SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
March 02, 1970
Pete Hamilton, a college dropout from Massachusetts, rolled into Dixie and whipped a galaxy of heroes in the Daytona 500
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March 02, 1970

Yankee Pete And His Reb Getaway Car

Pete Hamilton, a college dropout from Massachusetts, rolled into Dixie and whipped a galaxy of heroes in the Daytona 500

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One of the places where the silent majority goes to keep its mouth shut is the stock car races. After all, when the field goes bellowing by in full cry even a leather-lunged good old boy from Farkle Hollow couldn't be heard if he tried. According to legend, vibrations from the big stockers have been known to pop fillings, unzip miniskirts and transmute whole jars of white lightning into nothing more potent than branch water. Last Sunday at Daytona there was plenty to keep silent about.

The people saw, heard, felt and smelled a relatively slow but highly exciting race, one in which seven Plymouth and Dodge finishers in the top 10 whipsawed three Fords, in which a virtual novice to Grand National racing humiliated the old masters and in which the winner was, dag nab it, a real live Yankee.

Even without a whizbang of a race like this one the Daytona 500 would be worth the price of admission ($25 for a grandstand seat). It is a kind of museum of traditional, regional American values in a society rapidly turning to plastic; big cars and beer, crew cuts and wolf whistles under the dashboard, fierce red-brick faces with chipmunk cheeks and drawls thicker than 90-weight lube oil. To the folks, acid is for batteries and dope is what you paint model cars with. A head can be hemi or semihemi, while a groove is the line a man takes through a curve, and pigs are for eating, not beating.

Among the 103,800 fans who exercised their stock option at Daytona this year, you had the essence of the older America. There were backcountry wits in jackets that read EDSEL FACTORY RACING TEAM, prune-faced grannies in folding chairs hawking AMERICA: BACK IT, DON'T BUCK IT stickers and a veritable armored battalion of pickup trucks replete with gun racks. Empty ones.

There were the folk heroes of NASCAR racing: Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough, David Pearson and Buddy Baker, and, of course, Richard Petty, the renowned road runner, with sideburns down to here and a new, rear-winged Plymouth SuperBird.

Normally Richard finds himself locked in combat with other drivers. Now he was doing battle with, of all things, a computer. The Chrysler people had brought in their Brain Box, a computer mounted in a blue-and-white van a-bristle with antennas. During Richard's preliminary runs the Brain Box detected faults during the SuperBird's cornering. Petty politely disagreed: his eyes, his hands and the seat of his pants told him the car was set up all right. Ultimately Richard had his way. But how do you argue with a computer? "Ah jest asked it how many races it's won," he grinned.

It was the first time out at Daytona for the winged Dodges and Plymouths, though last September an avian Dodge Daytona, driven by Richard Brickhouse, had won the Talladega 500 and run up lap speeds that nudged 200. To the design-conscious crowd, Daytona shaped up as a battle between the factories—wingless Fords and Mercurys vs. the Chrysler products, with their high rear fins and drooping, lancelike noses. Most of the drivers were in the most joyous of spirits, and after turning practice laps in excess of 190 mph on the speedway's steep trioval, they all dashed off down Mason Avenue to race again on minispeedways.

Others amused themselves at nightspots like the Paleface Harbor, where the choice of drinks ranges from plain booze to a concoction called the Paleface Special. Owner Freddy Kessler, who used to wrench for Fireball Roberts, won't even say what's in it, but he beats a tom-tom while whipping it up, squirts in some methanol from a battered oilcan, lights it and then eradicates the yard-high flames with a blast from a CO2 fire extinguisher. If he can hit the drinker with the CO2, all the better.

The early Daytona customers got their first taste of reality on Thursday during two 125-mile races held to determine Sunday's 500 starting grid.

In a white '69 Merc, Cale Yarborough won the first race at a white-hot 183.295 mph. The second went to Charlie Glotzbach's Dodge, and it was in this race that Talmadge (Tab) Prince of Dublin, Ga. spun out on Turn One and was creamed by another machine. Not until 45 minutes after the race was it announced that Prince, a rookie in his first Daytona race, was dead.

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