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The showcase of stock car racing, a major American sport which in past years has been conducted rather haphazardly on a thousand backwater race tracks all over the country, is Daytona Beach, Fla. There, on the wonderfully smooth sand that slopes gently into the Atlantic, the sport annually has its biggest ball. The big show for 1957 is going on right now—with several new attractions added—and it will not end until Feb. 17. It is bigger than ever before.
There was a time when NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Cars, Inc.), the most powerful of a coast-to-coast scattering of stock car organizations, was content to call its Daytona outburst "Speed Week." But now, in the eighth year, the beach events are heralded ambitiously as the International Safety and Performance Trials. There are now two weeks of competition instead of one, and if speed is missing from the title in these days of congressional safety inquiries, it will emphatically not be missing at the beach.
The increasing importance of Daytona's spectacle comes primarily from the participation of Detroit. Although speaking softly when it comes to speed, the automobile industry is still wielding a big stick in the horsepower race. And there is probably no place in the United States where speed and performance can be better tested in view of automobile-wise spectators than Daytona.
This year Detroit has moved down to the beach in force. The critical days for the industry will be next Tuesday and Wednesday, when seven classes of 1957 passenger cars, grouped according to engine size, will compete for top speed and acceleration honors (and, inevitably, the accruing advertising plums).
Also to be seen in the beach trials will be sports cars—even a Grand Prix car or two. The family sedan, too, can mix with the pros to see how fast it can go. The fee is a $15 NASCAR membership.
Sunday will bring something entirely new—a sports car trophy race on the nearby New Smyrna Beach airport course, in which professional stock car drivers will meet with the amateurs in both conventional and hybrid cars. The best men of both circuits will be there, among them Curtis Turner, the gifted professional, in a souped-and sauced-up Thunder-bird, and Carroll Shelby, this year's hottest road racer, in a Ferrari.
Back at Daytona, the fortnight will end with three stock races on the 4.1-mile beach and road oval: jalopies ($20 junkers with $3,000 engines) on Friday, late-model convertibles on Saturday, and late-model sedans on Sunday. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED trophies will go to the late-model race winners.
Nearly everybody will have something to crow about, and nearly everybody can participate—facts that give a large, 47-year-old ex-gasoline station proprietor named William Henry Getty France great satisfaction. That stock car racing today is a complex and controversial sport—widely misunderstood except in its obvious public aspects—is due partly to Detroit's distaste for open hot-rodding, partly to the average sportswriter's lack of mechanical knowledge, but most of all to the character of Big Bill France.
France wears several hats in the complex organizational setup of NASCAR, but he is without question The Boss. A hearty, convivial and determinedly ambitious man who occasionally croons hillbilly ballads in his rare moments of relaxation, he conducts much of his business by telephone. When long distance fails, he calls a conference and pilots his twin-engined airplane to it.
There follows, then, a typical France meeting: a smoke-wreathed hotel room crowded with race promoters, drivers, perhaps a few Detroit men, a waiter serving whiskey and chicken sandwiches. The meeting's business is conducted in fits and starts, when France is away from the phone.