Jimmy Spencer admits his mind sometimes wanders when he's be hind the wheel of his Kmart Ford Taurus.
There have been momentary lapses when he's reached to position the air conditioning vents on his face. There are times when he looks for the controls to the compact disc player. He's even thought about pushing the button to lower his windows.
As quick as those notions come, they are chased away by the deafening roar of a 750-horsepower engine.
Bobby Allison insists there is no way to sit inside a production sedan and simulate a stock car from the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. But he tried one afternoon by locking a couple reporters inside his Buick on a hot July afternoon, then turning on the heater full blast and cranking up the radio as loud as it would go.
''That would be a Sunday drive compared to what it's really like inside a race car,'' he said as the sweat-soaked reporters filed from the car.
When 43 cars take the green flag Sunday at the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, it won't be a Sunday drive. It will be four hours of high-speed misery.
Drivers don't have the luxury of power windows, padded seats, air conditioning, stereo, glove boxes, cruise control, cigarette lighters or radar detectors. The cockpit was designed for one thing racing.
''It's not supposed to be comfortable,'' Spencer said. ''It's supposed to be fast.''
There is little a production sedan and a stock car have in common. Other than the hood, roof, trunk lid and manufacturer's decals, the cars on the racetrack and in the parking lot this Sunday won't have a lot in common.
''No kidding, once I wasn't thinking and I couldn't find the air conditioner vents,'' Spencer said. ''People have to realize they build production cars for comfort, fuel mileage and luggage space. We take a basic frame and we build a race car from the ground up. And when you're doing that with speed in mind, there ain't no way to get comfortable in a race car. All you try to do is survive.''
The interior of Spencer's race car is crude. There is a driver's seat that mounts directly on the floor. The roll bars are a maze of iron piping that makes it impossible to move freely.
The dashboard is made of sheet metal. The gauges show engine rpms, oil and water pressure and voltage. Toggle switches crank the engine.
''It's loud, it's hot, and it's uncomfortable,'' said NASCAR Busch Series driver Phil Parsons. ''When you finish a race, it usually takes a day or two for the headache to go away. I don't think people really understand what it takes to drive one of these things.
''You've got leg supports and head supports and a seat that conforms to your body. You're strapped in by a five-point seatbelt. You don't have any room to move around. Your body takes a beating in there because we don't have soft shock absorbers like they do on street cars. You also take a beating in the turns because the
g-forces press your body against the seat."
Heat has been a problem inside the cockpit for years. Each car is required to have a temperature-triggered fire extinguisher inside the car. When the interior reaches 140 de grees, the extinguisher is designed to discharge.
Manufacturers try to make their race cars appear as close to production as possible. Up close, however, there is very little similarity including the sticker price. A production sedan such as the Taurus, Chevrolet Monte Carlo or the Pontiac Grand Prix costs between $20,000-$25,000. A stock car, however, costs $75,000 without an engine. Putting a 358-cubic-inch racing engine under the hood adds another $30,000 to the price tag.
Some cars aren't even loyal to their own manufacturer. Chevrolet and Pontiac don't want people to know it, but their cars all use a nine-inch rear gear that was developed by Ford in 1962.
''Basically, there's nothing stock about a stock car,'' Allison said. ''At one time, we used to take a street car and turn it into a stock car. Not any more. Now they build stock cars from the ground up, and if they resemble a street car when it's finished, then that's a bonus.''
Accessories not included.
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