I'd like to be able to thunder through life at 200 mph, on the edge of, but always under, control. The next best thing might be to go 200 mph in a stock car, because a speeding stock car is about as close as you can come to rolling thunder. So I asked Benny Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR points champion, if I could thunder around Daytona International Speedway with him in his 565-horsepower, 3,700-pound, red, white and blue Chevy Laguna, and would he please go 200, top the big two-oh-oh, and he said, more or less, "You a dumb sumbitch, ain't you?" But he agreed, although 190 would be the most he could deliver at Daytona. We arranged the ride for a day when Parsons' crew had rented the tri-oval to do aerodynamic testing on his 1978 race car, which will make its Super Speedway debut next week in the Daytona 500.
It was a beautiful clear December morning, about 65° and cloudless. I arrived at the Speedway and stopped my rental car for a moment in the parking lot, at the entrance to the tunnel that goes under the track to the infield. Spilling over the massive dirt embankment in front of me was the solo roar of a big V-8 engine as Parsons, alone on the track, swooped through Turn 4, almost directly overhead. I looked up through the top of the rental car's windshield, into the tinted part, and about 50 feet above me I saw the tall steel-wire catch fence that rims the track's three-foot-high cement wall. The catch fence is there to keep the cars from hurtling over the wall, flying through the air and crash-landing in one of the parking lots, or maybe in a marsh, depending on the point at which the car departed the premises and how far it flew. The catch fence wasn't part of the track when it was built. It came two years later, after Lee Petty, Richard's father, launched his Plymouth into the swamp during the 1961 race.
When I was in the Navy and on a destroyer at sea, fighter jets would sometimes playfully buzz the ship's deck. The jets would come out of nowhere, shriek, and go back to nowhere in a matter of two seconds. The stock cars' thunder in the tunnel is very similar. The cars seem faster when you listen to them than when you watch them. If you want to get a real sense of the speed race cars travel, curl up inside the tunnel during a practice session.
You get an other-world feeling after you drive through the dark tunnel beneath the track and pop up into the infield. Because the last few yards of the tunnel are uphill and steep, you see nothing but sky out your windshield as you reenter daylight. You sort of feel like you're being shot out of a cannon in slow motion. (A few NASCAR drivers are fond of flooring their rental cars midway through the tunnel so they fly out like cannonballs in not-so-slow motion.) When your car levels, you give an instinctive where-am-I blink to get your bearings.
February 20, 1978
The tri-oval is 2.5 miles around, which gives the infield an area of 114 acres. The ground is so level and spacious it seems like a prairie, at least when there are not tens of thousands of spectators in there with you. During Speed Weeks, when there are fans, cars, vans, motorcycles and charcoal grills everywhere, the abrupt, semiblind exit from the tunnel leaves you with a far different impression; you sometimes feel as if you're being fed to the crowd.
On this quiet morning, however, Parsons' Chevy seemed to be the only other inhabitant of this closed world, and the sound of it echoed eerily all around me as it flattened itself against Turn 2's steep banking. Although it was going 180 mph, the car just seemed to be making steady progress onto the back straight and around the track. Watching a stock car from a distance is like watching it on TV; it doesn't seem to be going very fast and a lot of excitement is lost somewhere along the way between the car and your eye. You have to get close, right there in the grandstand in Turn 4 or along the front straight, to even begin to understand what a two-ton hunk of metal looks like noisily swallowing 264 feet of asphalt every second.
Parsons stopped at his garage. Soon his car was being dressed and undressed with assorted sheet-metal pieces from 1978 GM cars: a Chevy Malibu, a Buick Regal, an Oldsmobile Cutlass. The Citicorp team was trying to determine which front end offered the least wind resistance; that would be the model of car Parsons' Chevy would be known as for the 1978 season.
Detroit's introduction of new models each fall sends NASCAR chief mechanics rushing off to dealers' showrooms to stroke and squint at the changed contours. They aren't excited by ersatz wood dashboards or digital clocks; they couldn't care less what's under the hoods; all they're interested in is the sleekness of the bodies. NASCAR rules are loose; a late-model stock car shares only a handful of parts with its showroom counterpart. Peel the skin away and they are very much alike. The engines among the top few teams are so similar—even among different makes—it's almost a toss-up. Some days Parsons' or Cale Yarborough's Chevy had a couple of extra hp, and that's about all. Most of the chassis are built to the same dimensions by the same man—ex-driver Banjo Matthews. And as for driver talent, Parsons can be as fast as Yarborough or Petty on any given day.
