The night before Sunday's Daytona 500-mile stock-car race, Chrysler racing boss Ronnie Householder took a long sip on an after-dinner drink and began to doodle. "If Richard Petty loses tomorrow," he said, "it'll be because of a six-inch piece of wire on his Plymouth. Fred Lorenzen is smart, but it's very, very easy to outthink yourself in this game. Davey Pearson might lose because he thinks 2 and 2 is 5. Hell, you know something? If you do this long enough you can find reasons why nobody should even show up at the starting line tomorrow."
He wasn't far wrong. When the checkered flag fell Sunday it was for Mario Andretti, the Indy 500 refugee from Nazareth, Pa. who led his Ford teammate, Lorenzen, across the finish line. They were the survivors of a demolition derby that knocked out every other major contender for the $43,500 first prize in stock-car racing's biggest event.
Trial runs leading up to the 500 produced an ususual number of favorites—a dozen or more—and confirmed a grease-stained gentleman named Henry (Smokey) Yunick in his role as Daytona's resident devil. Yunick is generally conceded to be the sport's outstanding mechanic. For more than a decade no one has prepared faster racing cars for Daytona, and this knack has caused some of his opponents to imagine that he concocts a witch's broth for his gas tanks and gets more horsepower from his engines than God or the NASCAR rule book ever intended.
Yunick, who wears a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a big cigar, advertises his shop as "The Best Damn Garage in Town." Generally he doesn't give a damn what people think, but last week he was a little sore because people were being extra suspicious. Yunick's Chevrolet Chevelle qualified on the pole, at a record speed of 180.831 mph, and was not even a factory entry.
Where Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation had openly backed a wave of Fords and Mercurys, Plymouth and Dodges, General Motors was sticking to its policy of not participating in racing. Racing men who remembered Smokey's close association with GM when the Detroit giant was on the tracks, have had an extremely difficult time ridding themselves of the suspicion that there is an underground railway between Chevy's technical eggheads and Smokey's Daytona establishment.
And so the powerful and lavishly financed Ford and Chrysler teams spent a good part of the week grumbling about Smokey and professing amazement at the speeds run by his driver, the old hard-boot, Curtis Turner.
"That's a factory car," groused Householder, who could count Defending Champion Petty, Tiny Lund, Pearson, and Paul Goldsmith among his talented drivers. "Why, every time the Chevelle goes tire-testing there are three or four young men out there who look like they just walked out of the General Motors Building in Detroit. Every now and then we recognize one of them."
John Holman, who had prepared the Fords that finished one-two and had supplied his sophisticated racing hardware to other Ford entrants, felt no kindlier. "I went up to Henry," he said, "and put the needle in him pretty good. What did I say? Well, you might say it was in the nature of a private conversation. But Henry and I, we've been kidding each other in this game for 10 years now, and he's usually pretty cool. I've rarely seen him mad. But this time he turned positively purple. His face quivered, and he cussed at me. The next day, after I managed to get near him, I apologized for suggesting that maybe his car wasn't legal in every little way."
Perhaps Holman could be excused for his touch of pique. Besides Ford's top stock cars in the 500, he was in charge of its J-Car testing program, which went on nearly every night at the speedway for two weeks. The J-Car is the successor to the Mark II, the sports car that was so soundly thrashed by Ferrari at Daytona in early February. Last Friday the testing ended abruptly when the car went into a spin, sending it and Driver Bruce McLaren near the track's wall.
The panic caused by Turner's early speed did not recede until the last few days of trials, when other cars began crowding the 180-mph barrier. By that time it was too late to take the pole position from Turner, but five other drivers broke 180, and the fastest of all was Andretti, who turned a remarkable lap at 182.8 on Thursday.