DAYTONA BEACH, FEB. 17 -- Anyone who saw the movie "Days of Thunder" marveled at the bash-'em, crash-'em rental car race down the beach here between star Tom Cruise and his No. 1 stock car rival.

That portrayal was even farther from reality than the rest of the movie. Yes, people still drive rental cars down Daytona's hard-packed sand beach. It remains one of the unique attractions of this busy, tacky tourist town.

But rules and regulations are strict these days. Beach driving is so popular among tourist mobs that driving lanes now are roped off, the speed limit is 10 mph and the route is vigorously patrolled by police in Jeeps. In the evening, the police cruise up and down the strip booming a warning over loudspeakers that the beach is closed to night traffic and any car that isn't moved promptly will be towed.

The beach at Daytona thus more closely resembles K Street at noon than the salt flats at Bonneville: You can go faster walking than driving, and at a lot less risk.

"Days of Thunder," incidentally, was received unenthusiastically by most race fans, who say it painted an unfairly dark picture of their favorite drivers, who enjoy cult-hero, good-guy status.

"Oh, we had a big scandal here today," said one NASCAR official as crowds gathered for the Daytona 500 this morning. "One of our drivers failed to turn up for church this morning."

Cold Front Visits

"BRRRRR!" said the Page 1 headline of the Daytona Beach News on Saturday morning after temperatures plunged into the 20s the night before.

Tourists were left shivering in their windbreakers as a cold front roared through with winds up to 60 knots recorded at the Coast Guard Station at Ponce de Leon inlet.

"This is what I left Wisconsin to get away from?" muttered a slender woman sipping Budweiser in a biker bar on the boardwalk.

But race car drivers were delighted. "The cars run much better when it's cool like this," said top NASCAR money-winner Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt said the only drawback was that his pit crew had to install larger carburetor jets to provide more fuel to mix with the dry, cool air. That hurt fuel economy, he said, and could force him to rethink pit stop refueling strategy.

A Change in Plates

NASCAR officials have been requiring race teams to install restrictor plates on carburetors here and at Talladega for the last four years. The plates cut down the amount of air getting to the carbs, which reduces horsepower and top speed on the big, banked tracks, where speed on straightaways soars up to 220 mph.

In 1988, the restrictor plates had one-inch holes over each of the carburetor's four barrels. In 1989, the diameter was cut to 15/16ths; last year it fell again to 29/32nds, where it remained for today's Daytona 500.

But NASCAR officials confided that restrictor plate size will drop again, to 7/8ths inch, for the next race at Talladega in May. The reduction will cut average lap speeds by up to 5 mph, they said. The announcement is sure to prompt howls of protest from drivers.

The Race Must Go On

One of the cable TV networks that specializes in auto racing surveyed its viewers on whether the Daytona 500 should be canceled out of respect for the troops fighting the war in the Persian Gulf.

Unsurprisingly, 85 percent said no. NASCAR officials instead have worked to turn the Super Bowl of auto racing into a tribute to the troops. Folks in military uniforms handed out small U.S. flags to all spectators as they entered today, and five race cars were painted up to honor the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

Meantime, security personnel redoubled efforts to make sure no one turned the event into a venue for terrorism. Bags carried by entrants were checked twice for bombs and firearms.

Fast Cars, Slow Traffic

Traffic, as always, was horrendous all week along Volusia Avenue, which runs alongside Daytona International Speedway.

The commute from beachside hotels to the track usually takes about 15 minutes, but this week it took up to 1 1/2 hours at peak traffic times.

Local residents get a reprieve next week, but it will be short-lived. The 50th annual Bike Week commences March 1, with crowds of up to 400,000 expected.