With his car's front end taped up, the sides banged up and the steering wheel out of whack, veteran Bobby Allison kept dancing this beautiful pile of junk around pothole at 135 miles an hour and won the Daytona 500 yesterday.
He won while A.J. Foyt was in the hospital, while Richard Petty was reporting on his accident in three days, while David Pearson sat in the garage with his crippled car, while Darrell Waltrip moseyed along at maybe 90 mph.
And Allison won it while Buddy Baker felt like crying. For the last 50 laps of 200 at Daytona International Speedway, the estimated 100,000 spectators knew the winner would be Allison or Baker. Though Baker's car finally expired, its engine dead with only four laps to go, the issue was decided truly by the pesky pothole.
"It was right in turn three," Allison said. "About three feet across and four or five inches deep. Buddy had to keep hitting it, but my car was handling so well I could go under it. I'd go wide open, and Buddy couldn't"
That advantage through the high-banked turns was enough to win stock car racing's premier event, a $457,500 race that lost most of its big-name drivers early on.
On lap 61, a left rear tire blew on Petty's car. Five times a winner here, Petty was driving only two days after being knocked unconscious in a made-for-TV race. When the tire went, Petty turned sideways on the track.
Thus, in an instant, the race's three leader were in big trouble.
Waltrip, running on Petty's bumper, slowed. Behind him came Pearson, who crash into Waltrip. The three of them spun against the wall, then into the infield. Petty and Pearson were uninjured, but their cars were out of commission. Waltrip's crew kept him going to small avail: he finished 28th.
Ten laps later, only seconds after Benny Parsons lost control when a right rear tire shredded. Foyt was rear-ended. Thrown into air at 180 mph. Foyt's car fluttered leaf-like, finally bounced against the earth and spun eight or nine times before setting in a mangled mess. Foyt was taken to a hospital where showed no serious damage.
With those fellows removed, the main man was Cale Yarborough, last year's winner and the fastest qualifier this time. The leader yesterday for 44 laps, Yarborough couldn't keep up when his car lost a valve. He finished seconds, beaten by 33.2 seconds, but was a spear carrier, nothing more, to the drama that Allison and Baker provided.
With 30 laps to go, Baker led and seemed on the way to his first victory here. He's 37 years old, the son of Buck Baker, one of stock car racing pioneer drivers. Of Buddy, it has been said he will find a way to lose. He lost in Texas once by crashing on a caution alp, lost in Talladega by foreeting to get gas.
This time, with 30 laps to go, all he needed to do was keep going and the would win his game's biggest prize - $56.300 went to Allison - for the first in 16 years of trying.
So, four laps later, though no fault of his own, Buddy Baker lost what he wanted most. In thurn two. he cut a tire and had to make a second put stop in barely three minutes. That give Allison the Lead.
For Allison, 40, victory here would be doubly sweet. He hadn't won the 500, In fact, he's hadn't won anything since 1975. A 46-minute winner in the big leagues, fourth to Petty and Pearson and Yarborough, Allison had gone 68 straight races without a victory.
"At times it seemed like I couldn't win a race in an Indy car against a pedal car," he said.
But on lap 90, after Baker had passed him a minute earlier. Allison regained the lead - by driving under that pothole in turn three while Baker was forced to go above it.
Then Allison, hooking up with Dave Marcis in one of those high speed drafts that allow bumper-to-bumper cars to reach speeds unattainable by themselves, pulled away from Baker.
"Dave helped me," Allison said. "I could gain more in the corners than Buddy was gaining on the straightaway.
Then, suddenly, Baker was gaining nothing. Smoke coughed from beneath his car, signing the engine had blown up.
"What have I go to do to win?" Baker said afterward. "I saw the oil pressure going down and down. It just needed to last as few more laps. When that oil pressure needle started dropping, so did my heart. All of a sudden, I felt like crying."
Allison was "so tickled I can't see straight." Tape held down his car's hood. The grill was messed up when Allison ran into somebody during the Parsons-Foyt affair. Later, somebody sideswiped Allison and knocked him into the wall: thus, the right side was scraped clean of paint, the left caved in and the steering was knocked cockeyed.
"To go straight, I had to hold the wheel this way," Allison said, holding an amaginary wheel twisted to the left.
At least he kept it going. Petty wasn't so lucky. "I don't know what happened," he said. "Either I cut a tire or ran over something. "All of a sudden, it went 'POW,' And that was it. Man, I hate that."
Pearson said, "I looked up and saw Richard in front of Darrell and he was sideways. I guese Darrell hit Richard and then I popped him and then the inside wall. What can you say when something like that happens? It's nobody's fault."
Allison started from the 33rd spot in the 41-car field, the farthest back the winner has ever been. He was back here because he had a wreck in one of Fridays 125-mile qualifying races. He wrecked because a guy made mistake and ran into him that day. The guy was Buddy Baker, who last winter quit as the driver for that yesterday won the 500.
"Ironic, isn't it?" said Allison, Baker's successor.