Twenty-one years ago, during the 1962 Daytona 500, Richard Petty discovered—or so goes one of the many Petty legends—drafting, the technique whereby a race car can keep up with a faster one by tailgating it. And the legend has it that King Richard, only 24 and a mere prince then, had another revelation the same afternoon: Two cars running nose-to-tail will always go faster than one car alone. That race was the fourth running of the 500; last Sunday's was the 25th, an occasion on which Buddy Baker tried to prove that things don't always work the way Petty said they did, at least not against his hot '83 Thunderbird. He should have believed Petty. Or maybe he should have listened to Neil Bonnett, who before the race said, "I don't know if there's a car around here strong enough to win from the lead. When you're in the lead you're a sitting duck."
That quack-quack you hear is coming from the driver's seat of one handsome new T-Bird. And the whoop you hear is that of Cale Yarborough, who, speeded along by Joe Ruttman on his tail, swooped past Baker on the 499th mile to win the race and some $119,000.
Six days earlier, things had looked fairly grim for Yarborough. He had made Daytona history on the first of two qualifying laps available to him, breaking the 200-mph barrier at 200.503. But near the end of the second lap he spun out, and while sliding sideways around the banking his Chevrolet Monte Carlo became airborne, amazingly and inexplicably, as if some dark magic were at work. Yarborough, a private pilot who dreams of being a fighter jockey, compared his short flight to taking off in a plane. "It all got quiet except for the hum of the engine," he said. When the car came back to earth it was on its roof, and it skidded grindingly up the banking to bounce off the wall and flip right side up before settling on its wheels in the mud at the edge of the track. His backup car, a year-old Pontiac Grand Prix, was sent from Charlotte, N.C., but Yarborough could not claim the pole because the pole-sitter must start the race in the car in which he qualifies.
Three days later, in the second of Thursday's 125-mile races for grid positions three through 30 in the 500, Yarborough finished third and so earned starting spot No. 8, but it got all quiet for two other drivers, Rusty Wallace and Bruce Jacobi. In that race Wallace's Buick somersaulted three or four times, depending on who was counting, and he got off with only a strained neck and a mild concussion. For Jacobi the results were far more serious. When his Pontiac spun coming out of Turn Two in the first race, it slid in the grass along the backstraight before beginning its flight, landing after four nose-to-tail bounces, like a gymnast doing handsprings, the finale being a full flip against a dirt embankment. The 47-year-old driver from Indianapolis was in a coma and on a respirator when the checkered flag fell Sunday.
Films of the flights were played and replayed in slow and slower motion: The car spins, slides a short distance, and suddenly it rises, two feet, five feet, 10 feet off the ground, lifting gracefully and twisting in the air, like a leaf from the sidewalk on an autumn afternoon. Then the car falls, landing however fate and physics feel like dropping it.
Cars have taken flight before at Daytona. It happened twice in 1981, the first year for the current generation of shorter and narrower, though no lighter, Grand National cars. Most of the drivers and crew chiefs believe that when these cars slide sideways or backwards against the wind, air packs underneath and simply lifts the 3,700-pound machines. If true, something could be done—at least tried—to deflect the air. But no such steps can be taken without the permission of NASCAR, which has yet to address the problem. Says its president, Bill France Jr., "We reviewed it back in '81 the first time it happened, and we didn't come up with any alarming information one way or another. I viewed it more as an isolated situation, and by and large I don't recall any more incidents similar to that until last week."
France nonetheless has a name for this type of crash: the "reverse flip." He lifts a stapler off his desk and traces the movement of his reverse flip—actually more of a sloppy gainer. "There is a plus to that kind of flip," he says. "If you're going to turn over at all, it's a neat way to do it. When it's up like this"—he points the stapler skyward—"the car is like a sail and slows down something spectacular before it lands."
Grand National stock cars are without doubt the safest racing cars in the world. Still, the cynical suggest that NASCAR surrounds the drivers with armor and lets the crashes fall where they may; that's what keeps the turnstiles spinning. Every seat in the house was sold for the 500, with an estimated total attendance of 115,000, which would be a record for a stock car race. A crash is the most spectacular thing that can happen at an auto race. It excites people, and it pleases and satisfies them when the driver walks away from it.
Sunday's race began in the usual fashion, furiously, with seven different leaders in the first 20 laps. Then Petty, riding a 41-race losing streak, took over. Moving past his son, Kyle, among others, he drove his Pontiac to a record 193.133-mph average after 40 laps. Considering his reputation for holding back—"the No. 1 sandbagger of all time," Bobby Allison calls him—it seemed as if the King were bent on proving something, and the crowd cheered him on. But on lap 47 his engine blew. He pulled directly into his garage, chugged a small bottle of cough syrup against a lingering cold, climbed out of the car, grinned and announced he would be back.
Recently unretired Dick Brooks inherited the lead and held it on and off until lap 65, when the caution light came on because of oil on the track from Dale Earnhardt's blown engine. NASCAR has a controversial yellow-flag rule: Under the yellow the cars continue to race until they reach the finish line. The rule prevents "hopeless scoring situations," says France. It also invites crashes. When Brooks saw the light as he entered Turn Three, he slowed, for he had nothing to gain by continuing to race hard, but following him was Darrell Waltrip, the NASCAR champion for 1982, one lap down. Waltrip saw the opportunity to unlap himself and kept on charging—right at the trunk of Brooks's Thunder-bird. Waltrip braked and swerved to avoid contact, then slid across the track and smacked a retaining wall broadside at better than 100 mph. His Monte Carlo bounced back across the track, was narrowly missed by both Yarborough and Ruttman and finally came to rest on the race track. Waltrip was admitted to Daytona's Halifax Hospital, shaken and temporarily confused, and was kept overnight for observation.
At 250 miles Bonnett and Brooks were one-two, but their cars would fail, and the strongest remaining were Yarborough's Pontiac, Ruttman's Monte Carlo and Baker's Thunderbird. With 125 miles to go they had been caught by Bill Elliott, a popular Huck Finn of a Georgia boy who has been flirting with a Grand National win for four years. Elliott's year-old Thunderbird was perhaps slower than the three cars ahead of him, but he was using their draft brilliantly. As they went into the last lap the order was Baker, Yarborough, Ruttman and Elliott, but all four drivers wanted to be where Yarborough was: on the tail of the sitting duck.
Baker has a reputation. Some drivers, for example Bobby Allison, are known for their ability to set up a car. Others (Richard Petty) are renowned for their guile, and still others (Waltrip) for their intelligence. Baker is known for his foot. It wasn't that he didn't believe what Petty had discovered 21 years ago; it was just that he couldn't convince his foot.
As they flew down the backstraight on that final lap, Yarborough made the move everyone knew he would make, pulling out of Baker's draft to slingshot past, and Ruttman stayed glued to Yarborough to speed them both up. As they raced through turns Three and Four, Baker fought off Ruttman, while Elliott sneaked up on them both on the outside. Between the final turn and the finish line Yarborough gained a car-length lead, and as Baker and Ruttman rubbed car doors, Elliott came alongside. The three finished nearly abreast, Elliott in second by a few feet over Baker, who led Ruttman by a few inches.
Why hadn't Baker tried something, anything? Said Leonard Wood, the owner of his car and his crew chief and a master of strategy, a man who can understand and appreciate a true-blue racer like Baker, "He was trying something—he was just driving his heart out. He wanted to win it so bad...." And Baker said simply, "I did the only thing I could do, run wide open."