A police officer directing the prodigious flow of traffic away from Daytona International Speedway after the race wiped his brow and said, "I love it, buddy. I think Daytona should be proud to have this speedway. But I gotta say, I'm glad it's only once a year."
Whenever a car brushed him closely, dusting his starched gray slacks, he wagged a remonstrative finger at the face behind the windshield and said, "What are you, crazy, buddy?" then laughed heartily to himself.
"I love these people," he said. "I really love these people. Imagine the biggest sporting event there is; imagine the biggest football game there ever was, then imagine that thing doubled. That's what you got here, buddy. That's what you got in this Daytona 500. Ain't it a beaut, now."
An estimated 130,000 stock car racing fans, including Vice President George Bush, had gathered today under beautiful summerlike conditions to watch the silver anniversary running of the Daytona 500, "the Super Bowl of auto racing."
Before the race, spectators lined the catch fence along the grandstand wall shouting the names of their favorite racers and pointing to the line of cars on Pit Road. Many fans wore likenesses of the drivers silkscreened across the fronts and backs of their T-shirts, or on the sleeves and pockets of their Alumicron and silk jackets.
Near one moving van on the track infield, where thousands of people spent Saturday night sleeping in recreational vehicles and on the hoods of their cars, a hundred fans or more danced to the slow country and western tunes pumped through the open cab windows of the giant U-Haul.
In the bed of the van, shirtless men flipped dark red chicken halves on a charcoal grill. One could hardly see them through the wall of smoke. They passed a bottle of Jim Beam around, cleaning the mouth of the bottle with their shirttails after each swig.
A few couples swayed slowly around a trash barrel; the male partner, blitzed by the morning sun and a long night of hard drinking, shouted at the sky of ocean gulls dipping to the shale roads to feed: "Don't you mess on my new shines now, birds, don't you do that now."
The roof of a recreational vehicle is a common vantage point from which one can best observe the race. For those spectators who lose interest in the action on the speedway, there is always the coal of their own party fires to stoke. Near one vehicle, an entire family toiled over a butane burner where a black pot of grease-fried Gulf shrimp cooked. "We love the speed and all," the kindly matriarch said. "But I got a family to feed."
Jerry Wilson, an Orange City building contractor whose family viewed the 25th running of the 500 from tiers of scaffolding erected in the bed of his pickup truck, said, "Those folks come out here to get a little drunk and to have a good time. But they're really all good people. You could set a thousand dollars right there on the ground, early in the morning, and leave it there all day. I bet when you came back around after the race it would still be there.
"Most of these folks are good ol' Southern people," he added. "They're just looking for something most of us lost a long time ago."
Bill Atkins, a maintenance man from Dover, Del., made the long journey to Daytona early in the week and plans to spend the rest of the winter and spring following the racing circuit to speedways across the South.
"I'm cooking some big slabs of beef as soon as the race is over," he said. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy this. We rent a big moving van and sleep and eat out of the back end. When the race is over and it's time to move on we just pull down the door and ask for directions to the interstate."
"All I give a hoot and a holler about is drinking my whiskey and watching those fancy black tires spin their way to glory there on the asphalt," Bobby Geiger of Tangerine, Fla., said. "That's what I call a good time. Music and fast cars and something bronze and wet to gentle the heartburn."
Melita McNicoll worked a gift booth under the bleachers in the peanut gallery. "I sold out of spark plug earrings pretty early," she said, jingling the coins in her money purse. "My other big seller was Richard Petty charms for your shirt collar. My checkered flag earrings weren't going as fast as I had hoped. But all in all, I'd say it was a good day. Still, I ain't Fort Knox or nothing."
"This is my income," said a woman selling pizza slices. "This ain't no monkey bidness, friend. This here is serious bidness."
After the race, many of the spectators, stretched out on lawn chairs or car hoods, seemed more interested in soaking up sun than in finding a spot in the long line of cars seeking the interstate home.
"Look," one sunburned woman, her skin leathery and red, said, "I came down here all the way from Rhode Island. I like the way the rays make me feel. I plan to stay this way till midnight; it feels so good."
A man with a grizzly red beard, his belly swimming over his sailing trunks, shouted, "May the South rise again!" His arms tattooed with an indigo blue battleship and a turtle in a tuxedo and top hat, the man seemed suddenly struck by a brainstorm. "Rise again? Hell, we done risen."
He waltzed clumsily along with an imaginary dancer on his way to the women selling foot-long cheese coneys. One could hear him singing his heart out to a Marty Robbins tune about Old El Paso, a song of which he knew only the chorus.