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The chesty race queen was hugging him and squeezing his arm, the promotion man from the oil company was turning him this way and that way for the photographers, who were pushing in close and snapping one picture after another, and all of a sudden, right in the middle of his victory speech, Neil Bonnett thought he was going to faint. His face turned white, his knees wobbled.
Bonnett had just won the Independence Day Firecracker 400 on Daytona International Speedway's high-banked 2�-mile track. He had set a Firecracker record, pushing his Mercury Cougar around the steaming asphalt at an average speed of 172.890 mph, the second-fastest race in NASCAR Grand National history. His driving had been superb. He had taken a wild backward slide at nearly 200 mph past one accident, and he had been hit by a flying bumper from another wreck. Finally, he had to pull some daredevil driving shenanigans in order to shake runner-up Benny Parsons on the final lap.
But most impressively, Bonnett, a 32-year-old Alabaman who was an unemployed pipe fitter eight years ago, had withstood the heat after driving nearly 2� hours in a sheet-metal oven. Daytona's midday temperatures had reached 94� and, what with the baking asphalt track and the heat given off by the straining engine, the temperature inside his car had reached nearly 150�.
Now, as Bonnett stood in victory lane and got jostled about, he suddenly began to fade. Speedway officials led him by the arm to the track infirmary, a trip that took him through the pit garage. It was like a walk through an emergency room. Parsons, a stocky ex-cabby from Detroit, lay on a workbench with his shirt off and an oxygen mask pushed up to his face.
Darrell Waltrip, the top driver on the Grand National circuit this year, who had finished fourth, lay on the bench next to Parsons and looked in worse shape. His shoes had been pulled off, his pants loosened and his shirt removed. He had a wet towel around his head and groaned as a track medic applied oxygen. Chuck Bown sat across the garage alley. He didn't feel like moving. His foot was wrapped in a wet towel. He held his sneaker in his hand. The rubber sole was melted on the edges and cracked across the instep. The side of his foot was blistered. "I knew my foot was burning, but there was nothing I could do," he said. "I had to keep the throttle open. I know I'll be light-headed tomorrow, and my ears will ring for a couple days."
Inside Al Monaco Infirmary, Rick Newsom sat on a cot, his left arm and thigh bandaged with gauze. "Every time I went into the corners, hot air came in through the fire wall," he said. "Some of it was hot air forced in, some came off the exhaust system. It blistered my hands, arms and legs. It was the hottest car I've ever been in, and I wanted out."
Bonnett knew exactly what Newsom was talking about. "My car was cooking," he said after taking oxygen. "I misused and abused the engine. The water temperature was up over 220�. The bottom of my shoe actually melted and stuck to the floor. When you run with a wide-open throttle, it's just like turning your car heater on extra hot. I tried to stick my hand out the window to divert some cool air into the car, but when I did, it felt like someone stuck a blowtorch on my hand."
The heat was as blazing as the pace of the race. Not only was it the fastest in Firecracker history, but it also was one of the most competitive, the lead changing hands 28 times among eight drivers. Waltrip and Buddy Baker, the main men on the Grand National circuit this year, jockeyed back and forth for the lead during the first 57 laps, Baker holding it nine times for 16 laps, Waltrip 11 times for 54 laps.
Baker had started on the pole after qualifying his silver and black Oldsmobile at 193.196 mph. With an engine built by a master, Waddell Wilson, the car is one of the fastest on the circuit, having won five pole positions in 17 races. But Daytona is not kind to Baker. He has finished second five times but never won there. In fact, the local press calls him Bad Luck Buddy.
In February's Daytona 500, Baker had the pole, but his engine quit in the 46th lap. The same thing happened in the 28th lap of the 1978 Firecracker. Last week Baker reflected on his misfortunes. "One time—1970, I think it was—I was leading by such a margin that I was already running through a list of sponsorship people in my head, because I wanted to make sure I didn't leave anybody out when I mentioned them in victory lane. But while I was naming them to myself, the right front tire went flat on the back-stretch. I don't think I'm that unlucky. It just focuses on me because I'm leading at the time. It's like the leading character in a Shakespearean play falling over onstage."