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Even though he had won the Daytona 500 six times in his 22-year career and no one else had won it more than twice, it was something of a surprise to see Richard Petty in Victory Circle Sunday afternoon following the 23rd running of NASCAR's premier race. Most unpleasantly surprised of the 100,000 people on hand was Bobby Allison, who had figured, along with virtually everyone else, that all he had to do to get there was to stay away from trouble and run good. Allison's Pontiac had been fastest in practice, fastest in time trials (194.624 mph), first in a qualifying race, fastest for 174 laps of the main event's 200 laps. Indeed, fastest so easily that in the middle of the race fellow driver Darrell Waltrip had said, "Bobby's just playing with the guys."
Well, 43-year-old Richard Petty beat Allison to the finish line by four seconds, and Bobby had run real good. But King Richard had run a little smarter. As Allison sat dejected on his workbench back in the garage, it was almost with mordant satisfaction that he said, "Looks like Petty was just playing with the guys. Everybody was accusing me of sandbagging all week; well, they better look for someone else now—the No. 1 sandbagger of all time."
"It wasn't particularly sandbagging." said Petty. "We was just sort of waiting for an opportunity and when it came we took advantage of it." And that was as good a definition of sandbagging as any.
After the drivers had spent almost a decade and a half learning all the speed secrets of "full-size" cars, NASCAR up and mandated that "down-sized" American cars be used in its major racing division this year, simply because Detroit is making more of them. These cars have a wheelbase of 110 inches, five inches shorter than their predecessors. But five inches may as well be a mile when building a racing car, and there had been worry that the shorter cars would be less stable. Daytona being the first race under the new specs—and its high-banked. 2.5-mile, tri-oval configuration being the most demanding track on the circuit—trouble could come quickly.
It did. The new cars immediately made their mark in history as the most squirrelly ever to be dropped on a superspeedway.
"Loose" is a stock car term that describes a car whose rear end slides a lot, and the new cars were so loose that if they were people they would've been double-jointed. Horror stories of 190-mph slides spread through the garages. Waltrip said racing a downsized car was like motoring with flat tires at 70 mph on a crowded freeway. His crew told him they would point a gun at his head to get him in the driver's seat if they had to. "And if you come back before practice is over, we're gonna shoot," they said as he pulled away.
Something was causing the rear ends of the cars to get light; one mechanic swore he could see daylight under Cale Yarborough's rear tires as he came off Turn 4. "You know, a damn airplane only has to be going 50 mph to take off, and these cars are going 190," said David Ifft, Yarborough's crew chief.
Evidence as to the cause of the problem seemed to point to the new cars' square rooflines. Instead of allowing air to flow down over the trunks, as was the case with the older cars—all of which had sloping rear windows—the wind shot straight back off the roof, creating a vacuum over the trunk that sucked the car upward. Also, there is more side-window area in the new generation of cars, and at 190 mph air would rush into the driver's compartment, only to be damned up against the rear window and actually push up on the roof of the car. Aerodynamically, they were "accidents waiting to happen," A.J. Foyt grumbled.
It wasn't a long wait. In Thursday's first 125-mile qualifying race a strong wind was blowing, and two cars flipped in the weirdest—and scariest—pair of crashes many drivers had ever seen. The cars, driven by John Anderson and Connie Saylor (both of whom walked away from their wrecks), first spun out, then, while still sliding, soared into the air upside down, as if they had been yanked up by a giant sky hook.
Waltrip, who won the second qualifier in his Buick Regal, watched one of the flips on closed-circuit TV. "You see that car coming off the ground?" he shouted. "They ain't supposed to do that! Those suckers weigh 3,700 pounds!"