Some badly needed cheering was given the Ford men Saturday evening by Henry Ford II himself, who assembled his Daytona forces and told them, in effect, to stop worrying and start planning for the races ahead. He was, he said, behind them for the long haul and would see that they got the hardware with which to win.
Passino, a veteran of lean racing years as well as good ones, even managed to squeeze out a quip. "After all," he said, "stock-car racing is just a carnival. To get people out you have to throw some Christians to the lions. This year it seems to be our turn to get thrown."
Still, the best joke in town was the one about the Le Mans start. If they had that at Daytona instead of the usual rolling start, it went, everyone would run and get into the nearest Plymouth. But if there was a kind of despair in the conversations of those not connected with the Chrysler cars, all hands worked diligently to produce respectable speeds. The cars racing Sunday stayed behind a high fence, and there was a strict security check of all those allowed inside. Each day the cars would roar out of the compound like circus lions and tigers out for air and exercise, and after they had run their practice laps they were returned to quarters. Then, no matter what, it seemed, mechanics began to take them apart, removing whole engines and casting them aside like a dentist pulling teeth, dropping out transmissions, prying into differentials, realigning front ends, rebalancing wheels.
Always the mechanics were pressed for time because of a rule that forbade any work after 5 p.m. So, within permissible hours, they remade Paul Goldsmith's Plymouth after a slipping clutch allowed the engine to over-rev and burst as Paul led a preliminary race. When they had the time, drivers and mechanics from the Ford and Mercury teams stood around, hands in pockets, looking glumly down at the Plymouths and Dodges.
The word that Chrysler had the hot car this year was not long getting around the South, where stock-car racing thrives as a form of self-identifying entertainment. If you own a Plymouth, you get out to the tracks and root, by George, for racing Plymouths. Racing writers were genuinely impressed by the Plymouths and Dodges, and Chrysler itself took big newspaper advertisements after the cars had qualified in the 170s. Consequently, by Saturday night nearly every one of the city's 40,000 beds for transients was taken (there were still a few available for $45) and for late arrivals the Venus Lounge on the road to the Speedway stayed open for dining and dancing until 5 a.m. Leaving at closing time would put one in good position to get a head start on what developed into a heroic traffic jam Sunday morning—better, indeed, than last year's, when some fans were three days finding their abandoned cars after the race was over. Altogether, Daytona's population of 75,000 had increased almost 100% by race time, and its pocketbook had been stuffed with some 3 million out-of-town dollars.
When the race began, Ford could only hope that recent history would repeat itself. Last year Chevrolets had beaten Fords in practice and qualifying races, but had failed mechanically in the 500. But Richard Petty, as he pulled on his board-stiff fireproof coveralls before he got into his blue Plymouth, had no worries on that score. "I don't think I've ever gone into a race feeling more confident about the outcome," he said.
Which is maybe carrying prescience a little too far. Not only did Petty's Plymouth carry him to victory, he led the pack for the last 375 miles and wound up a full lap ahead of the next car (Jimmy Pardue's Plymouth) and two full laps ahead of the third car (this time Paul Goldsmith's Plymouth). Petty had broken in a new engine on the parade laps. Back there in the distance came the Fords, the Mercurys and, little as the Chrysler people wanted to talk about it, the Dodges that had looked so promising earlier in the week. But Chrysler had enough to cheer about without being greedy. With the exception of one Dodge, which went out of the race after its right front tire blew, all the Plymouth and Dodge factory cars finished the race.
Ford, of course, was plenty blue, but there had been moments when it looked like all was not lost. A. J. Foyt, the Indianapolis "500" winner in 1961 and one of the world's best race drivers in any kind of car, had held his factory Ford up with the front-running Plymouths for 60 of the middle laps. The Plymouth people later sniffed that he had finally got the hang of riding in their vacuums and had no business being that near the front. In any event, all was clearly lost to Ford when Foyt's engine quit running, just like that, on the 127th of the race's 200 laps. Ford's other big gun, Fireball Roberts, had lost his power way back at the beginning in the 13th lap.
Petty earned about $35,000 and became the second man in his family to win the Daytona 500. His father, Lee, won at the Speedway in 1959, the year it opened (Lee's prize had been a mere $19,050).
Richard's next assignment for Plymouth will be the Atlanta 500 in April. That could be interesting, he said.