They would feed you to Ralph Nader in bite-size chunks if you tried on the highway what the men on the opposite page are doing: racing bumper to bumper at Daytona at 175 mph. That being so, Daytona is a swell place for motorized Mittys. Safe in the grandstands or spacious infield of Bill France's International Speedway, one can swoop vicariously around the track's steep banks—so abrupt a man cannot walk up them—or crowd in behind another tiger to slipstream him ("draft" him, as they say) to give the ol' engine a breather, and at the end of 500 gutsy miles take the checker and a potful of money. Approximately 90,000 Mittys will have a fantasy foot on the throttle this Sunday during the ninth Daytona 500 as 44 pros race the latest Grand National stock cars for a purse of $200,000. Spectators also will see fast pit action and, more than likely, a sensational spin or two, of the sort shown on the following pages. And more than a few in the crowd will have a wager riding with Richard Petty (page 36), the laconic leadfoot of Level Cross.
CHAMP WITH A FEEL FOR THE RATTLESNAKE
The big blue transport had left Level Cross in the cold dark of early morning, but now the sun was up in the Carolinas, uncovering the peach trees and the smoke-streaming gray shacks that sat among them. Negro children, huddled by mailboxes, waited for their school buses. Men walking to work paused and waved at the cabin of the truck. They knew who was inside. How many times had they seen that truck, that car hitched to it? Why, that bright blue color is as much a part of the South as red-eye gravy and cornbread.
Richard Petty, you see, is a big man in the South. No one since Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and saddle-shoed Joe Weatherly has cast a larger shadow over the world of stock car racing than Petty. True, Curtis Turner is still active, but he is a legend from a time that is no more, the last link with the past, when drivers—who broke in on the "white lightning" trails of the Carolinas—piled each other up on Sunday afternoons in front of rotting stands filled with Coke bottles and farmers still in their church clothes.
Richard and his "Petty-blue" Plymouth reign in a different atmosphere, a deadly, abundant little world created by Detroit and populated by faceless people who talk only of engines and money. Richard ignores the legends and lore of the sport. "Why," he asks, "don't people just forget about all that?" The fact that some people believe the sport belongs to the wild and indecorous of the world embarrasses and annoys him even more. The orgiastic atmosphere twitching with girls in stretch pants and crashing with the thump and twang of rockabilly is found only in the assembly-line movies, all of which are artistically equal to, say, Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory.
"I just go to the races," says Petty. "If there is any glamour in the sport I haven't found it."
Perhaps not, but Petty is always on top of the action in stock car racing's most glamorous event, the Daytona 500. Held on the International Speedway, a two-and-a-half-mile, steeply banked rattlesnake that was opened in 1959, when the sport was just beginning to explode, the race—which annually draws well over 80,000 people—is the sport's richest, fastest and most prestigious production. A victory at Daytona can set a driver up for the entire year.
This Sunday, Richard—his father, Lee, won the first race in 1959—will be after his third straight victory in the 500. He won in 1964, did not race at all in 1965 (the Chrysler Corporation was warring with NASCAR) and won again in 1966 with an average speed of 160.627 mph. Petty drives the track better than anyone else, mainly because he chooses such a high groove, usually running in the third lane instead of the first or second. Still, it takes a certain attitude to win the 500.
The winner at Daytona must be special on the inside. He must have a certain arrogance, a certain contempt for caution. Quite simply, you have to step out and take the Daytona 500, put your foot down on the floor, keep it there and never look back. Petty can do all of this, but only because it is the way to win at Daytona. Richard, not fascinated by speed or oblivious to fear, is not a natural brute behind the wheel.
His moves around a track are deft and beauteous. He is a charger, but a sensible one who avoids rough driving. Drivers, his pit men often say to him, can be found in any "beer joint on a Saturday night," but they know better. Petty has a "great touch" in the corners, he is a thinker, and, most important, he has the feel.