It was about racing.
From the inception of what is now known as NASCAR through the beach driving in Daytona and onto the 2.5 mile tri-oval through the rule changes designed for speed and safety and all the way up to about 2000, driving at Daytona was all about racing. Finding speed was always the key, either by being better than the rules or just bending them a bit.
Walking through the garage area you were just as likely to find the drivers elbows-deep in the engine under the hood as you were seeing them on a slider under the chassis. They knew the car. Most of them helped build them. The car was an extension of who they were. If it didn’t feel right on the track, they’d whip into the garage, jump out of the drivers window, unlatch the hood and grab a wrench.
If you wanted to talk with Richard Petty, he was probably going to be talking to you while using a grease rag to wipe his hands. Cale Yarborough talked about driving that “MC Anderson Valvoline Buick” as if he was piloting a supersonic jet. And in some ways he was. “At 180 you have time to do this,” he told me as he jerked the imaginary steering wheel to the right. “At 200, you’re on it already.” Dale Earnhardt was elusive and almost made a game of disappearing and then all of the sudden being in the car and rolling onto the track.
Walking through his garage one afternoon during Speedweeks after practice I found him sitting on the floor, by himself, leaning up against the wall.
“You OK?” I asked
“Yup,” he responded without looking up.
I figured I’d take a chance and sat down next to him. He never gave me a glance.
“Learn anything out there today,” I said after a minute or so of silence.
That’s when he looked right at me and said, “Learned I don’t have enough car to win.”
What do you say to that? So I just sat there. And so did he. I suppose contemplating how to make the car faster. After a short while, he got up and walked away.