Ontario, Calif. — Ordinarily I go to 500-mile auto races about as often as I visit the Louvre, help with the supper dishes, or have a light lunch with Willy Brandt. What I couldn't resist about this invitation was the chance to see 42 stock cars (most of them souped-up 1977 models) with modifications that made them worth somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000.
I'm talking about cars that have doors welded shut; require entrance through a window; are equipped with two-way radios; and get 3 1/2 miles to a gallon -- if you're lucky.
All would be competing in the recent Los Angeles Times 500, a Grand National stock car race for the Winston Cup Championship at the Ontario Motor Speedway's 2 1/2-mile track.
The winner was Benny Parsons, out of Ellerbe, N.C., who took home close to $ 25,000 prize money after driving 200 laps at an average speed of just over 133 m.p.h. The only stops a driver makes are for engine adjustments or to take on fuel and tires. And if his crew can't consistently do that in 15 seconds or less, he can forget about visiting the winner's circle.
Actually, the race itself held few thrills and was mostly forgettable. The things I'll remember are the drivers, their cars, a wind that could easily have been called Mariah, the pit crews, and all the rushing around.
Racing drivers, I've discovered, are about as honest and candid as they come. When their cars don't perform properly because of mechanical failures, weather conditions, driver mistakes, or pit crew malfunctions, they say so.
"When i got two laps behind just before the halfway mark, I figured the afternoon was all over for me," Parsons explained. "The wind, which was gusting up to 70 m.p.h., often carried a lot of dust with it, and that sometimes made it tough to see.
"Basically what those kinds of weather conditions do is loosen up your car and make it feel more neutral than it usually does," Benny continued. "In the first and second corners, things were OK, but in the third turn the wind was trying to blow you right into the wall. Sometimes, in the fourth turn, you'd move the steering wheel and not much of anything would happen."
The body of Parsons' 1977 modified Chevrolet Monte Carlo is a long way from mint condition, although the motor is probably worth $10,000. The entire inside of the passenger section has been ripped out and replaced with a steel cage of roll and stress bars that buy a high amount of safety in case of an accident.
Benny, helmeted, sits in a cockpit-type chair that has both a shoulder harness and seat belt, plus a fire extinguisher only inches away from where his right hand grips the rubberized steering wheel. The dashboard is limited to four gauges -- two for water pressure, one for oil, and one for fuel.
While windshields are allowed to remain in place, all other glass in the car has been removed. Exposed portions of the car's inside body welds are covered with plastic or rubber. The missing window on the driver's side is protected with a mesh netting that, one hopes, will stop any flying objects.
As a safety factor, conventional gasoline tanks-are replaced with a fuel cell , which consists of a rubberized-plastic bladder capable of holding 22 gallons. If a car should get rear-ended or into a situation that results in the vehicle turning over, there is less chance of a fire or an explosion than with a metal tank.
Where you have to visit if you ever get the chance during a race is the pit area. It is the nerve center for nearly everything. Most drivers seem to prefer a six-member pit crew -- two to change tires; one to jack up the car; one to carry the tires to the right wheels; one to clean the windshield; and one to fill the car with gas.
These jobs are so important that crews regularly compete for time prizes that occasionally run as high as $25,000.
Blow an engine and you could be out as much as $10,000; crack a couple of seals and the figure is only around $2,800. Tires cost $100 apiece and sometimes they don't go 40 miles, which could mean the car hasn't been set up right for the track it's running on or for half a dozen other reasons that only pit crews understand.
But the experienced drivers can always feel it when their tires aren't right, and they get into the pit area for new ones just as quick as they can.
At the Indianapolis 500, where the cars are a lot faster, the tires aren't covered by fenders, and engines are in the rear, guys who drive stock cars for a living are considered members of the Teamsters Union.
he way I look at it, though, it doesn't matter whether they drive open-cockpit or stock cars, they all have steel nerves.