Daytona 500 : Men Behind Men Behind Wheel Play Key Role

Times Staff Writer

Waddell Wilson and Dale Inman are not as famous as their drivers, Cale Yarborough and Terry Labonte, but here in the South, where stock-car racing is as much a part of life as tobacco, their mechanical magic has made them cult heroes on their own.

Yarborough and Labonte, along with pole-sitter Bill Elliott, are the top contenders in today's 27th annual Daytona 500, stock car racing's richest race with a $1.28-million purse, but what Wilson and Inman do in the pits may be as significant as what the drivers do on the track.

Wilson and Inman, powerfully built men who grew up with their heads and hands inside engines, are NASCAR's best. Yarborough is the two-time defending champion in today's race and Labonte is the defending Winston Cup champion. Each will quickly admit he wouldn't be where he is without his mechanic.

For the last six years, General Motors cars prepared by Wilson have been the fastest at Daytona. This year, after switching to a new Ford Thunderbird, Wilson's car is second fastest, Yarborough having been beaten only by Elliott's record 205.114 m.p.h. in another Ford. Yarborough's 203.814 put him alongside Elliott in the front row.

Last Thursday, in the twin 125-mile qualifying races, Elliott and Yarborough were impressive winners. Labonte suffered a rare engine failure early in his heat and dropped out. Consequently, the young Texan will start back in 31st position.

For Yarborough and Wilson, the return to Ford has brought them full circle.

"Would you believe we started out together at Holman and Moody's shop in Charlotte 20 years ago?" Yarborough said. "Waddell was a helper in the engine room, working on Ford engines for Fireball Roberts and Freddie Lorenzen, and I was sweeping out the floors when I wasn't running short tracks or playing semipro football with the Sumpter Generals.

"I look around our operation now and see that Ford trademark on things and I feel like I'm back home again. We had some great years with those Chevies and Olds and Pontiacs, but when (car owners) Harry Ranier and J. T. Lundy told us last year that the team was switching to Fords, I figured we'd go for it."

Yarborough won his first Daytona 500 in 1968 driving a Mercury for the Ford Motor Co. His last two wins, in 1983 and '84 were in a Pontiac and a Chevrolet.

Wilson, whose job was to make the conversion over the winter, wasn't altogether confident the switch could be made in so short a time.

"I knew it would be a massive undertaking, but it was even tougher than I reckoned," he said. "There was a lot of pressure on us, but most of the pressure came from Waddell Wilson. I put more pressure on myself than anyone. I'm a perfectionist, and it's just about impossible for me to satisfy myself. I've been building race cars for 25 years, and this was the hardest winter I ever had.

"To start with, you can't just cut the sheet metal off the other cars and replace it with Ford sheet metal. It just flat doesn't fit right. The Fords are a little smaller and the pickup points are different. We decided to sell our old cars and order new chassis from Mike Laughlin.

"When we got them, we worked 14 to 18 hours a day, every day since December. That's Saturdays and Sundays, too. The only time I gave the crew off was Super Bowl afternoon. It was tough--a couple of guys on the crew quit--but time was short and there was so much work to do, it couldn't be helped."

Wilson kept one Chevy, the one Yarborough won the 500 with last year, as a base line.

"We wanted to know where we stood, so we brought two Fords and a Chevy down here for our first test before qualifying," Wilson said. "We hadn't touched the Chevy since last year but Cale ran 200 (m.p.h.) with it and then climbed into the Fords. I was really anxious to know what would happen, but when he ran 201 and better in both of them, I knew we were on the right track."

Then Wilson sold the Chevy to Greg Sacks, a second-year NASCAR driver from Long Island, N.Y. He qualified it last Sunday at 193.058 m.p.h., then drove an impressive race in Thursday's 125-mile qualifier, earning the 13th starting position.

"It was expensive (buying the car), but it's one way to get a proven car," Sacks said. "I know I'm driving a car capable of winning a race. The trouble is that Cale didn't come in the deal."

Or Waddell Wilson.

Inman, 48, the man who prepares the Chevrolet Monte Carlos for Labonte, is the most successful crew chief in Grand National history. Labonte's championship last year was the first for owner Billy Hagen's team, but the eighth for Inman.

Richard Petty won all of his record seven championships when Inman, a second cousin and neighbor of Petty in Level Cross, N.C., was his crew chief. Inman has handled the wrenches on 200 Grand National winners, 195 in 24 years with Petty Enterprises, two with Tim Richmond and three with Labonte.

Inman left Petty's operation after the 1981 season because of a reported power play in which Lee Petty, the patriarch of the family operation, and engine-builder Maurice Petty, Richard's older brother, voted against a proposal by Richard to make cousin Dale a full partner.

"I don't think it takes too smart a cat to figure out that after Dale left, things didn't go too well over at Petty Enterprises," King Richard said during the 1982 season when he went winless. Petty, like Inman, has since left the family team and now drives for Mike Curb, former lieutenant governor of California.

Kyle, Richard's son, also left the family team this year and is driving for the Wood Brothers of Stuart, Va., once top rivals of the Pettys when Richard Petty and David Pearson were NASCAR's big winners. All that remains of the once powerful Petty team is a single, unsponsored Ford prepared by Maurice Petty. It is being driven today by Dick Brooks.

Said Inman: "Ever since we went to Riverside and came home with the championship, people ask me how it compares to winning with Richard. But I really can't compare them. Because of the money, the Winston involvement, the growing press and television coverage, they get bigger and bigger, but they're all great.

"The biggest one probably was Richard's last championship in '79 because when we got to Ontario for the last race, we were behind Darrell (Waltrip) and we came back to win it.

"There was a lot of pressure on us last year. We wanted to win it (in the next-to-last race) at Atlanta, but we had one of our worst days (finishing 30th), so we were all tense at Riverside before the last race. There were probably about 40 teams that would have liked to have been in that position, but I knew from experience what could happen. We'd done it ourselves with Richard in '79, so I knew if we fell on our faces, Harry (Gant) could win.

"Don't get me wrong, I've love to be in that same position this year. We got off to a good start winning the Busch Clash, but that only counts for money ($65,000 for 15 minutes of racing) and morale. It did a lot for the crew because they saw their work fulfilled, but it didn't get any Winston points. They start today.

"It's not realistic to set your goal to win the championship. Look what happened to Bobby (Allison) last year. I'm sure he thought he could win again, but he never came close."

Allison, after winning his first championship in 1983, finished sixth last year. He didn't win a race after May 27 and is even farther back than Labonte today. Allison, who won the 500 in 1978 and 1982, will start 34th.

"Something like that could hap pen to us because NASCAR has become so competitive that a dozen teams could win," Inman said. "We do have high hopes and we certainly expect to be among the contenders, but you never know. All we can do is prepare to do our best. That's what we did last year, and it was enough."

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