Publish date:

Over the threshold

The stock cars at Daytona roared to incredible speeds and inevitable smashes

In every respect except one, the start of this year's Daytona "500" was like the two that preceded it. Only the drivers and a handful of the 65,000 spectators present last Sunday for stock car racing's biggest event were aware of the lone but crucial difference. Daytona's speeds, up six to 10 mph in the past two years, had passed the level at which any driver could reasonably expect to steer, brake or bulldoze his way out of a serious jam.

Two days before, in the 100-mile qualifying races, 20 drivers had not been able to cope with the new speeds. Cars barreling along at 150 mph collided, spun, flipped and rolled. They hurtled into the three-foot-high steel guardrail at the top of the two precipitous turns and, more alarmingly, soared over it. The first driver to go over was young Dick Petty on the west turn in the first race. Trussed tightly to his seat with safety belt and shoulder harness and protected by a cage of strong steel tubing, he escaped unscathed. But on the last lap of the second race Dick's father, Lee, at 47 the eldest of the NASCAR drivers, spun into and over the east-turn guardrail. Behind him, flipping over on his back (see left), came Driver Johnny Beauchamp. By coincidence, Petty and Beauchamp had finished one-two by the narrowest of margins in Daytona's first "500."

At the day's end 20 cars had been more or less heavily damaged and seven drivers had been injured. Lee Petty, luckily the only one dangerously hurt, lay in shock, his leg and collarbone broken, his chest partly crushed.

Glenn (Fireball) Roberts and Joseph (Little Joe) Weatherly, two drivers as different as soda pop and a dry Martini, won their races and positions in the first row for Sunday's "500." Weatherly's phenomenal average speed of 152.671 mph was by far the fastest for any Daytona 100 miles, but neither he nor Roberts was in a celebrating mood afterwards.

It was in these races that they, and most of the rest, sensed Daytona's new dimension. Badly shaken, Roberts, a 29-year-old native Daytonan and college man who differs from most of his peers in not being a fatalist, at first blamed the collisions and near misses on the races' 15 rookie drivers, but later agreed that all of the drivers were on a new frontier. "We've raced mostly on short tracks with a top speed of 90 mph," he said. "The conditioning of years on those tracks has got to be undone or a number of us are not going to be racing any more. When the Indianapolis drivers bad-mouthed this track I thought they were crazy. They said it was too fast. Now I know how they felt. They were just plain scared. When you're thinking every lap, 'If I do something wrong, I'm dead,' you can't enjoy racing very much."

It would be pleasant to report that Roberts enjoyed Sunday's race, but such is not the case. He didn't get another scare—all the drivers had learned Friday's lesson so well that the race was virtually trouble-free—but after leading most of the way he was forced out by a freakish mechanical failure with 13 laps to go. His starter dropped to the track, then bounced up and pierced the oil pan.

The eventual winner was Roberts' teammate and fellow townsman, Marvin ("I'm very lucky") Panch, 34, who drove the 1960 Pontiac with which Roberts had led the first quarter of last year's "500." Second by a mere 15 seconds was Weatherly. Panch averaged an amazing 149.601 mph, some 11 mph faster than last year's record Indianapolis "500" speed and the fastest ever for a continuously run 500-mile race.