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No matter how much chrome and polish they give it, stock car racing remains an unpasteurized, purely savage American sport. Probably nothing has approached it in brute excitement since the days of bare-knuckle boxing, and there is currently no spectacle so wonderfully awful as those big cars in full cry. In the South, racing the stock cars is a rite of early spring staged at mud-spattered backwood tracks—but it is staged most grandly at Florida's Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 is the fastest and richest, the fiercest and biggest race of them all.
Last Sunday afternoon 84,200 people jammed Daytona's track in an atmosphere that somehow combined the moods of a church picnic and a four-alarm fire. There were earnest preliminaries designed to improve the image: bands played brassily, scores of pudgy-legged high school drum majorettes strutted, celebrities were introduced, there was a solemn invocation and a cannon boomed in the infield. But when the 43 racing cars started around the grandstand turn in a glinting, growling parade, the scene instantly became one of raw power.
In the past few months Grand National stock car racing has been shot through with technical disputes, mostly over engines and the dominant role played by Detroit's factory teams. Rules were changed, and there were dire warnings that the flap over specifications was spoiling the sport. Chrysler Corporation pulled out with its hot Plymouths and Dodges, and half a dozen of the country's best drivers—including Richard Petty, the defending 500 and national stock car champion—found themselves with no ride at all. But such squabbles have a way of wearying the public, whose main interest still lies in watching the cars go. If it was true on Sunday that some of the best cars and drivers were out of it, it also was true that some of the best cars and drivers were in it. And the 1965 race proved something important that the squabblers should learn: there will always be hubcap lawyers to argue over engines, but there will also always be stock car racing. They had best get back at it.
The Daytona crowds came to see racing, and Sunday's show gave them everything—in the space of a few frantic southern hours. In the motorized scramble for the $28,600 first-place purse—and an overall package of $141,165—43 cars rumbled away in sunshine and 24 cars finished in driving rain. The race was called at 332� miles, and when the survivors braked to a stop in front of the grandstand there was not an unbent bumper in sight. The infield staging area looked like the waiting room for a body-repair shop. When the race was declared over, Ford had first and third place—and virtually everything else. Sister Mercurys finished second and fourth.
Daytona's two-and-a-half-mile track is a four-lane superhighway tilted up at a 31� pitch around the corners. There is a fifth lane around the inside for slowpokes. Nobody uses it. The track is a bobsled run done in blacktop.
In the first laps of the race six cars shouldered down the lanes meant for four, all rolling at better than 160 mph, weaving, slipstreaming, striking back-stretch sparks from steel against steel.
By the end of 50 laps Ford Driver Marvin Panch was leading. Ford Man Bobby Johns, Ford Man Freddy Lorenzen and Ford Man Ned Jarrett were in close line behind. At the 80-lap mark the rain started, and the average speed dropped to 149. ( Richard Petty, at that same point a year ago, had been averaging 172 in a Plymouth.)
Lorenzen took the lead on the 119th lap—a lead he held fiercely and skillfully on a wet track until the race was called. Standing in the rain beside his car, he pointed to the dashboard. There, painted in script, it said, "Think. W.H.M.?" "It means 'Think. What the heck's the matter?' " said Lorenzen. "I have a tendency to charge too much in races. This helps slow me down."
In the aftermath of the race, with wisps of hysteria and exhaust smoke still hanging low over the track. Ford Motor Company could find satisfaction but not the joy of conquest. Ford still faced the critics' question of whether or not it could beat Chrysler in an engine-to-engine showdown.
The question will not be answered soon. During the week, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing issued new rules for 1966. Chrysler's hemi-head engine—the redoubtable King Kong—is, in effect, still barred by a rule which says a NASCAR engine must be a generally available production item. Ford, which had grumbled a little before—its so-called high-riser racing engine was barred along with the King Kong—but had elected to stay in NASCAR racing in a big way, was obviously prepared to continue at maximum revs. But now Ford is expected to get competition from the cars of mighty General Motors, which is said to have an engine meeting new specifications.