The greaseniks in charge of stockcar racing say everybody comes to Daytona Beach to root for their favorite kind of car. Yes, they say 150,000 people will come here Sunday to yell their heads off for a Buick or Oldsmobile. "Come on, LeMans," they are supposed to be hollering. Just the way the ritzy folks root at the Super Bowl, these stock-car fans will cheer for General Motors or Ford.
Hey, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I know better than that. There are two reasons the Daytona 500 draws the second-largest paid crowd in sports (behind the Indianapolis 500). One, everybody with grease under their fingernails figures they could drive one of those things around that big, wide track. And, two, everybody knows they would faint dead if they had to drive one of those things around that big, wide track. This takes explaining.
The $50-a-seat customers have the fun of thinking they could do it. After all, if you take the crazy paint jobs and oil-can decals off these stock cars, they do look like the family flivver with the hubcaps stolen. Only Jackie Stewart can drive one of those teeny-tiny road-race cars that look like jet bugs. But even guys who fell off the turnip truck yesterday know how to get an Olds from 0 to 60 in a hurry.
Yet, they know, praise the Lord, they will never have to take Richard Petty's Buick around this big, wide track. They know the track gets very small and narrow at 190 miles per hour with two other cars riding at your door handles and six more lined up in the rear-view mirror as you go left into the 31-degree banked turns. They may admit it only in the dark of a lonely morning, but the very brave turnips come down with a severe case of fear when considering the reality of driving 190 in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the side of a hill.
So they pay $50 to see somebody actually do this trick.
It is amazing, what these good ol' boys do.
Look at the track first. The Daytona International Speedway is a 2 1/2-mile tri-oval, which means it has a 3,000-foot straight backstretch where the cars reach speeds of more than 200 mph. The turns are banked at 31 degrees, which is an incline so steep you can't walk up it. To even stick to the asphalt high on a turn, a car has to be going 90 mph. The tri-oval dogleg is banked at 18 degrees.
The effect of the whole thing is to turn the cars into marbles whizzing around the rim of a huge roulette wheel. Tilted sideways in the sweeping turns, a driver can see only 150 feet ahead. At 180 mph, his car covers 264 feet a second. Think about the possibilities of that.
Think, too, about the speed. Daytona is a direct place. Jackie Stewart, in his autobiography, "Faster," said bringing a Formula One car through a corner was much the same as bringing a woman through the act of love, an intricate piece of teamwork -- gentle, patient and decisive. It is a distortion of Stewart's metaphor, but only barely, to say that at Daytona the drivers drag ladies home by their hair. Here, only speed matters.
Donnie Allison, a veteran stock-car driver, once wrote in orange paint on his gas pedal, "Stand On It."
He didn't need to be told the necessity of driving at full throttle here. But perhaps he needed reinforcement, just as we turnips would. "It ain't easy to go into them turns with the pedal to metal," Richard Petty has said. "It sorta goes against your protective instincts. If you don't go flat out, though, you lose too many RPMs in the corner and it takes you too long to get back up to speed. Besides, you can't slow down, 'cause all them other cats will pass you up."
The difference between speed here and at Indianapolis is that at Daytona the cars run next to each other.
The jet jugs at Indy go faster, but because they are open-wheeled contraptions they don't dare get near another car. If a tire so much as touches another tire, both cars will fly off the track. The Indy cars are death machines once out of control, because they have open cockpits and no safety rollcage. The stock cars, with their steel rollcages around the drivers, are the safest racing cars in the world.
So for your $50 a seat, you may see Richard Petty and David Pearson coming home side by side at 200 mph.
That's what this place is all about, as we shall see in a minute. The rest of it is also fun. Drive down Atlantic Avenue, where all the oceanfront hotels are, and you'll see an orange car with a Confederate flag painted on the roof. Its horn plays "Dixie," and it has the number 01 on the side -- all straight out of "The Dukes of Hazzard" television show, which is, one suspects, the favorite show of most of us turnips. At the corner of Seabreeze and Volusia yesterday, you could see Richard Petty's No. 43 STP Plymouth -- only it actually was somebody's passenger car, painted up like King Richard's old racer.
Over dinner at places with no table cloths, guys talk about positive crankcase ventilation and modified GM spindles with a three-quarter-ton adapter installed. At Mac's Famous Bar, they serve pizza between famous crashes (film played against the wall). "Big Johnny Wayne and her pair of .44s" is the star at a go-go place; her pasties may be stolen hubcaps.
Patriotism runs deep here. "When the NFL coaches start the Fifth Reich," said Beano Cook, a CBS-TV publicity man, "these Daytona 500 fans will be the first to enlist in the war against them." Of all the cars the 500 gives us turnips to cheer for, none are named Mercedes or Toyota. "Buy American," a sign says on the trunk lid of Buddy Baker's Oldsmobile.
Two beer companies sponsor cars. No winemakers need apply.
Everybody wears a cowboy hat with a pheasant tied to it.
Daytona says the races here bring in $730 million, all of it grease-stained.
Now, about Pearson and Petty. The greatest finish to any sports event I have ever seen came in the 1976 Daytona 500 when Pearson came out of Turn Four on the last lap, with Petty just behind him.
Petty had one chance in a million to win. He took it. At 190 mph, he had to try to go under Pearson. It was all but impossible at that speed to cut the turn short, as Petty needed to do, because the momentum would force Petty's car off its intended line and up into Pearson's door. Surely they would crash, these kings of their game.
They did. As Petty's gamble failed, the cars clanged together. They banged into a concrete retaining wall. They spun in front of the main grandstand, just short of the finish line, and for a second it seemed possible that Petty would win the race spinning across the finish line.
But his car stopped short, dead in the water. And then, eerily, here came Pearson's Mercury, its front end a bashed-in mess from ramming the wall. Here it came moving slowly. Petty had allowed his engine to die. But Pearson had the foresight in a 190-mph crash to push in his clutch and rev the engine, keeping it alive even as he spun toward what we very brave turnips thought was The End.
Pearson clanked across the finish line, the winner at maybe 5 mph.