DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500, America's annual love affair with high-speed Detroit-built automobiles--which is turning into a 200-m.p.h. advertising medium for Madison Avenue hucksters--will be run for the 28th time today at Daytona International Speedway.
An advertising medium? The $1,468,715 race, richest in stock car racing history, is the first of a 29-race series sponsored by a tobacco company. Five of the 40 starting cars, including pole-sitter Bill Elliott's Ford Thunderbird, are sponsored by beer companies. Six of the remaining 35 are sponsored by chewing tobaccos, including Geoff Bodine's Chevrolet, which will start alongside Elliott's in the front row.
The race will televised by CBS (Channels 2 and 8 at 9 a.m., PST).
Since the series carries the name of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Winston cigarettes, the other nicotine names carried on the sides of the gaudily painted cars are all smokeless tobaccos.
As a change of pace, and perhaps in keeping with an increasing number of women who are showing up at stock car races, Buddy Baker's car will be sponsored by Crisco, a vegetable shortening.
Spectators, who are expected to number more than 115,000 today, will have to look quickly to see the moving billboards, however, since this will be the fastest group of stock cars ever to take a green flag.
Twenty-six cars bettered 200 m.p.h. in their one-lap time trials around the high banking of Daytona's 2.5-mile trioval. The average speed of the 40 starters is 200.652, the first race ever over 200. This ranges from Elliott's 205.039 to Pancho Carter's 195.805. Carter, however, is no stranger to 200-m.p.h. speeds, since he holds the Indianapolis 500 qualifying record of 212.583.
The effect of escalating speeds may be to reduce the use of Daytona's legendary draft, particularly the side-by-side freight trains of 12 to 18 cars storming around the trioval.
"The faster you go, the narrower the track gets," Elliott said. "I don't think you'll see any double trains drafting Sunday. There isn't room enough."
Elliott, who scored a Daytona triple last year by winning the pole, a 125-mile qualifier and the 500, is on his way to a repeat performance, although it's getting tougher for the red-haired Georgian each time out.
"It's evident that the others are catching up," he said. "We're no faster (than last year), but the others are much faster."
That's true. Last year, Elliott set a pole record of 205.114 and was nearly 3 m.p.h. faster than anyone else. This year, his 205.039 was less than half a second faster than Bodine's speed. And last year, his winning margin in the 125-mile qualifying race was more than a mile. Last Thursday, it was one car-length.
If there is a favorite to beat awesome Bill from Dawsonville (Ga.), it is Dale Earnhardt, the brash former NASCAR champion whose father was a legendary sportsman driver several decades ago. Earnhardt dominated Thursday's second qualifying heat and also won last Sunday's Busch Clash, a 50-mile dash for former pole-winners.
Saturday, Earnhardt tuned up for the 500 by winning the Goody's 300, a late-model sportsmen's car race. This brought Earnhardt's earnings this week to $126,843.
The Elliott-Earnhardt confrontation could not make NASCAR officials happier. It sets up a traditional Ford (Elliott) vs. Chevrolet (Earnhardt) duel reminiscent of an earlier era, when the stock car motto was, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."
Elliott won 11 superspeedway races last year and earned more than $2 million in his Thunderbird. The General Motors cars, with less aerodynamic rear windows, could not keep up with Elliott and Cale Yarborough, the other leading Ford driver.
This year, GM built new models with sloping rear windows that make them look like T-Birds. Apparently, it has had its effect, because as Elliott pointed out, it is evident the others are catching up.
The question to be answered today is how much they have caught up.
Elliott was criticized last year for making his domination appear too apparent. This time at Daytona, he has won just as much--but has not been as impressive while doing so.
Is Elliott sandbagging, giving the opposition unfounded encouragement? Or have Earnhardt, Bodine, Waltrip, Bobby Allison and the other GM drivers really closed the gap?
That, not how much beer and tobacco or Crisco the cars will sell, is what today's Daytona 500 is all about.