"I'm still looking for that little button on the back of Bobby Unser's neck, where he disengages his brain just before he gets into his car."
- Buddy Baker
- Yoou mean there are some drivers who don't have that little button? Apparently. And if the devotees of racing are to be believed, the switch inside the boldest charges here is no different than, say what Jack Lambert clicks off just before kickoff or what Ty Cobb pushed as lie was sharpening his spikes.
Whatever, all the chargers are here: The Pettys, the Foyts, presidential pal William Caleb Yarborough, assorted Indy types, an international leadfoot or two and even Janet Guthrie, now generally considered one of the guys although very far back in the pack for Sunday's 500-mile chase.
If the Indianapolis 500 is American auto-racing's pinnacle, Daytona is its grand feast, a nearly weel-long binge of 100-, 200- and 300-milers topped off by the 19th annual Daytona 500. If plans remain unaltered, the event will be broadcast into the White House via a special line while Billy Carter and his 17-year-old son, Buddy, attend in person.
Still, although the stocks and have grown faster and, the drivers at least slightly more civil over the years - to the point even of presidential sanction - much about NASCAR remains unaltered.
"There were about five guys capable of winning back in my day," said Lee Petty, who was one of them, "and there are about five guys capable of winning these (Grand National) races."
In NASCAR's infancy, the garages for pioneers such as Lee Petty would be the trunk of the family car, with an old bread box the tool chest. And the scoring was even more primitive.
Scorers for each driver were given boxes containing as many rocks as there were laps in the race, and a rock would be discarded for every lap the assigned car completed. That method ended quickly, however, because rocks from one box often were thrown into another, or even at the other scorers.
Tim Flock sometimes races with a monkey strapped in a seat beside him and other drivers frequently had Jim Beam and I.W. Harped as their navigators. Those were the men anxious to learn techniques to outdrive the law during whiskey runs on the Carolina back roads.
"Jor Weatherly was the biggest clown," said Lee Petty. "It was nothing for him to stick a snake on your seat just before a race. Joe either made you mad or glad. He'd always have a bunch laughing - and one guy mad."
Curtis Turner was the hardest charger, a driver of such high-octane intensity that once he veered to the outside during a race in Wisconsin and ended with the car stradding several hay bales.
Livid, Turner still kept the gas pedal to the floor. The wheels grabbed nothing but air but the engine got hot enough to set fire to the hay.
"But I believe Cale (Yarborough) is the strongest competitor I've seen, the nost determined." said Lee Petty.
"Cale drivers harder to win than anyone. Richard (Lee' son) figures his competition; Cale goes hard out all the time."
Yarborough is the modest-sized champion of the NASCAR Grand National circuit last season who, during an awards ceremony here this week, received a telegram that said in part: "I welcome the opportunity to tell you I'm one of your many fans." The fan was Jimmy Carter.
At 37, Yarborough is on the county council back home in Timmonsville, S.C., and was a devoted worker for Carter wen the President was about as well known nationally as some wrench twister along pit row.
Like nearly every racer at nearly every level of racing, Yarborough began with an old car at a young age. Unlike all but a special few, however, Yarborough has made racing a profitable business.
"There are guys here to win," Lee Petty said, "and guys here to finish, just like always." And guys who admire Lee Petty for limping away from racing before it took his life.
It is golfer's fan that Lee Petty wears these days, although he may often be seen in the garage area before important races. If he lost the desire to race swift cars, he hardly has lost the desire to watch swift cars race.
He was not far from Richard's car the other day, a pipe cocked in his mouth and in mid-sentence with another tale of Curtis Turner when the field in a modified race began its parade lap.
Instantly, without completing the thought, Petty, still the third-leading NASCAR driver in career Grand National victories, turned on his heels and headed for the roof of a large truck. He had to watch.