They say it pays to have friends and fans in high places, and right now NASCAR's 1976 point champion, Cale Yarborough, is not likely to argue. Four days before Sunday's Daytona 500 Yarborough had received a congratulatory telegram from a "down-to-earth, regular-type guy," a guy "just like you and me," a guy Yarborough calls "my buddy." And whether or not having Jimmy Carter in his corner played an inspirational part in Yarborough winning the race and $63,700, who knows? But Richard Petty voted for Gerald Ford, and Petty ran over a crankshaft that fell out of someone else's engine, gouging the belly of his Dodge. A curious way to lose a race. "I always knew we'd rise again one day," said Yarborough, who now is the only man other than Petty to have won the 500 more than once.
Yarborough is a politician himself—a county commissioner in his home state of South Carolina—but Petty is the one they call King, and early in the race the five-time Daytona winner provided most of the excitement. He had pulled into his pit on the pace lap with his engine smoking badly. The hood came up, and three men dived underneath to plug a leaking oil breather tube. The race started without Petty, who managed to get under way a lap later. But a yellow flag came out on the fourth lap—Bobby Wawak's car, which bore the inscription WITH GOD YOU'RE ALWAYS A WINNER, caught fire—and Petty was able to make up the lost lap by racing to the finish line before the leaders got there to take the caution flag. However, he was dead last; 39 cars lay between him and Yarborough. But Petty began a brilliant drive, gaining seconds a lap on the front-runners despite having to weave through traffic. On the 61st lap he surged into the lead, having passed every car in the race in the virtuoso effort. It was not to last. On the 108th lap his engine dropped a valve, and just moments later he ran over that errant crankshaft and pulled into his garage, the belly of his Dodge bleeding oil. "I've had enough," he said as he got out of the car and climbed to the top of his trailer to watch the rest of the race.
Most of the afternoon a cluster of top drivers had drafted each other for the lead: Yarborough, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, A. J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker. But shortly after the midway point they began dropping out or losing laps: Allison was finished when a blown right rear tire tore up the rear end of his car. Pearson went with a dropped valve. Foyt was slowed by a vibrating rear wheel. Waltrip had an air-wrench break during a pit stop and he pulled away with only one lug nut holding a wheel on. A cautious lap later he was in the pits again to complete the tire change but too far in back to be a contender anymore.
With 10 laps remaining, Yarborough led Parsons by inches, with Baker, who had spun earlier, a lap behind in third place.
February 28, 1977
"I was running just as hard as I could through the corners but I couldn't shake Benny," said Yarborough. Parsons had seemed in a perfect position to slingshot Yarborough on the final lap, but suddenly he fell back a dozen or so car lengths, and the race was over.
Parsons pulled into his garage and lit a cigarette even before he took off his helmet, but he didn't puff on it; his lips were pursed too tightly in dejection. "Close..." a crew member said. "Does close count?" asked Parsons, who had won the 500 in 1975. "I blew it," said Parsons after he climbed out of his Chevy. "Turn Two was giving me a hard time all day. I had to get through there perfect or the wind would catch me. Toward the end I was saying to myself, 'Please let me stay on his bumper so if he makes a mistake I'm ready,' but it was me who made the mistake. A couple of laps from the end I wasn't perfect in Turn Two and I had to ease off the throttle to keep from hitting the wall. When I did, I lost Cale's draft."
And with it, the race. Yarborough had made no mistakes, and deserved the victory; it had been nine years since he had been in the winner's circle at the 500. Last year he had blown five engines during race week, the final one on the opening lap of the 500. But he was first in all three races he entered at Daytona this year—in addition to the 500 he won one of the two 125-mile qualifiers and the finale of the International Race of Champions series on Friday—and it seemed to make up for his past miseries.
On Thursday, Yarborough and Petty each had won a qualifying race with relative ease, but in timed single-car qualification runs for pole position the previous Sunday competition had been sharp. Following a few hot practice laps, Waltrip suggested that Foyt would have to settle for second fastest—after Waltrip, of course. Last year Foyt and Waltrip had been fined $1,000 each and had had their front-row spots taken away because they had squirted illegal nitrous oxide into their intake manifolds during qualifying, so this year NASCAR's competition director and chief technical inspector, Bill Gazaway, was on his toes for what proved to be a provocative guessing and second-guessing game.
In the garage Foyt stood by his Chevy Laguna and, loud enough for Gazaway to hear in his office at the end of the building, said, "If they find anything wrong with that thing this year, I can guarantee you they'll never see me back here again. I'll put $100,000 cash money on the line, right now, that says that thing's legal. I got nothing to worry about."
Waltrip, meanwhile, wanted the pole bad; he was psyched up for it. "There goes Gatorade," said Parsons, an irreverent reference to Waltrip, whose sponsor is the thirst quencher. Waltrip came off Turn Two and shot down the back-straight. "He's got a top-end gear on that car, doesn't he?" asked Parsons, more a statement than a question. "He's going to be awful disappointed if he doesn't get the pole."
Waltrip didn't, and he was. He thought his speed of 186.881 mph just might be good enough, but even before he got back to his garage Foyt's speed was announced: 187.704.
"Damn that A.J.," said Waltrip as he climbed out his car's window. "I was afraid of that. He's been running good all week. I was fooling myself into thinking I was going to beat him."
