With a race to run in an hour, a blond kid, Sterling Marlin, fed a hose into the engine of his race car. A blonde old man, Coo Coo Marlin, the kid's dad, reached into the cockpit and with a finger twirled the steering wheel from lock to lock.

"Been doin' this long?" the old blond said.

"Naw," the young blond said.

'Give it more juice."

'Givin' it."

Another twirl of the wheel, this one easier, freer.

"Okay now, feels like," the old man said.


Many racers chase the rainbow of fame. Richard Petty, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett, the Allison brothers, A. J. Foyt and Benny Parsons -- they chase the rainbow in 700-horsepower chariots of gold. These are racers with money. They buy what they need for the chase. When sparkplugs are made of platinum, the Pettys will buy a truckload.

Coo Coo Marlin long has seen the rainbow, for he now is 48 years old, and he has given earnest chase, running in 162 races the last 14 years with these knights of greasedom. For parts of five decades now, Coo Coo Marlin has raced cars, beginning the time he was 17 and his older brother didn't show up to drive his '34 Ford at Cornwell, Tenn.

"So I jumped in it," Marlin said today.

What did he remember about that first ride?

"Finished second."

'anything else?

"Kep on hittin' the wall."

Coo Coo Marlin. What a lovely name, the sound as soft as a breeze across wheat. As a little kid, Clifton Burton Marlin could not pronounce Clifton. He made it sound like Coo Coo. So everyone called him Coo Coo and now, now that he is 48, now that his son is 22 and racing alongside him, his son's eyes fixed on that rainbow, now the name Coo Coo Marlin has come to mean a lot to the people who pay to watch the big-time stock-car racers. They hear Coo Coo's name and they know he is one of them, a man of the land, a farmer from outside Nashville, a guy who never quit trying just because he wasn't as rich as the rest.

In his 162 big-time races, Coo Coo Marlin never has won once. He never has finished second. Third, three times. Twice he has been fourth in the Daytona 500, his game's most prestigious event, being run Sunday for the 22nd time, this time paying the drivers $660,500.

For the 12th time, Coo Coo Marlin is in the Daytona 500. He starts 36th in the field of 42. He has practiced at speeds of 191 miles per hour and qualified at 188.948 mph. He'll tell you he can win Sunday because he believes it, and such an improbability is possible, but more likely this Don Quixote in a fire suit will finish down the list, maybe 15th on a good day.

Buddy Baker may pay his crew chief $40,000 a year to keep his Oldsmobile flying.

Coo Coo Marlin doesn't pay his crew chief anything.

He is the crew chief.

He raises 450 head of cattle, grows wheat, tobacco, corn and beans on his own 600 acres and 700 more he leases 30 miles outside Nashville. It's a big operation that keeps him comfortable, for sure. "But you gotta have a half-million dollars' worth of equipment these days to make what ordinary people would call a living," Marlin said. "Anything extra, we go racin'."

To bring a race car to Daytona, with any idea at all of competing seriously, you need $100,000 loose change.

"This is costin' me $30,000 or $40,000," Marlin said, nodding toward his race car and that of his son, who raced to day in a second-level event at Daytona International Speedway. "Only way we can make it is to cut corners."

So he buys used race cars. The Pettys build theirs from blueprints. And Marlin shops around for used parts. Parts are made in Detroit specifically for shipment to Petty. Coo Coo Marlin against Richard Petty is like your neighborhood pump jockey taking on Exxon.

The only deal that Marlin has -- Buddy Baker's money comes from a coal millionaire . . . Petty makes an oil treatment famous in return for big bucks -- is one the old blond struck with his young blond son.

"I do the farmin' and my boy keeps care of the race cars," Marlin said, adding with a smile, "I don't pay him nothin', and he don't pay me nothin'."

You'd like Coo Coo Marlin. He is for real. His retread-tire of a face, with its crevasses and wrinkles, is a beauty. What his words don't tell you -- with 1,300 acres to farm, ain't much time for talkin' -- the sky-blue eyes do.

Six years ago, he ran for a state legislator's seat. He lost. Would he run again?

"Too much headaches," Coo Coo said.

The eyes danced in a silent oration that said politicians are strange fellows who must do strange things, and what's a farmer doing in with them when he can spend his time out on the field going racin'?

Marlin can't tell you what he likes about racing. Just does. He could hunt or fish on his place. Heaven knows, a guy could do that forever when he gets old. But Coo Coo is not old. He's 48. The first 14 starters in Sunday's Daytona 500 include 10 guys 38 or older, clear up to A. J. Foyt's 45.

"In football, a fella's over his peak at 35," Marlin said. "In racin', a person is just reachin' his peak at 35. Me, I get tireder quicker now, and I might quit some after this year, dependin' on how my boy does, but I can still drive as good as ever."

Twice Coo Coo Marlin had a shot at winning his game's biggest prize here at Daytona. In 1975 he was running second to David Pearson late in the chase when an engine belt snapped, leaving him to finish fourth. And in 1977 he was on Richard Petty's trail, gaining a half-second a lap, when it happened again.

"Same durn belt," Marlin said.

Fourth place again.

"Maybe I try harder here," he said, trying to explain why he has won $76,405 in 11 Daytona 500s and only $222,338 more in his other 151 races. "I like the track, too. You run flat out here."

How about this time? Marlin starts from far back. Can he win?

"If I can catch up to 'em, I'll be in there he said.

Back home on the farm, that '34 Ford he drove 31 years ago, that jalopy he kept hittin' the wall with, sits in the shop out back of the house. It's a reminder of where he started. And not only for Coo Coo did it start with that junker, either, for Sterling Marlin, now 22, says his first experience with a race car was seeing that old thing and rolling around in it with his buddies.

He tagged along with his daddy to the short tracks when he was 6 years old. At 18, he raced. At 21, he was second in a 180 mph race at Daytona. The rainbow is there, as bright as ever, and Sterling Marlin sees it.

"Somebody's got to carry on when guys like my dad quit," the blond kid said.

His mother, Eula Faye, didn't much like it. She would have liked her only child to be a lawyer or doctor.

"But she said the same things to me she said to Dad, 'It's your life, go ahead, just do the best you can'."

On Lap 75 of today's 120-lap Sportsmen 300, Sterling Marlin, running fourth at the time, tried to go low under Dave Marcis in a turn. He didn't make it. The cars brushed together, Marlin spinning off the track. He took the car into the pits later, and Coo Coo Marlin was there with a crowbar to straighten out the sheet-metal damage.

The blond kid finished 16th today.