What on earth would Henry Ford make of these seemingly endless streams of idling engines and choking exhaust, all of them stretching to the horizon in every direction? Here it is only Thursday, a full three days before the big race, and out front of the Daytona International Speedway is a traffic jam that makes Los Angeles look like Iowa. The only thing moving is the Goodyear blimp, rocking gently overhead. Oh, that it had a rope ladder to lift the distressed from this hopeless gridlock of mobile homes, pickup trucks, cars, jeeps, buses and station wagons, most filled to the brim with itinerant racing fans and anxious tourists wanting to get on but going flat-out zero at the height of Daytona's renowned Speed Weeks.
More than 70,000 people have just seen the two qualifying races for Sunday's $1.2 million Daytona 500, "the world's greatest stock car race," and the wise men and women among them are repairing on foot to the burnt-grass parking lots where they're camped for the week. Miller time, if it hasn't been already.
On what was once a swampy pine-and-cypress thicket but long ago bulldozed clean is every variety of mobile lodging: Winnebago, Airstream, Pace Arrow, Citation, Southwind, The Executive, Econoline and, above all, the humble and ubiquitous pickup. Better to be sitting here than out on the highway. Plunked on their tail bumpers, drivers of two pickups parked together sip their beer in the fading light. One's license plate says New York, the other's Pennsylvania. Good ol' boys from the North.
Many of these ol' boys are big boys. Two hundred to 300 pounds. A couple in a car and it's weighed down. Many of the women have yellow or golden hair piled high on their heads, swirled like spun sunset. One sits behind the wheel of a parked Winnebago. Four occupy a single white Buick.
The largest cookout in all America is under way, right here on the speedway grounds. The smell of barbecue is wafted by the wind, and the last rattling roars of stock cars tuning up come from somewhere over the high-banked track next to the encampment, just before the chill night falls.
In the morning in the Daytona infield, larger than some towns, 47-year-old Richard Petty, the king of the stock car racers, is leaning against a stack of tires just outside the garage that houses his No. 43 blue-and-red Pontiac. He has a mustache and gaunt look and wears narrow sunglasses with an STP decal and a large western hat. A thin cigar clamped in his mouth somehow stays there whether he smiles, laughs, talks or poses for a picture. He never touches it, and the smoke curls out the corners of his mouth.
Like most of the drivers, especially the old guard -- David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbor-ough -- Petty is talking about "The Kid," 29-year-old Bill Elliott, who has red hair and a Thunderbird that does everything but fly, the fastest stock car Southern man has ever devised. Last Sunday here, Elliott set an all-time, all-tracks record speed of 205.114 for one lap, then Thursday ran away from the field in one of the 50-lap qualifiers. The Dawsonville, Ga., "Kid," screwdriver in hand, looks out from under his car hood and says, "There ain't no race where everything is guaranteed."
True, says Petty, smiling. "He's got 500 miles to go, but he's in good shape. He's going to be in control of the race more than anybody I can remember in the last 18 years. He's liable to take off and just do it."
And what if "The King" -- Petty has won the Daytona 500 seven times, won 200 races, $5 million in prize money alone -- sees "The Kid" simply pull away? What then? Petty bares his teeth in a bigger smile, the cigar bobbing but the ash hanging on. "Run like a son of a gun for second," he says.
Petty can afford to be gracious. A couple of garages away, his son, Kyle Petty, who will be driving a Thunderbird in the 500, says, "Daddy don't need anything." He pronounces it "Deddy," as in, "Deddy's in a position where he don't need anything."
"Deddy" likes money but he also races for the love of it, the kicks. Like last July 4's Firecracker 400 here, when nobody much expected him to do anything only he whipped Yarborough by maybe six inches in a spectacular finish witnessed by President Reagan, no less. For Petty's 200th victory yet. To which the sage of Level Cross, N.C., said, "I didn't know there were so many records just sittin' around waitin' for somebody to break."
"No one has ever done it, but I can see Richard racing until he's 64," says Lynda Petty, his wife. "Everyone thinks of him as getting old. But to me, he's still a young man. I'm still a young woman.
"One of the biggest shocks I've had came at Daytona, at the Firecracker. After he won the race, I was reading a newspaper and do you know it said Richard, at 47, is the oldest driver ever to win a Winston Cup Grand National? I couldn't believe it. I took the paper to him and said, 'Do you mean you're older than Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts and your Daddy' -- 'your Deddy' -- 'were when they won their last race?' "
Lynda was Richard's girl as long ago as high school, but some of their dates went like this: They'd be driving along a back road and they'd pass some filling station and see some guys working on a car and he'd pull over and that would be it for an hour or more, and she'd sit in his car and wait. What would he do if he didn't race?
"One day he might walk in the door and say, 'I've driven all I want to.' He might, one day. But I don't see him quitting in the next several years."
