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I'd like to be able to thunder through life at 200 mph, on the edge of, but always under, control. The next best thing might be to go 200 mph in a stock car, because a speeding stock car is about as close as you can come to rolling thunder. So I asked Benny Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR points champion, if I could thunder around Daytona International Speedway with him in his 565-horsepower, 3,700-pound, red, white and blue Chevy Laguna, and would he please go 200, top the big two-oh-oh, and he said, more or less, "You a dumb sumbitch, ain't you?" But he agreed, although 190 would be the most he could deliver at Daytona. We arranged the ride for a day when Parsons' crew had rented the tri-oval to do aerodynamic testing on his 1978 race car, which will make its Super Speedway debut next week in the Daytona 500.
It was a beautiful clear December morning, about 65� and cloudless. I arrived at the Speedway and stopped my rental car for a moment in the parking lot, at the entrance to the tunnel that goes under the track to the infield. Spilling over the massive dirt embankment in front of me was the solo roar of a big V-8 engine as Parsons, alone on the track, swooped through Turn 4, almost directly overhead. I looked up through the top of the rental car's windshield, into the tinted part, and about 50 feet above me I saw the tall steel-wire catch fence that rims the track's three-foot-high cement wall. The catch fence is there to keep the cars from hurtling over the wall, flying through the air and crash-landing in one of the parking lots, or maybe in a marsh, depending on the point at which the car departed the premises and how far it flew. The catch fence wasn't part of the track when it was built. It came two years later, after Lee Petty, Richard's father, launched his Plymouth into the swamp during the 1961 race.
When I was in the Navy and on a destroyer at sea, fighter jets would sometimes playfully buzz the ship's deck. The jets would come out of nowhere, shriek, and go back to nowhere in a matter of two seconds. The stock cars' thunder in the tunnel is very similar. The cars seem faster when you listen to them than when you watch them. If you want to get a real sense of the speed race cars travel, curl up inside the tunnel during a practice session.
You get an other-world feeling after you drive through the dark tunnel beneath the track and pop up into the infield. Because the last few yards of the tunnel are uphill and steep, you see nothing but sky out your windshield as you reenter daylight. You sort of feel like you're being shot out of a cannon in slow motion. (A few NASCAR drivers are fond of flooring their rental cars midway through the tunnel so they fly out like cannonballs in not-so-slow motion.) When your car levels, you give an instinctive where-am-I blink to get your bearings.
The tri-oval is 2.5 miles around, which gives the infield an area of 114 acres. The ground is so level and spacious it seems like a prairie, at least when there are not tens of thousands of spectators in there with you. During Speed Weeks, when there are fans, cars, vans, motorcycles and charcoal grills everywhere, the abrupt, semiblind exit from the tunnel leaves you with a far different impression; you sometimes feel as if you're being fed to the crowd.
On this quiet morning, however, Parsons' Chevy seemed to be the only other inhabitant of this closed world, and the sound of it echoed eerily all around me as it flattened itself against Turn 2's steep banking. Although it was going 180 mph, the car just seemed to be making steady progress onto the back straight and around the track. Watching a stock car from a distance is like watching it on TV; it doesn't seem to be going very fast and a lot of excitement is lost somewhere along the way between the car and your eye. You have to get close, right there in the grandstand in Turn 4 or along the front straight, to even begin to understand what a two-ton hunk of metal looks like noisily swallowing 264 feet of asphalt every second.
Parsons stopped at his garage. Soon his car was being dressed and undressed with assorted sheet-metal pieces from 1978 GM cars: a Chevy Malibu, a Buick Regal, an Oldsmobile Cutlass. The Citicorp team was trying to determine which front end offered the least wind resistance; that would be the model of car Parsons' Chevy would be known as for the 1978 season.
Detroit's introduction of new models each fall sends NASCAR chief mechanics rushing off to dealers' showrooms to stroke and squint at the changed contours. They aren't excited by ersatz wood dashboards or digital clocks; they couldn't care less what's under the hoods; all they're interested in is the sleekness of the bodies. NASCAR rules are loose; a late-model stock car shares only a handful of parts with its showroom counterpart. Peel the skin away and they are very much alike. The engines among the top few teams are so similar—even among different makes—it's almost a toss-up. Some days Parsons' or Cale Yarborough's Chevy had a couple of extra hp, and that's about all. Most of the chassis are built to the same dimensions by the same man—ex-driver Banjo Matthews. And as for driver talent, Parsons can be as fast as Yarborough or Petty on any given day.
That leaves only two big variables: suspension setup and aerodynamics. Suspension setup, which includes tire selection, is the key to success in Grand National stock-car racing. Usually one, sometimes two cars per race handle so well they work in any "groove" on the track. Last year no car on the NASCAR circuit consistently handled better than Parsons' Chevy.
Aerodynamics affect top speed more than cornering ability. Race-car aerodynamics is a science; some teams, the Pettys, for example, do their aerodynamic tests in a wind tunnel. Most teams go a more empirical route. Given the flexibility of NASCAR rules, a crew chief has to discover the streamlining that works and that which doesn't, and how much deviation from showroom dimensions for the sake of streamlining he can get away with. The technical inspectors fit templates over the cars to make sure they aren't too low or too narrow or too slanted.