That leaves only two big variables: suspension setup and aerodynamics. Suspension setup, which includes tire selection, is the key to success in Grand National stock-car racing. Usually one, sometimes two cars per race handle so well they work in any "groove" on the track. Last year no car on the NASCAR circuit consistently handled better than Parsons' Chevy.
Aerodynamics affect top speed more than cornering ability. Race-car aerodynamics is a science; some teams, the Pettys, for example, do their aerodynamic tests in a wind tunnel. Most teams go a more empirical route. Given the flexibility of NASCAR rules, a crew chief has to discover the streamlining that works and that which doesn't, and how much deviation from showroom dimensions for the sake of streamlining he can get away with. The technical inspectors fit templates over the cars to make sure they aren't too low or too narrow or too slanted.
Jake Elder, Parsons' crew chief, has a flair for this sort of thing, although he is not scientific about his art. If Jake were a cook, he wouldn't use measuring spoons. He doesn't fool with any theories he can't see and feel. He doesn't even bother with things like measuring the frontal area to determine whether a Chevy, Buick or Oldsmobile nose should be slicker. He just holds the pieces up to the light for inspection, bolts a front end that looks good to him on the car, sends Parsons around the track as fast as he can go and damn well finds out which nose is slickest. He raises his hand at one angle, like a goodby wave, and says, "The Buick won't work so hot because it's like this." And then he tilts his hand back, like a military salute, and says, "But the Olds is right like this, rawt chare, see, and it's going to be a hoss."
Jake made this observation over lunch. For dessert he ordered a piece of icecream fudge cake. As the waitress delivered it, Jake's eyes bulged. "That's big enough for four people," he said. Then he held the menu up to the light for inspection, tapped the picture of the icecream fudge cake and told the waitress, "It's not that big in the picture on the menu." The waitress wrinkled her eyebrows and scratched her head. Stock-car crew-chief logic works better on cars than it does on waitresses.
Back in the garage, Jake ducked inside the Chevy's right front-wheel well, and the metallic clicking of a rachet wrench came from the cavity that had swallowed his head and shoulders. He was adjusting the suspension to allow for the addition of my 160 pounds. I was strapped inside the car now, and Benny was standing outside at my window. He handed me a release form that legally absolved him and the owner of the car, L. G. DeWitt, should something unscheduled transpire. I signed the form, and then he suggested I spit out my gum, lest I swallow and choke on it. I stuck the bubble gum to a metal windshield brace, then promptly forgot about it until right now.
The car was filled with steel tubes the diameter of a man's forearm; they formed a box around the driver, traveling in horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions, crisscrossing in places, and meeting at the corners, where they were joined with fat welds. Everything was painted bright red except for the dashboard, which was flat black to reduce glare.
Parsons' only other instruction was where I should put my right arm. My elbow was resting on a tube of the roll cage, next to which was the sheet metal of the door. He suggested I keep my fingers on the inside of the roll tube rather than between the tube and the door; that way my hand wouldn't get mashed if we should smack the wall.
Benny climbed in the window on his side, hooked the nylon net over that window, strapped the four ends of the seat harness together at his crotch, fired up the engine, which growled as he blew it out, pulled down his blue-tinted plastic bubble goggles, looked at me, smiled and shook his head.
Physically, Parsons is the quintessential stock-car driver. A native of North Carolina, he paid his dues driving a cab in Detroit. He looks a bit like a big-city cabdriver: tall, a little bit paunchy, balding, a cigar dangling from his mouth, and large, loose-fitting black boots catching the cuffs of his pants at his shins. Last year he became the sixth stock-car driver to win more than a million dollars during a career, and won four races, three of them on Super Speedways. But in previous years he has had a knack for losing the big ones. NASCAR racing is fairly cutthroat, and Parsons is not as comfortable as some with the razor in his hand. Petty says, "Benny is too nice a guy on the track. We're all nice off the track, but we change when we get in a race car. Benny doesn't."
