Sure is a shame that you can't just take an automobile race as good as this one and pour it into a Mason jar and hide it away in the corncrib for a few years. That'd be the thing to do. And then, some summer evening in the future, when you need a spot of cheer, you could blow the dust off and open up a fine old 1980 Firecracker 400 and just sit back and savor it. Goooood stuff.
It was hotter than billy-blue-blazes at the Daytona International Speedway on Independence Day. There were 40 cars in the field, each one weighing about 3,700 pounds and putting out 550 or so horses. Sitting there on the pole in his Oldsmobile was South Carolina's own Cale Yarborough. He had thrashed out a 194.670-mph qualifying speed to get there—a record. What's more, there was a mere 6.322-mph spread between the pole car and the 20th fastest, which converts to a time span of just 1.552 seconds on that 2.5-mile track. Everybody was really honking right along, make no mistake about it. Indeed, it's been like this all season; 17 races down and 14 to go on the Grand National circuit and they've been running door handle to door handle all the way.
Ye gods, at Daytona Richard Petty was sitting way back there in the 11th row—Richard Petty, the seven-time NASCAR champion, who used to flat own this sport—and some folks were wondering if, at 43, he was getting a tad long in the tooth. Uh uh, not Petty. There were a couple of other venerable gents to keep an eye on: Bobby Allison, 42, and David Pearson, back running at Daytona at 45. If there's anything these veterans hate, it's looking at the rear bumper of a smart-aleck youngster. Someone like Dale Earnhardt, 29, of Kannapolis, N.C., NASCAR's rookie of the year last season, who, in the words of Buddy Baker, "has got more damn nerve than a sore tooth."
The kid is a charger, no doubt about it. Like last year, he was doing the unheard-of, a rookie in the thick of the championship points battle at midseason, when he crashed hard at Pocono and broke both collarbones. They figured his season was over right there. They figured wrong. Five races later he was brushing door handles again, celebrating his return by winning the pole at Richmond. This season he is leading in points and money.
As the Firecracker 400 field took its parade lap, the temperature was 92°, with the humidity 90%, under hazed-over skies, the sort of heavy Florida day on which nobody should be allowed out of doors. In spite of that, some 60,000 fans were simmering in the grandstands because they suspected this just might be one of those rare races a body wouldn't dare to miss. A sunburn would be worth it to a racing fan and, shoot, if we don't get to have a fireworks show in the evening, we can all just sit around and watch each other glow.
While the fans were settling in, their own heat adding to the temperatures at the big speedway, the drivers were getting their final instructions from the officials; at these breakneck speeds, they were warned, it might be a good idea to look into that rearview mirror once in a while, you guys. And if you just happen to see a giant stock car whooping down upon you, don't, repeat do not, make any sudden moves. Then the chaplain called down a blessing on the whole affair after noting, in prayer, "There's some things wrong with our country, Lord, but there's a whole lot right with it." And away they went.
When 40 Grand National stock cars fire up, they create a marvelous rolling swell of sound that vibrates inside the rib cage—and when the same race cars come pouring off the No. 4 turn and head down the main straightaway, they paint a fast smear of sharp color across a field of vision. Which is what this collection of bright cars did, 10 racers jammed nose to tail in the lead group, which was doing close to 200 mph.
Important things began happening right away. Yarborough jumped into the lead, running strongly. Petty eased over to the inside a bit and kicked it hard—and in a blue-and-red blur of motion he swept from 22nd to 14th position. Then—what have we here?—Yarborough came swinging into the pits. He hung a hard left and drove right to his garage. Short race. Five laps. He shouldered out of the top of his driving uniform and let it hang down, presenting a reddened bare chest. "Broken crankshaft, I think," he said. He shrugged. "I might just as well laugh, 'cause there's sure not much else I can do."
Back on the track, the gang had hit a 189.076-mph average after the first 10 laps, and already the race had had six leaders. This was jam-up racing, as they say in the pits. By 20 laps the average speed had climbed to 189.474 mph for a race record—and there was young Earnhardt hammering along in second behind Darrell Waltrip. Petty was now tucked into the No. 9 position.
