports. The 24 Hours of Daytona, usually conducted in early February, was fiat canceled. "We burn more gas in that one than in all our other races put together," said one of France's aides. Further, the modified sedan race that inaugurates Daytona's Speed Week was reduced a full third in distance—from 300 to 200 miles. And finally, practice time for the Daytona 500, the season's first and richest superspeedway stock-car race, was cut back by 37½%, and the race itself underwent a 10% amputation.
The Daytona 450? It sounds kind of silly, almost cheap, like those bush-league races conducted on potholed fairground ovals in the summer-sweaty boondocks of America. It suddenly became clear that the number "500" over the years has acquired a certain mystical aura in the American automotive lexicon. But wait, race fans! France & Co. had a solution to that problem as well. The race would still be a 500, even though it ran for only 450 miles. The amputated 50 would come from the front end of the race; that is, the 40-car field would take the green flag on the 2½-mile track at the start of the 21st lap, having supposedly spent the first 20 laps cooling its collective exhaust pipes in the pits. All one had to do was squinch his eyes a little bit and he could pretend it was for real.
One thing no amount of squinching could obscure, however, was the fact that the traditional bumper-against-bumper crowds that glut Daytona International Speedway's infield during Speed Week were mighty sparse. Attendance for the two 125-mile qualifying races that determine the grid for the big one—reduced this year to 112½-milers in deference to the E.C.—came to only 36,500 souls, almost a third fewer than last year's 50,350.
By the weekend before the 500 all grandstand seats are usually sold out. This year more than $100,000 worth of tickets were still available a week before the race. Since the Daytona crowd is largely a camper crowd, and since the big campers get only three or four miles to the gallon, it was obvious that fear of dry tanks rather than any sudden flush of guilt over the "morality" of motor racing was keeping the folks at home.
Ironically, the local fuel situation in Daytona was excellent. Lines were short or nonexistent and full tanks easy to come by. "How can I go home after this?" asked a fan from New Jersey, basking in the 75° sun at a Citgo station where his station wagon was being filled by a jovial attendant. "I'm going to camp out here for the rest of the winter and just feast my eyes on those lovely, languid, well-filled pumps."
Perhaps that was a common sentiment, because the crowds finally picked up considerably toward the climactic weekend. Ultimately, where the energy crisis hurt the most was at the sponsorship level. The race itself still had full backing from Winston, but only a handful of the cars in it had anything like major support from big sponsors. "It'll get worse before it gets better," said a spokesman for one of them. "Most of these corporate tigers are as timid as titmice when something like this energy business comes up. They'll wait and see if the public considers racing to be profligate before they commit themselves."
There was nothing wasteful about the preliminaries to the big 450, unless one considers yawning a form of profligacy. Bobby Isaac won the first of the truncated 125-milers, staving off a surprisingly tough challenge from 40-year-old NASCAR rookie George Follmer, who drafted like a superspeedway veteran. It was a heartening, if minor, win for Isaac, who had retired after last year's Talladega 500, claiming a voice in his ear had told him to quit while the quitting was good. But voices have a way of dimming during times of crisis, even as the lowly light bulb in a brownout. Cale Yarborough took the second qualifier after A. J. Foyt, who had been sticking to him like a Texas hill-country burr, blew an engine two laps from the finish.
Follmer, who came to Daytona out of road racing, showed the fans his more familiar skills for a brief spurt during the final of the International Race of Champions, that mano a mano of automotive superstars driving identically prepared Porsche Carreras. But Mark Donohue, who had announced his retirement, went on to an easy quarter-of-a-lap victory, plus a final payday of $54,500. The only note of excitement at the finish was a nippily tuckish duel between Peter Revson and Bobby Unser for second place and $13,000. On the last lap Revson slingshotted past Unser to edge him by three feet. "I've been studying these stock-car boys," Peter said later, "and it really paid off."
If the Race of Champions was dullsville, the big 450 was anything but. It started off with a bang—indeed, with bang upon bang—under cool, sunny skies and in the teeth of a crisp wind that seemed to nudge cars into the wall on Turn 2. All this, plus the usual allotment of spinouts, blown engines and fender-bending bust-ups, brought out a near-record 10 yellow caution flags, one short of the mark set in 1971.
The flurries of constant pitting, bunching and regrouping that occurred under the caution periods also brought on a record number of lead changes—fully 59 during the three hours and 11 minutes of the race. Chains of more than a dozen cars drafted together, flat-out, nose-to-tail, like some monstrous subsonic form of mass transit.
The first of the hot dogs to fail was David Pearson, last year's high-money man in NASCAR and the pole sitter for this race. He ran over a stray tailpipe that had clanked onto the track during one of the early crashes, and an incurable vibration forced him to retire on the 38th lap. After that, the race belonged, at various times, to Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Foyt, the splendidly named Clifton (Coo-Coo) Marlin, and that bustling brother team from Hueytown, Ala., Donny and Bobby Allison. It was magnificent racing and high-speed geometry, just the sort of showmanship that makes the Grand National game America's most exciting. Then, just before the halfway mark, Bobby Allison's engine exploded on the back straight.
When the green flag came out again, a new pattern emerged. Petty and Donny Allison, in a Dodge and a Chevy, pulled away from the pack in a 180-mph double-draft, swapping the lead back and forth for nearly 100 miles. Petty finally broke the ballet by pitting under the green flag for tires and gas. Donny pulled in a few laps later, but in the duel of pit crews Petty emerged with a six-second advantage. That could have been enough to ensure victory, but then—on the 168th lap—rookie Follmer blew his engine and spun up into the wall on Turn 2.
Pitting again under the caution, Allison and Petty emerged almost side by side and staged their own Winternationals Drag meet down the pit road. Again the lead swapping went on until—with less than 50 miles to go—Petty's left front tire blew. The Allison partisans went berserk as Petty limped in for a quick change, but a few laps later it was their turn to groan. Suddenly, Allison shredded a rear tire at high speed right in front of the main grandstand—it sounded like a small bomb—and slewed wildly into the first turn, holding the car off the wall only by the most skillful wheel-handling.
That was it. Petty breezed home the rest of the way to capture his fifth Daytona victory and his second in a row—both unprecedented in the Speedway's history. He also picked up $36,650 for the afternoon's drive. What does one do after five Daytona wins? "Go after No. 6," said King Richard.
Among the fans, ironically enough, were ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan. One could only hope—vainly, no doubt—that the excitement of American auto racing might somehow communicate itself through some diplomatic pouch back to their homelands and cause their oil-pinching bosses to relent.