I'm just like every little boy. I've always loved cars, but I could never afford one," said David Fox, and coordinating producer for CBS-TV's coverage of this weekend's 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race chuckled. "Now that I should be able to afford one, they're too expensive. It's funny. I'm earning a good buck, and I still can't afford a 280-Z."

Fox has lived in the United States for 20 years, but his British origins quickly evident in conversation. There is his inflection, a sense of humor as dry as Schweppes ("the name is Fox, with one x; we were poor and couldn't afford two"), and certain idioms that creep naturally into his speech. He speaks not of automoblies, but of "motor cars."

Whatever his terminology, Fox has a good intuitive grasp of the fascination Britons have long shared with Americans and western Europeans for the horseless carriage. When he speaks of automotive adventures, he sounds as enthusiastic as Basil Rathbone narrating Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in "The Wind in the Willows."

What is the appeal that has made auto racing so popular on weekend afternoon television in the U.S.?

"You have a lot of different elements that make up the audience for motorcar racing," Fox said.

"You have the true enthusiast who's been into motors all his life, who wants to see what will happen to an engine - whether it hold up or wear down. You've got design and acrodynamics freaks who like to watch that aspect of performance.

"But mostly you've got driving freaks.There's that longing in every little boy (and, as Janet Guthrie would be quick to point cut, an increasing number of little girls) to have a fast car. As in any sport, there's a Walter Mitty aspects. Driving in a race is something people daydream of doing, and they like to see the best do it."

What about the prospect of crashes, the risk of death and destruction? Fox agrees that this is one dimension of the sport's lure on TV, but not as macabre as some would contend.

"The element of danger adds a great deal. People like to see spectacles, people risking their lives," he said. "They don't really want to see anything happen, but they know the possibility is there."

This is certainly one factor in the make-up of race drivers, an interesting breed. Concentration is important in all sports, but in this one it is quite vividly a matter of life and death.

The challenge is there, out on the course, and the stakes could not be higher. In this sense, auto racing is as primitive as it is technologically advanced.

The machinery is sophisticated, but the motivation and impluses of the drivers are fundamenttal. And it is this basic human aspect that can make racing a compelling drama even for those who wouldn't know a turbocharged porsche from a bowl of borscht.

One other ingredient that drawa TV audiences to auto racing has disappeared from this week's festivities at Daytona, much to CBS's chargrin. That is the involvement of stage and screen celebrities. Movie stars Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman were originally announced as drivers in the field when the green flag comes down to start the race Saturday.

Newman had entered, but the truck carrying his Fiat Abarth to Daytona from the West Coast (along with the Ferrari Newman helped drive to a fifth-place finish last year blew a tire and crashed into a culvert near San Francisco. Its cargo was badly damaged.

"The absence of the celebrities takes a little gloss off," admitted Fox. "All we've got now are good drivers. But let's face it, a Steve McQueen or Paul Newman or somebody of that ilk adds a great deal. There are people dying to see them, who watch for that reason. People like to see stars doing things they're not used to seeing them do."

CBS's coverage of the 24 Hours will not be extensive - more like a series of sprints than the marathon test of American racing. Only 18 minutes of air time are scheduled, wrapped around other events on the "CBS Sports Spectacular" Saturday afternoon (WBTOP-TV-9, 4:30-6 p.m.) and in nooks and crannies before, during and after the National Basketball Association All-Star Game Sunday.

The start of the race will be the opening segment on "Sports Spectacular," and a five-minute live report at 4:32 will lead into highlights of the Los Angeles Times indoor track meet.

Another brief live report at 5.08 will bridge the track portion of the show and the live eight-round light-weight fight between Howard Davis and Jose Perrandex. (Davis' U.S. Olympic teamate and fellow gold medalist, Sugar Ray Leonard, will be ABC's "Wild World of Sports," live from Baltimore).

"We have the capability, if something is really happening, to switch back to Daytona anytime between 4:30 and 6," said Fox. "We have the facilities to go live at any time, but unless something special happens or the fight doesn't go the distance, we will only have one more report at the end of the show."

A five-minute live update is scheduled for 1:38 on Sunday, shortly before the start of the NBA all-star game. There will be a one-minute report at halftime, and a five-minute taped wrap-up, showing the finish and an interview with the winner, Sunday from 4:55 to 5 p.m. That follows a CBS Sports special on the two attempted trans-Atlantic ballon crossings of last year.