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Original Issue


Pete Hamilton, a college dropout from Massachusetts, rolled into Dixie and whipped a galaxy of heroes in the Daytona 500

One of the places where the silent majority goes to keep its mouth shut is the stock car races. After all, when the field goes bellowing by in full cry even a leather-lunged good old boy from Farkle Hollow couldn't be heard if he tried. According to legend, vibrations from the big stockers have been known to pop fillings, unzip miniskirts and transmute whole jars of white lightning into nothing more potent than branch water. Last Sunday at Daytona there was plenty to keep silent about.

The people saw, heard, felt and smelled a relatively slow but highly exciting race, one in which seven Plymouth and Dodge finishers in the top 10 whipsawed three Fords, in which a virtual novice to Grand National racing humiliated the old masters and in which the winner was, dag nab it, a real live Yankee.

Even without a whizbang of a race like this one the Daytona 500 would be worth the price of admission ($25 for a grandstand seat). It is a kind of museum of traditional, regional American values in a society rapidly turning to plastic; big cars and beer, crew cuts and wolf whistles under the dashboard, fierce red-brick faces with chipmunk cheeks and drawls thicker than 90-weight lube oil. To the folks, acid is for batteries and dope is what you paint model cars with. A head can be hemi or semihemi, while a groove is the line a man takes through a curve, and pigs are for eating, not beating.

Among the 103,800 fans who exercised their stock option at Daytona this year, you had the essence of the older America. There were backcountry wits in jackets that read EDSEL FACTORY RACING TEAM, prune-faced grannies in folding chairs hawking AMERICA: BACK IT, DON'T BUCK IT stickers and a veritable armored battalion of pickup trucks replete with gun racks. Empty ones.

There were the folk heroes of NASCAR racing: Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough, David Pearson and Buddy Baker, and, of course, Richard Petty, the renowned road runner, with sideburns down to here and a new, rear-winged Plymouth SuperBird.

Normally Richard finds himself locked in combat with other drivers. Now he was doing battle with, of all things, a computer. The Chrysler people had brought in their Brain Box, a computer mounted in a blue-and-white van a-bristle with antennas. During Richard's preliminary runs the Brain Box detected faults during the SuperBird's cornering. Petty politely disagreed: his eyes, his hands and the seat of his pants told him the car was set up all right. Ultimately Richard had his way. But how do you argue with a computer? "Ah jest asked it how many races it's won," he grinned.

It was the first time out at Daytona for the winged Dodges and Plymouths, though last September an avian Dodge Daytona, driven by Richard Brickhouse, had won the Talladega 500 and run up lap speeds that nudged 200. To the design-conscious crowd, Daytona shaped up as a battle between the factories—wingless Fords and Mercurys vs. the Chrysler products, with their high rear fins and drooping, lancelike noses. Most of the drivers were in the most joyous of spirits, and after turning practice laps in excess of 190 mph on the speedway's steep trioval, they all dashed off down Mason Avenue to race again on minispeedways.

Others amused themselves at nightspots like the Paleface Harbor, where the choice of drinks ranges from plain booze to a concoction called the Paleface Special. Owner Freddy Kessler, who used to wrench for Fireball Roberts, won't even say what's in it, but he beats a tom-tom while whipping it up, squirts in some methanol from a battered oilcan, lights it and then eradicates the yard-high flames with a blast from a CO2 fire extinguisher. If he can hit the drinker with the CO2, all the better.

The early Daytona customers got their first taste of reality on Thursday during two 125-mile races held to determine Sunday's 500 starting grid.

In a white '69 Merc, Cale Yarborough won the first race at a white-hot 183.295 mph. The second went to Charlie Glotzbach's Dodge, and it was in this race that Talmadge (Tab) Prince of Dublin, Ga. spun out on Turn One and was creamed by another machine. Not until 45 minutes after the race was it announced that Prince, a rookie in his first Daytona race, was dead.

As for Richard Petty and his war with the computer, it remained unresolved over the 125 miles. Richard's electric-blue Plymouth ran well through the corners but lost ground on the straights, placing him in the sixth row for the 500. His young teammate, Pete Hamilton, running in a higher gear and gaining endurance in the process, finished ahead of Richard. That was to prove significant.

Most Grand National races actually develop as a series of sprints, with the yellow caution flag separating the heats. Sunday's was no exception. Race day broke clear, cool and weird, what with flights of red, yellow, green and blue balloons lallygagging through the air and a helicopter tugging giant cigarette packs and Pepsi cans over the crowded infield. The first sprint was a short one—only eight laps of the 200 total—and it was all Cale Yarborough. Then, coming through the east corner, Richard Petty blew his engine at 180 mph plus. A great burst of blue smoke clashed distastefully with the color of his car; then Richard slithered out of the cloud for a breathless moment, dust snakes wriggling around his wheels.

Everyone pitted under the yellow, and with the green flag Cale once again surged into the lead—until his own turn came, on the 31st lap. Yarborough's Merc went like a hand grenade, dropping everything but his Nomex underwear, and Cale slewed spectacularly through the grandstand dogleg. "Had mah hands full," he said later, "and both mah feet, too."

The next skirmish was indecisive and ended when A.J. Foyt's '69 Ford blew—a failure that might ease the sting of his new nickname, Henry Foyt, which he won along with the distributorship of Ford's Indy engines. The heat that ensued was a duel between David Pearson and Bobby Isaac, the Dodge kid from Catawba, N.C. who wears a soup-bowl haircut. Pearson won.

Now just under the halfway mark, the race changed character again. During a yellow-flag slowdown Pearson whipped into the pits with a big smile on his customarily impassive face and when handed a cup of water hurled it jocularly into his crew chief's face. He was a bit premature in his jubilation.

After the green flag fell for the restart, the long-legged SuperBird of Pete Hamilton was steadily eroding Pearson's lead. Hamilton had made no unscheduled pit stops so far and had used the yellows wisely to conserve his machine, which was still running cool.

Still it would take a break to bring Pete into range of Pearson. It came with only 15 laps left, when 1969's Rookie of the Year, Richard Brooks, spun out on the second turn. By the time the yellow flag was lifted for the last time Hamilton had pitted and laid on fresh rubber, while Pearson chose to finish with worn tires. That made all the difference in the final sprint.

There were just about 16 miles left to run—a tad under seven laps—when Hamilton cut loose. He took Pearson on the backstretch, increased his lead for a bit, then saw Pearson closing in behind, ready to snap past on the final lap. As they came through the east bank it looked like David's slingshot was loaded, but then both cars wrenched out of shape, and the SuperBird almost drove Pearson's Ford onto the apron. That was it. A lap later Pete Hamilton took the checker at an average speed of 149.601 mph. He also took home a purse of $46,400—and that was exactly $11,308 more than he had won in his entire career.

Of course, it's only a two-year career. Peter Goodwill Hamilton, 27, is a hip cat from Dedham, Mass., and most of his previous driving was in a Grand Touring class Camaro. His dozen GT wins last year made him tops in that category. A dropout from the University of Maine after one year, Hamilton is the son of a retired college dean and—get this—used to play drums in a rock band. He has longish blond hair and says things like "Outasight," "Cool," and "Wow." As a member of the silent majority might say, "Well, shut mah mouf." Which, of course, Pete Hamilton was delighted to do.



Pete's Plymouth sails through one of Daytona's high-banked turns at better than 180 mph.