Daytona is speed, the way Las Vegas is dice, Hollywood is starlets and Washington is Watergate. Casually mention Daytona around the neighborhood lube rack and five guys jerk their knees and start acting as if they have STP decals on their foreheads, revving mock engines, peeling rubber, shifting gears and circling the hydraulic lift.
The guttural sound of Daytona was back again last week, a harsh but simple melody calling for another celebration of life on the Southern reaches of Main Street, U.S.A., a mechanistic rock festival attended by a horde of belles with bare bellies wafting along on the numbing fumes of gasoline and charcoal-broiled beef and energized by six-packs. It was the Firecracker 400, and unless you came with a message on your T shirt, you weren't dressed.
David Pearson, who was dressed in a red, white and blue coverall, was an appropriate winner of the Fourth of July classic, even going so far as to make certain the finish itself was a bang, not a whimper. In a shocking move inspired by malice or strategy, depending on the viewpoint, Pearson deliberately allowed Richard Petty to take the lead on the final lap, then coolly caught up and roared past him to the finish line while the fans stood and howled a benediction of delight. That is how folk heroes like Pearson and Petty keep on being folk heroes.
The victory was Pearson's third in a row in the Firecracker 400, while Petty finished second for the fourth consecutive year. Petty is a five-time Daytona 500 champion but he never has managed to win the 400.
The Daytona crowd was—as ever—early '50s, grooving on reminiscent rock, somehow seeming timely and in keeping on a Fourth of July. If the hair is a mite longer, it only proves the wet head is not dead. The crew-cut view is what you feel there among the campers and motor homes that blanket the infield on race day. Mendel Rivers and Melvin Laird were past Firecracker 400 grand marshals. This year California Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. served in that capacity. Among the bedrock fans was a leavening of young, driving motorcycles or an occasional dune buggy. The rules of dress were simple. Formal: imprinted T shirt and a Budweiser hat. Informal: no shirt. The ladies wore a lot of bare backs and beehives, and their sweet perfume soothed exhaust-shocked nostrils.
But ultimately Daytona comes down to speed. And the Firecracker 400 was expected to resolve several issues. Such as: Would Indy drivers like A. J. Foyt and this year's 500 winner, Johnny Rutherford, treat Daytona as merely driving with a different set of decals? Could Cale Yarborough, a county commissioner from Florence County, S.C., edge back into the lead over Richard Petty in the fluctuating Grand National point standings? Would Roger Penske finally provide the answer to what's a Matador? And could David Pearson fall asleep while driving and still win?
The switch that Foyt and Rutherford were being asked to make might seem trifling for drivers of their skills, but few USAC drivers are capable of it. Foyt is one who is, and the cagey Texan in the DiGard Chevrolet was rated highly. Rutherford, in a less competitive car, qualified in the last row. As it developed, they both could have stayed home, being done in by mechanical troubles that put them out with the race barely a quarter over.
Yarborough and Petty have been like dueling banjos this year, first one taking the lead in the Grand National point standings, then the other. Cale won six races and the first half of the season, then King Richard slipped ahead again. Yarborough's spirits were raised, however, by a new sponsor, the Carling Brewing Company, which has committed almost $500,000—and just as important, a limitless supply of free beer for his pit crew—to the Yarborough-Junior Johnson race team.
Though his car was not as quick as some others, most notably Pearson's, Yarborough was running the more durable big block engine and counted on being around at the finish. He finished, all right, in an absolute dead heat for third with Buddy Baker, the first time anyone could remember such a thing happening in NASCAR Grand Prix racing.
Pearson is running only a limited schedule this season but he had won three of nine previous races. The swarthy, relaxed driver sometimes resembles a big bear just roused from hibernation. (Said Petty: "Pearson's crew has to wake him up to get him to go race.") The other drivers regard Pearson as a big, bad bear for sure. His Wood Brothers-tuned Mercury had been on the pole seven times before Daytona and his peers were miffed that Pearson had more throttle than they.
The big attraction early in Firecracker week was the Penske-Coca-Cola Matador. Penske made his mark in sports car racing and later at Indy. At Daytona he looked more like a golf pro than a stocker. He has been racing the Matador for three years, with only one victory, but this season his car had a redesigned "clean" shape and, for the 400, a new driver in Bobby Allison. "The car really fooled me," said Allison after practice. "It drives smooth. Last year they kind of had a shoe box out there."
On Tuesday, the first day of qualifying, the Matador grabbed the pole with a lap that was a smidgen over 180 miles an hour. Rain sprinkled the track before Pearson could challenge the time. But Pearson was ready on Wednesday morning and he took away the pole with a run that was .004 mph faster than Allison's, a margin that was computed as equaling about three inches. This just served to deepen the other drivers' suspicions. "Anytime you win, people going to be complaining," answered Pearson. "If I got them psyched that bad, that's 50% of winning right there."
When they went for keeps, it was a five-car race most of the way. Bobby Allison blipped the Matador's critics who had taken snidely to calling his car a Nash. He led for much of the race, but with 25 miles remaining a valve gave out and he had to drop back to ensure finishing. Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough also fell behind, leaving the finish to the theatrics of Pearson and Petty. The two of them began the last lap nose to tail, Petty in his Dodge drafting along behind Pearson's Mercury, saving whatever he had left for the slingshot try everyone knew would come in the final turn. Then, abruptly, Pearson took his foot off the gas and slowed so sharply that Petty, to avoid a catastrophic rear-ender, had to pass him. King Richard had been tricked into the lead. Now Pearson unfolded the other half of his Fourth of July display, putting his foot down hard and eating up the distance between him and Petty as if he had Roman candles in his tailpipes. In the last turn he dived inside, catching Petty, who made a challenging swerve that threatened to put Pearson onto the infield before letting the faster car go by. Afterward, Petty saw it all as reckless showoff driving. "I didn't want to give him no running room," Petty snorted. "But he was so much faster than me I had to, or both of us would have wrecked. Looked to me like he wanted to make it a big spectacular at the end. He usually drives much safer and saner races."
It was strategy, retorted Pearson, claiming he was afraid Petty would draft behind him and slingshot past at the finish. Chortled his pit crew boss Glen Wood: "I've never seen anyone tricked as slick as when he tricked Richard."
Afterward the fans streamed out with smiles on their faces and vicarious victory in their souls. One man stopped to ponder a question as to the stock car driver's appeal. He considered the inquiry impudent. "Simple, boy," he sneered. "They git grease 'tween their fingernails jist like simple folk."