On the one-mile NASCAR racetrack at Rockingham, N.C. in the middle of a surly afternoon this spring, 43 quick and nimble stock cars were growling along in pursuit of each other. Through the afternoon the weather varied from ominous to foul. It rained and hailed. A strong wind sprang up from the west and died away and came back still stronger from the north, filling everyone's ears with red grit.
As the cars swirled around, in the infield of the track a Mr. Eddie Smith from the Iron Mountain corner of east Tennessee was seated on top of his 1968 hardtop Ford Fairlane Torino, drinking beer, ignoring the elements and enjoying every decibel of noise. Before the cars had gone half of the 500 miles they hoped to travel that day, in Eddie Smith's mind the outcome was no longer in doubt. Wagging an empty beer can toward a howling clot of cars, Eddie Smith spoke up loudly enough to be heard almost four feet away. "There's your winner right there," he bellowed. "That little old orange Ford Torino, No. 71."
As it turned out, Eddie Smith had picked the right stable but quite the wrong horse. The Rockingham race was won by the incumbent NASCAR champion, David Pearson, at the wheel of a blue and gold Ford, No. 17. The orange "Ford Torino" No. 71 that had caught Mr. Smith's fancy was not a Ford at all but a Dodge. It placed seventh.
All automobile companies cherish owners who have product loyalty, particularly a devotee like Eddie Smith, whose love is so blind that he can root for a rival make under the delusion that it is the living image of the car he owns. Although modern cars can be handsomely displayed on television and on the printed page, the car company that wants to whet the appetite of the truly devout buyer also spins its wheels on racetracks. That is why, in almost every kind of competition today, there are Ford cars—or at least Ford engines—showing their stuff. Most of the wedge-shaped, coffin-sized Formula I cars that are ripsnorting around the road courses of the world these days are powered by Ford, and so are many of the machines that gather for the annual 500-mile bash in Indianapolis, conspicuously Mario Andretti's winner last month. Although the strips are still dominated by rival marques, an increasing number of Ford engines are being used in the weird, fuming, hydra-headed, supercarbonated, twinkle-cammed, discombobulated drag machines that are vying for honors throughout the land.
Since the dragsters and the Formula I machines and the Indy cars bear little resemblance to ordinary vehicles, naturally the advantage gained from participation in such types of racing cannot be precisely measured. But in stock-car racing the effect is more tangible. If, for example, some hero drives a Ford Fairlane Torino Cobra 427 C.I.D. to victory in the International 50-miler on the ?-mile dirt oval at Bumbershoot, N.C., well, sir, the next week all sorts of folks are tracking red clay into the local dealer's showroom to look at the little old Ford car like the one that blew everybody off the course. To be sure, when a stock car is stripped down and restructured to make it safe and competitive, its interior is about as inviting as a Trappist monastery cell, and its exterior is usually decorated as gaudily as a Mexicali hustler. Be that as it may, in overall appearance and mechanical essence it is the same vehicle that can be bought from the local dealer.
Jacque Passino, the overseer of Ford's major racing efforts, puts the proposition most aptly. "When you sponsor a television show, like The Robe," Passino observes, "you have an audience of 18 million, maybe. They get out their beads and watch The Robe, but do they watch your commercials? When the commercial comes on, they go get a beer.... But you get a guy who paid six or seven bucks to sit on a damn hard concrete seat at the Rockingham track, where there was wind, rain, hail and just about everything except a flood—he's got to love high-performance cars or he wouldn't have been there. He doesn't rush out and buy a Ford because David Pearson won in a Ford, but it's a drop of water on his forehead. When he finally gets ready to buy a car, he says to his wife, 'Mabel, the payment book has run out. We've got the car purchased, so let's go down and look at a new Ford.' "
The statistics bear out what Passino says. Last year 9.4 million cars were sold in the U.S. The Ford company got 23.7% of the action; General Motors, 46.7. But in the South—the throbbing heartland of stock-car racing—Ford got 25% and General Motors 44.9. The 1.3% gain by Ford seems small, but it amounts to about $55 million worth of business. In California, the second most race-conscious area, last year foreign cars took a 22.8% slice of the pie, more than twice the foreign percentage elsewhere. Despite the foreign intrusion, in California the racy Ford company held its own, getting 23.3% of the total sales, while General Motors got 36.6%.
The Ford Motor Company first went into stock-car racing on a serious basis in the mid-1950s, primarily because its Southern dealers were howling that rival makes were winning on the tracks and, as a consequence, were also winning the sales race. Ford had scarcely entered the fray with well-organized and subsidized troops when the Automobile Manufacturers Association decided that the war on the tracks was unbecoming, since its corporate members were supposedly producing vehicles for use at legal speeds on public byways.
In June of 1957 an antiracing resolution was passed by the manufacturers. Two warriors of the Ford camp, John Holman and Ralph Moody, used their modest reserves and a bank loan to buy a good deal of the specialized machinery and spare parts that were no longer needed by Ford. Five years later, when Ford decided to abrogate the antiracing agreement and began looking for a subcontractor to carry its racing banner once more, there at trackside were Holman and Moody, by then a million-dollar partnership engaged in the business of racing cars, preparing cars and selling the sophisticated addenda required in high-performance machines.
Holman and Moody succeeded in the racing game primarily because they are what technicians would call a good stoichiometric mix—a balanced combination of diverse talents. Fifty-year-old John Holman (who is the "junior partner" because he is two months younger than Moody) has the acquisitive zeal of a common crow and an uncommon knack for spotting the long-range value of seemingly worthless equipment and ideas. If someone put the polar ice cap up for sale tomorrow, Holman probably would buy it and eventually turn a profit.