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Remember those carefree, smog-filled days when any fool could whip into any gas station and bellow "Fill 'er up"? And the pump jockey would actually smile and say "Yessir"? Remember when there were thousands of drivers who didn't know what the "E" and the "F" on their gas gauges stood for? Remember the time when motor racing—that grotesque guzzler of gasoline—was considered a good, clean, red-blooded American sport? Well, Bill France Sr., the Iron Duke of Daytona, remembers, and as far as the racing part is concerned he is determined to save what's left of the good old days.
To that end, the man who virtually invented stock-car racing nearly a generation ago took steps this year—some sound, some a little silly—to assure that public reaction to the energy crisis would not include a sudden revulsion toward motor sports. The 24 Hours of Daytona, usually conducted in early February, was fiat canceled. "We burn more gas in that one than in all our other races put together," said one of France's aides. Further, the modified sedan race that inaugurates Daytona's Speed Week was reduced a full third in distance—from 300 to 200 miles. And finally, practice time for the Daytona 500, the season's first and richest superspeedway stock-car race, was cut back by 37�%, and the race itself underwent a 10% amputation.
The Daytona 450? It sounds kind of silly, almost cheap, like those bush-league races conducted on potholed fairground ovals in the summer-sweaty boondocks of America. It suddenly became clear that the number "500" over the years has acquired a certain mystical aura in the American automotive lexicon. But wait, race fans! France & Co. had a solution to that problem as well. The race would still be a 500, even though it ran for only 450 miles. The amputated 50 would come from the front end of the race; that is, the 40-car field would take the green flag on the 2�-mile track at the start of the 21st lap, having supposedly spent the first 20 laps cooling its collective exhaust pipes in the pits. All one had to do was squinch his eyes a little bit and he could pretend it was for real.
One thing no amount of squinching could obscure, however, was the fact that the traditional bumper-against-bumper crowds that glut Daytona International Speedway's infield during Speed Week were mighty sparse. Attendance for the two 125-mile qualifying races that determine the grid for the big one—reduced this year to 112�-milers in deference to the E.C.—came to only 36,500 souls, almost a third fewer than last year's 50,350.
By the weekend before the 500 all grandstand seats are usually sold out. This year more than $100,000 worth of tickets were still available a week before the race. Since the Daytona crowd is largely a camper crowd, and since the big campers get only three or four miles to the gallon, it was obvious that fear of dry tanks rather than any sudden flush of guilt over the "morality" of motor racing was keeping the folks at home.
Ironically, the local fuel situation in Daytona was excellent. Lines were short or nonexistent and full tanks easy to come by. "How can I go home after this?" asked a fan from New Jersey, basking in the 75� sun at a Citgo station where his station wagon was being filled by a jovial attendant. "I'm going to camp out here for the rest of the winter and just feast my eyes on those lovely, languid, well-filled pumps."
Perhaps that was a common sentiment, because the crowds finally picked up considerably toward the climactic weekend. Ultimately, where the energy crisis hurt the most was at the sponsorship level. The race itself still had full backing from Winston, but only a handful of the cars in it had anything like major support from big sponsors. "It'll get worse before it gets better," said a spokesman for one of them. "Most of these corporate tigers are as timid as titmice when something like this energy business comes up. They'll wait and see if the public considers racing to be profligate before they commit themselves."
There was nothing wasteful about the preliminaries to the big 450, unless one considers yawning a form of profligacy. Bobby Isaac won the first of the truncated 125-milers, staving off a surprisingly tough challenge from 40-year-old NASCAR rookie George Follmer, who drafted like a superspeedway veteran. It was a heartening, if minor, win for Isaac, who had retired after last year's Talladega 500, claiming a voice in his ear had told him to quit while the quitting was good. But voices have a way of dimming during times of crisis, even as the lowly light bulb in a brownout. Cale Yarborough took the second qualifier after A. J. Foyt, who had been sticking to him like a Texas hill-country burr, blew an engine two laps from the finish.
Follmer, who came to Daytona out of road racing, showed the fans his more familiar skills for a brief spurt during the final of the International Race of Champions, that mano a mano of automotive superstars driving identically prepared Porsche Carreras. But Mark Donohue, who had announced his retirement, went on to an easy quarter-of-a-lap victory, plus a final payday of $54,500. The only note of excitement at the finish was a nippily tuckish duel between Peter Revson and Bobby Unser for second place and $13,000. On the last lap Revson slingshotted past Unser to edge him by three feet. "I've been studying these stock-car boys," Peter said later, "and it really paid off."
If the Race of Champions was dullsville, the big 450 was anything but. It started off with a bang—indeed, with bang upon bang—under cool, sunny skies and in the teeth of a crisp wind that seemed to nudge cars into the wall on Turn 2. All this, plus the usual allotment of spinouts, blown engines and fender-bending bust-ups, brought out a near-record 10 yellow caution flags, one short of the mark set in 1971.