So why run the race? Why bother when one man behind the wheel of a souped-up Chevy is stronger in spirit than the sum total of all the high-horsed engines Detroit ever built?

Because it is a pretty thing: being strong and being fast.

Because every time a spark plug fires the potential of human victory is born.

Because each moment spent under the hood, working the socket wrench or checking the oil, cancels one long, lost moment in the misery of existence. The cinderblock hotels, the bitter grounds in the cups of coffee, all the calls to the kids sick with the flu and lonesome back in Level Cross and Asheboro, N.C., Hueytown, Ala., and Chesapeake, Va..

No, the giving never matches the taking. You win even when you lose. Such is the beauty and the miracle of speed here at the Daytona 500, which goes off again Sunday.

It is not so bad living with grease under your nails, not for Richard Petty, whose father Lee won the first Daytona (in 1959) in an Olds 200 and whose 22-year-old son Kyle will race around the 2.5-mile trioval 200 times Sunday afternoon; and not for Bobby Hillin Jr., the kid from Midland, Tex. who played good, tough football last year at his hometown high school, making all-district as both a defensive and offensive lineman, but who failed to make the starting lineup in this year's 500. For a man blessed with the gift of fury, he isn't living unless he's running, rounding off the corners on his block of the universe.

Suddenly lost in a long line of thundering muscle, the roadracer runs doorhandle to doorhandle with all the other good old boys happy to be part of the herd; and he's going--not in a straight line--but in circles, his foot is on the floorboard, warm with the pulse of flight.

And when he leads the herd of speed there is no sound, save the cause of the hungry shore birds dipping to the infield to feed, and the boys in white aprons off in the grandstand, calling out, "Peanuts, peanuts." This is the strangest thing, how suddenly his eyes note the mystery in the mundane, and how his ears, once deaf to the world, now hear the truth in the unspoken.

The roadracer is in search of something, something he can't find working the bulldozer on the streets of Nacogdoches, Tex., or slamming nails into every wall in every home in Speedway, Ind.

He is not unlike the caterpillar running round and round the lip of a bowl, ending up at the very point where he began, beginning where he's bound to finish, yet knowing all along that he's going further and doing more than he would ever do apart from his machine. So that is why he races: to go nowhere and to go everywhere.

And when critics call his sport suicide--gentlemen, start your coffins--could he begin to explain those nights as a boy, not even licensed to drive, running his daddy's pickup full blast down Tobacco Road? The rubber, peeling, ripping from the tire casing, the speedometer marking 65 mph before clearing the vast, green fields of home, and yesterday--has there ever been a lovelier moonless night?

These racers also know the more muscle there is under the hood, the stronger is the arm of death. Detroit keeps giving them more and more muscle--from 143 mph in 1959 to over 190 over 10 years later to this season's qualifying run that nearly peaked 200.

Just this week, there was a serious crash involving Bruce Jacobi's car. Medics everywhere and sirens, spinning wrecker and ambulance strobes.

Later, in a pancake house, smoking cigars and talking football with the boys, somebody came in with a portable radio and he heard that Bruce Jacobi would live. There is considerable brain damage, however, and broken limbs; surgeons removed chards of glass from an eye, Jacobi's condition remains critical.

You sit alone in the empty theater of the Daytona Speedway, gazing at the scars on the cement walls and wondering how did they get there. You think often of the picture of Bill Teague in a racing journal. Taken only minutes after setting a speed record for closed American tracks in 1959, Teague looks like a coal miner in his ancient metal helmet, the goggles pulled back on the crown. His teeth are white, his eyes small and happy with victory.

But what could really get to you was the patch Teague wore on the chest of his Alumicron jacket, the irony of that single word: Pure. Less than 24 hours after the picture was taken, Teague lost control on the west turn, slammed into the wall, and died. There was no purity in his ugly death, except maybe in the matter of speed. Bill Teague went out racing.

The one thing the racer gives to and accepts from the fraternity of drivers is trust. He knows that when burning down the dip of the fourth turn, one quick jolt of his wheel could send the entire rumbling herd into a heap. "This speed don't bother me," Kyle Petty said this week. "What bothers me is who is going that fast."

Still, the roadracer honors his brethren with trust and he expects--no, he demands--the same in return. Rarely will he brood over the awful responsibility of both loving and hating men, the paradox of his trade. Sometimes he thinks he knows their strengths and weaknesses better than he knows his own.

At gatherings everywhere he applauds their fast histories. He knows the names of their children. Come Christmas his wife will mail each of them a greeting card with a color portrait of his own family in front of their pretty tinsel tree. He will write a closing note with his own hand: "This Yuletide, may your tires never go flat."

If the stock car racer is doomed to tragedy, he does not know it. Born to run, he considers himself one of the chosen. Give him a tank of petrol and a spot in the thundering herd. Then, the secrets of the soul will be known to him. There is money to win. There is the moment in the winner's circle, girdled by a wreath of roses and toasting the chances he took, when the roadracer considers himself the luckiest person on the face of the earth.

The champagne pours; the first swallow of victory he savors cautiously. He runs his fingers over the name scribbled across his chest like a badge of extreme honor.

"There will be more," he says. "There must be more." He drinks insatiably; gold suds dribble down his chin and neck and cool his hot, hungry heart. How sweet is this drink. The band plays "America." His wife blows him kisses.

Who could wonder why he does what he does?

The speed people, the speed.