All it takes is a touch of recession to start instant sputtering in the delicate ignition systems of motor racing. Even in the best of times things are tough enough, what with the costly technologies of a game in which $35,000 engines sometimes blow like popcorn. It comes as no surprise that 1975 shapes up for the most part as a sickly season for the racers.
There is already gloom along Indy's Gasoline Alley, where last year's fuel crisis scared off a number of high-roller sponsors, and this year's 500 promises even more fright. Sponsorships are going begging: quality cars are scarce; even so celebrated a driver as Joe Leonard, twice the United States Auto Club's national champ, cannot get a ride. Rallying is off; the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series for unlimited sports cars has crashed after nine seasons of questionable rule changes and economic torpor. Even the usually impervious Grand Prix circuit for Formula I cars is feeling the squeeze.
But all is not malaise. Down in Florida's Daytona Beach, at the headquarters of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the engine is firing on all eight. In fact, the 11-month season that began last month at Riverside, Calif. and will not take the checkered flag until next Nov. 23 should set records both in prize money and number of races. The year's healthy Winston Cup schedule for Grand National cars—the big sedans from 1973-1975 model years—lists 30 races from coast to coast in 11 different states. Prize money for the series comes to $3 million-plus, well over the previous high set last year.
The big daddy of them all is next week's Daytona 500. The winner will take the lion's share of a $282,375 purse—probably a payday in the $42,000 range, what with lap prizes and accompanying sponsor foofaraw. In addition to Daytona and Riverside, there are nine other 500-milers with purses of at least $100,000 and four that will pay even more. Four 400-mile races and the World 600 at Charlotte, N.C. on May 25 round out the super-speedway events. But there also are 10 hell-for-lube sprints on the five remaining short courses, on which U.S. stock car racing was weaned. The cheapest of these, the Music City, U.S.A. 420-lapper around Nashville's .596-mile track on May 10, pays a respectable $36,200 in prize money.
All told, NASCAR has enough 1975 racing miles—12,275, to be precise—to cross the continent four times with a few miles left over for practice laps. Work out the rewards on a dollar basis and it comes to $244 for every racing mile. Small wonder that Richard Petty's take-home pay last season, when he won the driver's title for the fifth time, came to $278,175. Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, who finished just back of Petty for the year, both topped $200,000 in earnings.
What accounts for NASCAR's success in an otherwise ailing sport? First off, stock car racing is splendid entertainment. On NASCAR speedways the cars are visible all the way around the track, often in spectacular 10-or 12-car chases, drafting nose to bumper at speeds above 200 mph. Further, Bill France Sr., who founded NASCAR, figured out years ago that spectators can identify with stock cars; there is pride of ownership in noting that good ol' Richard or Caleb or Joe-Jack is out there slamming around in what looks like the family sedan. The resemblance is more than superficial: unlike the exotic engines of Indy or Grand Prix racers, stock car powerplants cost only about $5,000. What's more, there are no fancy chassis with the driver lying hidden inside, only the top of his helmet showing. In stock cars, the men sit right up there smack behind the steering wheel where a fella is supposed to sit.
Add to this the beer and bourbon, fried chicken and hot afternoons, and one has an irresistible chunk of southern-fried Americana. The fact that most of NASCAR's schedule takes place in the heart of the car-conscious Southeast makes it all possible. That is the premise on which France built this roaring, recession-proof empire. This year it roars again.