Idling down pit row, Parsons checked the water-temperature gauge by tapping his finger on the glass. The engine was overheating. "We'll take a slow ride around the racetrack, and if it doesn't cool down we'll stop and try to find out what the deal is," he said.
On the backstretch he glanced between my feet and spotted a trickle of water on the red metal floorboard. After 11 seasons of racing, his eye is trained to spot such minute signs of trouble. I looked for the trickle for a quarter of a lap before I could even find it.
The next time around Parsons killed the engine on the backstretch, and we coasted toward the pits on the track apron. A car has to be going about 75 mph to stay up on the 31° banking. Below that speed it will literally slide off.
We rolled silently back into the garage. "Hell, the radiator's plumb cold," said Elder, feeling the aluminum core and ignoring the water-temperature gauge. "Cracked head," he mumbled around some garbled cursing. His hands were visible through the space underneath the raised hood, framed by the windshield braces. The hands were pouring water into the radiator from an old galvanized garden can with a pointed spout.
As we pulled onto the track again, Parsons, eyeing the water-temperature gauge, said, "If you feel hot water spraying your face, punch me." We took two cautious warmup laps at 3,500 rpm—about 90 mph—and the water temperature stayed well below boiling. Parsons pegged the throttle at the start-finish line on the third lap.
I had expected neck-snapping acceleration. I had expected too much from a two-ton race car. We accelerated fairly undramatically to about 150 mph by the time we reached Turn 1. The first thing I noticed was the morning sun rising over the top of the wall, reflecting off the Chevy's flat black hood, which right now was wearing an Oldsmobile nose. A row of fresh, round, spot welds on the fender gleamed goldish brown, rusty from overnight dew on the car. Scraps of silver duct tape stuck out from the crack where the hood met the fender and flapped in the wind. In fact, the whole front end of the car was rippling, both from the wind and the vibration of a 75-pound crankshaft and eight coffee-can-sized pistons frantically working beneath it. "Every time I looked down at that hood it was sittin' up and smilin' at me, happy as can be," said Benny later.
If the hood was sittin' up and smilin', the wall was standing stock still, rigid and frowning. The ideal line for most drivers is not the high groove—that is, they don't drive door handles-against-the-wall all the time—but one down lower on the banking. In the Daytona 500, however, there are 39 other cars on the track and this makes for situations that are not always ideal. Sometimes a driver must move into the high groove to pass another car. Sometimes a driver being passed would rather not give the passing driver as much room as he would like. That's why there are catch fences on top of the walls.
When a car is all alone, as Parsons' was now, the wall remains a good three feet away, even down the back straight. "Good" is a relative word, of course. In stock-car racing, three feet is as good as a mile, but some people might not think three feet from a concrete wall at 185 mph good at all. Most private planes cruise at about 140 mph, and the Federal Aviation Administration requires them to maintain 500 feet separation.
I turned my attention from the wall to the track. I recognized old familiar patches on the pavement. Last March I had been on a four-man team that set the 24-hour motorcycle average speed record of 117.125 mph and had ridden some 200 laps around Daytona. The same black patch between Turns 3 and 4 that when hit at 130 mph on a 650-cc. Kawasaki had caused it to wiggle, wander and weave, when hit at 180 mph in the Chevy caused it to bounce and drag the exhaust pipes with a metallic scrape.
We were moving at more than 180 mph now; Benny pointed to 7,000 rpm on the tachometer along the backstretch, having earlier said 7,000 rpm equaled 182 mph. Through the turns at this speed, Parsons was turning the steering wheel no more than a few degrees. I had always thought the steering of a stock car was supposed to be unresponsive. I had this mental picture, vivid but apparently unreal, of drivers wrestling their taped steering wheels like over-the-road truckers, twisting them from lock to lock, wrenching their elbows up around their ears and flapping their forearms about their eyebrows. It doesn't happen that way. At least not at Daytona.
Bobby Allison pulled onto the track ahead of us. He was testing the aerodynamics of a new Thunderbird. Because of the sharpness of the turns and steepness of the banking, we were not looking ahead at Allison; we were raising our chins and looking up at him. Benny traced a small arc on the top left corner of the windshield and said, "In a race this is about all the space I ever look through."
