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Original Issue

No recession for Mr. Petty

Factory support was down and motel vacancy signs were up, but in an exciting race Plymouth's perennial hero won his third Daytona 500

The rest of the nation may be awakening from its economic ennui, but a drowsy recessional mood still hung over Daytona Beach, Fla. last week. It was amply evident around the Daytona International Speedway, where the heroes and hamburgers of stock-car racing gathered for the 13th annual running of the 500-mile season opener. Motels along "the world's most famous beach" plaintively announced vacancies in pallid neon, while one even urged: "Make Love Not War & Do It Here." Ford's withdrawal from motor racing reduced factory support to a bare minimum—Richard Petty's Plymouth and Buddy Baker's Dodge. The pace car for the race was, of all things, a Porsche 914. "Should of brought along Cousin Lem's go-kart," said one good old boy. "It's a tad quicker."

Nowhere was the tone of parsimony more evident than in the garage area, where mechanics accustomed to Detroit's bounty had to make do with a minimum of spare parts. The two 125-mile qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500 became dangerous stumbling blocks for some crews: should an engine blow along the way, there was no backup for the main event. To compound the problem, NASCAR boss Bill France had imposed a restriction on carburetor size in an effort to reduce the speed of the big stockers, which last year were threatening the 200-mile-an-hour mark on the grander speedways. "That's fine with me," said veteran driver James Hylton of Inman, S.C. "Last year I was running so fast here that my eyes were crossed." Still, many crews opposed the imposition of carburetor "governors."

"Everyone agrees that the speeds had to come down," said Cale Yarborough, "but this isn't the way. Here are these master mechanics who have spent a lifetime learning the tricks of the motor trade—how to get the maximum out of a mess of steel—and then Bill France slaps a 75¢ piece of metal on them. He should have just reduced the engine size from 427 to, say, 300 cubic inches and then let the wrenches do what they could with it."

The carburetor plates reduced speeds by nearly 15 miles an hour—A. J. Foyt won the pole at 182.744 mph in a 1971 Mercury whereas Cale set the qualifying record of 194.015 last year in a '69—but they also had the effect of placing more emphasis on artful driving.

"The name of the game is drafting," said Pete Hamilton, the blond boy wonder who leadfooted his way to victory in last year's race—and two other super-speedway championships—in a Petty-prepared Plymouth. This year Pete is campaigning in a Plymouth of his own, and drafting just fine, thank you. In the first of the 125-milers Hamilton took the measure of both his former employer and of A.J. That race more closely resembled a World War I dogfight than a stock-car blowout. Foyt, whose Merc was easily three miles an hour faster than anything else on the track, took an early lead and would have run off with the marbles had it not been for the innate loyalty of NASCAR drivers. A.J., after all, is a US AC interloper and NASCAR drivers resent his often-victorious presence. Tiny Lund, the 240-pound tight end of the stockers, managed to block Foyt in traffic just enough for Petty and Hamilton to close on him toward the end of the qualifying race. Snuggled up to within half a car length of A.J. on the final turn, Hamilton was in good position to slingshot past the old master into the final straight. Ahead of the two cars a slower machine spun out, and when the yellow caution light came on for just a moment A.J. backed off the gas. Hamilton didn't, and he snapped past Foyt to win by 18 inches.

"That kid can draft," said A.J. later. "He's not as smooth as Petty; when Richard sneaks in behind you, you can hardly feel it. Hamilton's still a bit bumpy, but he has nerve." High praise from the king of the road.

The second qualifying duel was won in a similarly artful manner by David Pearson. He used slower traffic to break the draft of Buddy Baker, who had been dogging him burr-close through most of the race. Pearson was driving a two-year-old Mercury. Drivers feel that the 1971-model cars are too blocky; rather than slipping through the air they have to punch their way along.

"The older cars are aerodynamically cleaner," said Vic Elford, the English sports-car driver who was having a go at the stocks in a 1971 Ford. "I had the distinct feeling that I was pushing a ton of wind ahead of me."

Clean noses, dirty noses, carburetor plates—whatever it was, it produced the tightest, toughest Daytona 500 in years. Through the first 110 laps—fully 275 miles—the lead changed hands 37 times among 11 drivers. Up to that point, moreover, only one of the leaders was eliminated: Lee Roy Yarbrough popped an oil line in the high east bank and caught fire. ("The durn firemen were so excited they forgot to put it out," Lee Roy complained later.) Ultimately the pressure had to tell. Pete Hamilton and Richard Brooks (the latter in the race's only un-governed car, a, winged Dodge) tangled in Turn Two, controlled their cars masterfully and avoided a major debacle but lost valuable laps and dropped from contention. A few cars were done in by the man from Glad—discarded sandwich wrappings, a new danger in racing, caught in their radiators and caused overheating.

Veritable choochoo trains of as many as nine drafting cars were the rule for two-thirds of the race, but in the final stages it developed into a three-way chase among Richard Petty, Foyt and Buddy Baker. Then in one of those vital miscalculations A.J. ran out of gas and coasted in, losing a lap in the process. That left Petty free to breeze home ahead of Chrysler teammate Baker for his third Daytona victory and $48,000 of the record $203,050 purse. Seven yellow-flag caution periods (41 laps) reduced average speeds but did nothing to diminish the excitement. "Certainly we've never had as competitive a race before," said Bill France. You durn tootin, Bill, and it's not a bad way to fight the recession, either.