Imagine this. You're driving the family car 190 miles per hour. You're headed into the first turn at Daytona International Speedway. It's a banked turn and driving into it is like driving inside a barrel. You're sitting sideways, tilted 31 degrees to the left. You can see only 150 feet ahead and your car is flying 279 feet a second.
What would you do? What would you do?
"You would pass out," said Harry Hyde, one of stock-car racing's master mechanics.
"But you wouldn't get a chance to pass out, because at that speed going into that turn, your family car ain't going to make it," Hyde said.
"It's going to be crushed flat on the pavement by the G-forces."
Hyde slammed his palm against a workbench.
"At 190 miles per hour, the suspension system on your family car would practically disintegrate when you threw the car into that turn."
The 41 stock cars in the $588,000 Daytona 500 here Sunday are not stock cars. Once upon a time when Junior Johnson was running moonshine through the Carolina hills, the good ol' boys went racing in what brung 'em to the track. Because people paid real money to see their cars racing, the promoters encouraged the idea these racers were family cars with big numbers painted on the doors.
Sunday's racers go by familiar names: Ford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Dodge. Stripped of the decals and garish paint, the car bodies even look like the family car, because the rules say the bodies must match the true stock body.
Beneath that flimsy disguise, however, beats the heart of a monster. "They may look like your jackass, go-to-the-grocery car," Hyde said, "but they are thoroughbreds. They are put together piece by piece, all by hand. We use the very best metal available and we build these things by blue-prints. This is racing -- and it is engineering. Before we come to Daytona, we rent a wind tunnel at Warner-Robbins Air Force Base to test the cars' aerodynamic behavior."
Richard Petty's Oldsmobile may have cost $50,000 to build. The engine alone can cost $20,000. Tires run $110 each and if you want to win a lot of money here this week, you'll need 80 of them. Racing gasoline at the track pump costs 77 cents a gallon and these roaring monsters get four miles to the gallon.
If you look inside Petty's car, the first thing you notice is that it doesn't have a speedometer.
Then what, pray tell, are all those dials?
They're for oil pressure, engine temperature, water temperature and engine revolutions per minute.
Next thing you notice is that all the dials are set into the dashboard cockeyed. Instead of having the zero mark at the bottom, as it would be in your family car, the zero on Petty's gauges may be straight up.
As with everything else in this multimillion-dollar business, Petty has a reason for twisting his dials.
"When everything's normal and okay," he said, "then all the needles on all the gauges are pointing straight up. Don't have to waste no time figuring out each one. If a needle ain't straight up, I look to see what's going on."
The interior of Petty's car is functional, not comfortable. There's no place to carry the kids home from school. The one seat belongs to the driver and it is custom-fitted to his body. A cushioned arm on the right side fits against the driver's ribs as support against the centrifugal force of all those left turns at 190 m.p.h.
Donnie Allison, a veteran, once wrote a reminder on his accelerator pedal: "STAND ON IT." Petty's pedal is shiny metal with a raised edge to keep his foot from sliding off. The gear shifter is an aluminum grip cast from a mold of Petty's closed hand. The steering wheel is covered with rubber padding.
"The Racer's Prayer" was written by Bill Frazier, a preacher who follows the stock-can circuit. It asks protection from harm. David Pearson and Buddy Baker have a copy of the prayer pasted on the dashboard of their racers. They also carry manually operated fire extinguishers attached next to their driving seats.
The driver Fireball Roberts died in a fireball. The death of a hero moved stock-car racing to safety measures that now include a fuel cell, a sponge-like affair that makes fires rare. Gasoline no longer is splashed. And with that improvement, stock-car racing became so safe that Pearson once said, "I'd rather be racing Richard Petty at 185 miles per hour, right beside him, than driving down the Interstate at 55."
"It's not the accidents that kill our drivers," said Bill France Sr., who created the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) 30 years ago. "It's the sudden stop."
France did not mean to be flippant. What he said is true. These stock cars are reinforced, from trunk to front bumper and around the driver on all sides, with a steel rollcage. Red Farmer bouned and flipped 13 times at 180 mph, each bounce producing a concussion chilling in sound. The car's sheet metal was ripped off. The tubing of the rollcage was visible.
They took Farmer away in an ambulance, but the next day he walked to a microphone and told the fans he was feeling all right, just a little banged up.
A rollcage costs maybe $4,000.
Farmer and A. J. Foyt and Petty have survived terrifying flips because the rollcage is virtually indestructible. Friday Hassler, however, died on the backstretch when his car, at 180 mph, came to a sudden stop against another car. There was not a mark on Hassler. A doctor said the sudden stop ripped the aorta from his heart.
"I had a driver once who couldn't tell me the handling problem he was having with the car," said Harry Hyde. "So I took it out on the track myself. I was going to find out what was wrong."
Hyde had driven some race cars as a kid. "But this was at Daytona and when I got it up to 165, that was it. I couldn't go any faster. No. The car could go 185. But I couldn't hold my foot down anymore.The only driving I do now is in my station wagon."