Parsons' eyes were darting. I was paying attention to just three things—Benny's movements, the track and the water-temperature gauge, but at 185 mph things were happening so quickly I could barely keep up with them. Race-car drivers must be gifted not only with superior reflexes but also fantastically quick mental processes. During a race a driver must pay attention to five gauges, the rearview mirror and his groove on the track—which is to say he has to watch where he's going and, of course, where the other cars are going, which is often the most difficult part. If he drops his guard, lets his concentration slip for a fraction of a second over a four-hour period and it is the wrong fraction of a second, he could end up dead. Some people think stock-car drivers just like to go fast; let those people try concentrating on that many things that fast at once, with stakes that high.
At 185 mph, the oval loses its feeling of massiveness, because your mind is completely on the here and now. Neither thoughts nor eyes can afford to be anyplace but on the instrument panel and the stretch of track ahead. You worry about the next turn only when you come to it. At 185 mph, the world is very small.
Parsons is not as fond of these speeds as some other drivers profess to be. He went 192.684 mph in qualifying to win the pole position for the last NASCAR race at Talladega, the only track faster than Daytona, yet he says, "Anybody says he loves 200 mph, he's pumpin' wind." As we approach Turn 3 at 185, he says, "I ain't been 185 since Talladega last August, and on my first fast lap this morning, looking down the back straight and watching Turn 3 come to me like a mine shaft I was falling into, I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing out here?' The pavement rushes by like whoosh, whoosh. I see that turn coming and say, 'How the hell is this car going to get around that?' "
The temptation to back off the throttle going into Turn 3 is more like a compulsion. To get through the turn flat out, you have to ignore it. The first time you try it, you begin psyching yourself as you come out of Turn 2; when you hit the middle of the backstretch you've got butterflies; by the time you reach the end of the straight you're talking out loud to yourself, telling your foot to stay on the floor. Sometimes the foot listens, sometimes it doesn't.
If Parsons actually was questioning himself as we entered Turn 3, it never showed. He moved the steering wheel a couple of smooth, steady ticks to the left, a movement sort of like squeezing a trigger. The car dropped down two lanes of the banking, into the qualifying groove, and the shadow suddenly slid off the wall, as if the wall had been yanked up and away from my right ear. About midway through the turn the car began to drift back up and the wall began to drop back down. A properly set-up car with fresh tires will not usually drift all the way into the guardrail as long as the driver keeps his foot down, but—and this is a paradox that confuses and sometimes frightens and often temporarily intimidates inexperienced stock-car drivers—if he backs off the throttle, the car has a tendency to straighten out, in other words, to head right up into the curving wall. Parsons didn't even glance at the wall out of the corner of his eye; he's been around Daytona enough times to know precisely where it is without looking.
The car stopped drifting a few feet from the wall—in a race that few feet often becomes a few inches—as we came out of Turn 4; the car hit another notorious hump in the track and undulated once, no more, and Parsons pointed the flat black Olds nose straight at the start-finish line to complete the lap.
He pulled into the pits and, even before he removed his helmet, said what he usually says the first thing after a race: "Anybody got a cigarette?" Jake told him he turned a 49.40, which is an average speed of 182.186, fast enough for a strong grid position in the Daytona 500.
"It was an uneventful run," says Benny. "It wasn't one of those deals where you get sideways. Nothing exciting happened, thank the Lord."
One comfort is the safety of the car. A NASCAR racer is the safest racing automobile made. The driver is surrounded by a lot of steel and a sturdy roll cage, which together make a wonderful security blanket. Psychologically speaking, a stock car is much more comfortable than an Indy car, which travels somewhat faster, weighs less than half as much and in which the driver is surrounded with fuel and fragility. Indy-car drivers respect stock-car drivers because they recognize driving a stock car requires more cunning and stamina. Stock-car drivers respect Indy-car drivers because they recognize driving an Indy car requires more finesse and courage.
I didn't want to get out of the car. I wanted something exciting to happen.
"If the engine had blown from that cracked head, we might have gotten a squirt of water on the right rear tires and spun into the wall," Parsons said. I wondered where my fingers would have been. I had been so comfortable I don't believe I had even been gripping the roll cage, but had been resting my elbow on the bar as if it had been an armrest.
"Those were nice, comfortable laps," said Benny. "I could do that all day, no sweat."