And the heat was murder. The mugginess in the stands was an absolute delight compared to the 120° and more inside the race cars—and the drivers were literally shrinking as the race slogged on. Good thing it wasn't a 500-miler. Nobody would have been big enough to see over the dashboard by the end. Most drivers would finish this race at least 10 pounds lighter than when they started, and on every pit stop they drank deeply from huge paper cups of water. What they couldn't drink in the 15 or so seconds it takes to gas up and change tires, they splashed into their laps.
Earnhardt's crew did better than that: they wrapped ice cubes in bath towels, and each time their man pitted they draped a fresh cold one around his neck, changing towels and tires simultaneously. "I still had enough ice cubes left at the end of the race to make me a drink," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt is one of the best things to happen to stock-car racing in years and, as with Petty, Baker and Benny Parsons and all the good old gang, you're going to flat love him when you get to know him. Earnhardt is nicely tousled, with a clear, untroubled brow and a great grip on life. He is having a terrific sophomore year and is obviously on his way to a national championship, yet he is still new enough to big-time racing that he slips out of the garage to go watch the parades, for heaven's sake. "Most of the drivers just relax around the garage area," he says. "I mean, some of them are so relaxed they could just about fall right over, but me—I'm still excited by all this. I love the pageantry of it all."
The guy also clearly loves the driving, and he crackles with confidence merely talking about it. Earnhardt will first apologize for what he fears is a limited vocabulary: "I haven't got but a 10th-grade education," he says—and then, in the next breath, he will wax positively lyrical about the effects of wheeling a race car around a cement-bordered racetrack at speeds rarely seen on the airspeed indicators of single-engine planes. "If someone comes up alongside me—when I'm at top speed—it suddenly changes the very airflow around me," he says. "It's a dramatic change; I can actually hear this mysterious force very clearly. Perhaps it's the wind. And I can feel them getting on or off the gas. And yet, somehow, I don't quite know how to explain it, somehow all this is natural to me. I was born to do this."
The race kept knocking off one speed record after another: at 120 laps the average was 173.438 mph, counting the slowdowns under the caution flag and all—and the winning average would be a fraction faster than that, with the field covering the 400 miles in 2:18.21—which isn't too bad a pace picking your way through holiday traffic.
Indeed, this was pure racing, the way it's supposed to be; anybody could win out there, folks, and all that was needed now to cap a dandy Fourth was a gang-busters finish.
This is the scene: Bobby Allison's Mercury is in the lead at the start of the last lap. Earnhardt's Olds is filling up Allison's rearview mirror, and Pearson is lurking alongside Earnhardt in another Olds. They flash down the backstraight at 200 mph. The crowd rises as one, glistening with sweat. They all know what's about to happen. It's obvious: entering Turn 4 and headed for the front straight, Earnhardt is going to ease out and slingshot around Allison, seizing the lead and victory at the very last second. And so he does. That is, he pulls out in the classic slingshot move. Hoo-boy.
There is just a small gap before the leaders will overtake slower traffic. And Earnhardt and Allison are now side by side, rolling at top speed for the checkered flag. Pearson tucks in tight behind Allison. All Allison need do now is not flinch—and he holds her steady as can be. And, ta dah! He scrapes Earnhardt off on the slower cars—as perfect a pick as has ever been applied in basketball.
Winner Allison, $24,805 richer, pulls off his crash helmet and goes right to the oxygen, puffing from the heat. The heel of his right driving shoe has melted away entirely, turned to liquid rubber, and his foot is burned and blistered. "Earnhardt had to make that move when he did," Allison says. "But there was just too much other traffic for him to get past me."
"I got shut out, all right," says Earnhardt, whose official finish was third behind Pearson, though he still leads the season in points. "He outsnookered me. I just got to get me some more experience on this stuff." Fair enough. It was such good stuff that had made it a great race, with 41 lead changes among eight drivers. Petty had sneaked into fifth and was feeling young again; by now he was second in the points standings.
And Lordy, was it ever hot. In years to come, in memory of the occasion, we'll pour it over some ice.
Earnhardt's slingshot proved to be not so hot.