"Reminisce?" Petty is saying, spitting some tobacco juice. "I'll do that in 25-30 years. I haven't got time for that right now." As he once said, when asked how he would like to be remembered, "I just want 'em to remember that I was a pretty good race car driver and I done it for a long time."
"Hey," says Petty, "let's go look at some races."
Out on the 2 1/2-mile asphaltic concrete track is a Speed Weeks feature called the International Race of Champions, all Camaros driven by a dozen of the world's greatest drivers. The noise is intense -- Buck's Guns, back on the highway, had been doing a brisk business in earplugs.
Now, on the last lap's final turn there's a four-car spinout. Everybody in the garages runs out to the tall wire fences to get a look, Bill Elliott among them. It's one of the few times he's come out of the garage all day, and the only time he's moved that fast.
Elliott's chief competition in the 500, Cale Yarborough, is in one of the spinning cars. Incredibly, they're still spinning when everybody gets to the fence and they spin crazily by, spewing dust and smoke and debris.
All Darrell Waltrip, another 500 favorite who had been racing fifth, has to do is drive up the empty road and take the checkered flag. The trouble started, according to A.J. Foyt, when Tom Sneva bumped Yarboough from behind as he and Foyt were fighting it out. Sneva, who said only that Yarborough "got sideways," spun back onto the track and continued to spin across the finish line like a twirling baton.
Both Foyt, who took third, and Yarborough, sixth, laughed off the scare. A few seconds later, Elliott was back under the hood of his Thunderbird as if nothing had happened, and shortly Yarborough arrived at his garage, posing for pictures and chatting in front of the car he'll drive Sunday, the No. 28 orange-and-white Thunderbird with Hardee's written on it. "I've got just as much chance to win as anybody," says Yarborough.
But like Petty, Yarborough, 44, has a long memory. One time, on the way from his South Carolina home to a race in Savannah, he recalls, "My wife Betty Jo and I drove down and when we got to the Savannah toll bridge, all I had was 37 cents." The toll collector took an I.O.U., and that night, driving home, Yarborough paid off the loan with his winnings. He's been winning ever since, and isn't about to stop now, not when he has a chance to win an unprecedented third consecutive Daytona 500.
"I feel really good about it," he says, firmly. "We've made a lot of adjustments to the car this week. We're ready." The last two Daytona victories, he drove Chevrolets; his new Thunderbird has clocked 203.814, faster than anyone but Elliott. Could it be a two-car race?
Could be, suggests Waltrip, who, at 38, falls somewhere between the ol' boys and young chargers like Elliott, Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte and Tim Richmond. "We can run with anyone except those Fords in front," says Waltrip, who will be in his Chevrolet. "We don't wish them any misfortune but it looks as though that will be the only way we will get a shot."
Waltrip drives for Junior Johnson, the Junior Johnson immortalized by Tom Wolfe as "the last American hero" who learned to drive by running whiskey for his father, a copper-still operator from Ingle Hollow, N.C.
Well, right after he became a piece of New Journalism, Junior Johnson stopped being just a good ol' boy and became a good ol' entrepreneur, and got drivers to drive for him, and made a fortune with a car emblazoned with the name of a . . . soda pop!
Johnson is all spiffed up: his gray/white hair combed and neat, jeans clean, blue windbreaker glistening in the sunlight. He is talking long and hard with another man -- another business deal? -- each speaking into the other's ear. Much of the talking in the infield is done into someone's ear, else nobody would hear anything.
Stock car racing once was run by the seat of one's pants, but now there's so much money involved a mechanic -- a mechanic! -- can make $100,000 a year. There's always a deal going, says Richard Petty, whose son Kyle made a friendly break from his father this season, accepting a new racing deal. "He's busy lookin' after his deal," says Petty, "and I'm busy lookin' after my deal. Everybody's busy."
Everybody out of the way -- green Skoal Bandit roaring up the alley. Brrrrrrmmmmm. Rattle, rattle.
Bill France -- William Henry Getty France -- started all this. Driving south from Washington in 1934, he ran out of money and almost gas at Daytona. An automobile mechanic, he took a job in a filling station. But he had this love for racing. By 1959, he had built the Daytona International Speedway, and founded NASCAR, the major U.S. stock car racing organization. Big Bill has lived to see a president come here for his 500, and have the road out front named for him, and the health to walk proudly among Sunday's throng, which might surpass last year's 125,000.
He put the speed into Daytona like nobody since Sir Malcolm Campbell, who used to roar up the beach but left town for Utah's Bonneville in 1936.
Here's a black-and-white photo hung on a wall. It's 1969, and Richard Petty is sailing in his No. 43 Plymouth through the guardrail in the west turn, seconds before disappearing over the top of the banked track. Under the picture it says that silence fell and everyone waited. Then came the cheers as Petty, having scaled the banking, emerged, waving.
Three years after that he won his first Daytona, and soon he'd become a legend.