Foyt pulled into his garage slot, across the alley from Waltrip's. He flashed the disappointed young driver a smile that said, "You just ain't ready for me yet, boy," then walked over to Waltrip and said, "Don't feel too bad. Petty's gonna blow us both off."
Close. They both got blown off, all right, but not by Petty, who hit 187.192. The pole went to someone most people had forgotten about, Donnie Allison. Allison turned 188.048 mph in a Chevy prepared by Hoss Ellington, who, ironically, had set up Foyt's car for last year's Daytona 500. But Ellington and Foyt had parted later in the year. Ellington claimed he got no special satisfaction beating Foyt out of the pole and its $5,000 reward, "Don't make no difference to me who I beat," he said. It was a statement that Allison might have echoed. Two years ago he had been replaced by Waltrip on the DiGard/Gatorade team and last year he didn't even have a ride for the 500.
After three days of further practice and sorting out, the 125-mile races were held to determine starting positions for the other 40 cars in the 42-car field. During the first race, Petty lapped all but four other finishers and averaged 179.856 mph. Many of the cars had handling problems and Petty said even the front-runners were too loose and squirrelly for his comfort, which was why he simply drove away from them. "Petty is out of everyone's class," said Pearson, who finished second. "He is fast enough to break a draft, and none of the rest of us are."
Only Waltrip prevented Yarborough's Chevy from similarly running away with the other qualifying race, but Waltrip ran out of gas on the last lap and lost enough time coasting into the pits to finish fourth behind Parsons' Chevy and Baker's Ford. Yarborough probably would have been faster than Petty had it not been for a yellow flag over the final four laps, which came when Terry Ryan blew his engine in a puff of blue smoke on the front straight.
Ryan, an Iowa truck driver, is one of the leading drivers in a new program especially for rookies. There aren't that many rookies in NASCAR. The system is not deliberately stacked against young drivers, but economics make it seem that way—a man has to be a contender before he can attract solid sponsors, and it's difficult to be a contender without money from sponsors. The situation is motor racing's Catch-22, and has its hardest impact in stock car racing, because experience counts for so much.
This year Citicorp is offering $55,000 for NASCAR rookies. The fastest newcomer in each of the 30 Grand National races wins $500, and the year's best rookie gets a flat $10,000 plus $1,000 per race starting money in 1978. It is a good program, both overdue and unique: the money goes where it is needed and appreciated most.
Ryan wasn't the only rookie with strong credentials. There were Elliott Forbes-Robinson, 33, a double SCCA champion fresh from a fifth-place finish in the Daytona 24-hour race; Sam Sommers, 37, an easygoing Georgian who has been a late-model sportsman ace in the South for 13 years; and Ricky Rudd, 20, the youngest driver in the race by six years.
Another rookie was Janet Guthrie, who, to her immense relief, was finally not making headlines simply for being a woman, which she is, never mind that it says Kelly Girl across the side of her car. And Guthrie turned out to be the race's top rookie with her 12th-place finish Sunday. In fact, she was the only rookie to complete the race.
Funny thing about those rookies plucking at Citicorp's cash: only Sommers, Rudd and Jimmy Capps could be called Southerners. NASCAR's makeup is changing—not radically, and not overnight, but changing nonetheless.
Ironically, while NASCAR is opening its doors a bit wider, there is a heightened sensitivity among the Southern drivers to stereotyped characterizations of them in the "outside"—meaning Yankee—press as dumb hillbillies who say things like "I blowed my motor." Which they do. But dumb? Hardly. It's not as if Southern stock car drivers read restaurant reviews in The New York Times, but they don't miss a beat about what goes on around them.
Ask Roger Penske, who is a pretty sharp Northerner. Penske will tell you any man who thinks slow talking means slow thinking is a fool. Penske has been trying to be a winner in stock car racing for five years now, and he's downright frustrated. If he's in the mood, he may even concede that Southerners have forgotten more than he'll ever know about stock car racing—and not just the nuts and bolts, but the psychology of the game. So whom does Penske hire for a crew chief? Travis Carter, a bright young mechanic from Ellerbee, N.C.
The smartest crew in the world couldn't have helped the Penske team at Daytona. The 500 was hard on everyone and hardest on Penske's CAM2 Mercury driven by Dave Marcis. Only 19 of the 42 starters were still moving at the finish, and Marcis was the last of these, being credited with completing 103 laps, 97 less than Yarborough. When it crossed the line Marcis' car was running with a different engine than it had at the start and was missing its left front fender. The first engine overheated and blew up because the front end of the car had been clogged by paper blowing across the track, a problem that plagued nearly everyone. Another engine to meet such a death was that in Neil Bonnett's Dodge. Growled Harry Hyde, Bonnett's crew chief, as he pointed to the grille, which looked like the bottom of a garbage can, "We got plugged up so bad we cooked her. Look at the front of that car! Get you a good look at it!"
Hyde called it a day right then and there, but Travis Carter and crew changed the Mercury's engine in 50 minutes. They could have saved their sweat. There was Marcis, back out on the track minding his own business, just trying to finish the race, when Salt Walther tapped Baker's car. "There was spinning all over the place," said Marcis. "I hit someone in the rear end but I'm not sure who."
It wasn't Yarborough, but he very nearly got caught up in the mess. "I almost hit both Walther and Baker," said Cale. "I don't know how I got out of it. I just turned left and was bouncing over the grass at 200 miles an hour." Once back on the track, Yarborough had smooth sailing the rest of the way. But then he had called it, hadn't he? He knew all along he would rise again one day.