The Daytona 500 is the biggest race on the Winston Cup schedule each year, and, appropriately, it’s held in the city where America’s premier racing series got its start.
By Lazelle D. Jones
For years, motorhome enthusiasts have been thrilled at NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) events at the Daytona International Speedway. In the four-county area surrounding Daytona, Florida, a plethora of temporary campgrounds spring up overnight to accommodate the thousands of RVers who attend racing events. The speedway infield also has a vast amount of room for stand-alone camping, which is exactly what motorhomes do so well. Many RV clubs offer rally packages to races that include a campsite, grandstand seats for the race, and guided tours through the garage and pit road areas. Some clubs are so involved in Winston Cup racing that NASCAR personalities can be seen dropping by group gatherings to sign autographs and socialize with club members.
The enormity of the Daytona 500 is hard to explain to those who do not follow auto racing. On a scale from 1 to 10, when it comes to Winston Cup competition, winning the Daytona 500 is an 11. For the drivers, sponsors, and fans, the event is as important as the World Series is to baseball or the Super Bowl is to football. The Winston Cup Series is the most popular series in American motor sports, and the Daytona 500 is the one race that every stock car driver wants to win.
Interestingly enough, many great Winston Cup drivers (both past and present, including series champions) have never won the Daytona 500. Raced each year in February, it is the inaugural event of each Winston Cup season. In 2002 the Daytona 500 is scheduled for Sunday, February 17, the first of 36 Winston Cup races at 23 different speedways and road courses throughout the country. From the East Coast to the West Coast; from New Hampshire to Florida; from Texas to Kansas to Illinois, fans can witness the speed and excitement of Winston Cup racing.
So what makes winning at Daytona so special? It’s the history, the legacy, the hundred-year love affair between man and the automobile, and man’s insatiable appetite for speed that sets Daytona apart from any other speedway. It was on Daytona’s white beaches during the first decade of the 20th century, nearly a half-century before NASCAR was organized, that men brought their automobiles and began to race against the clock and one another. Since then, the sport has evolved to the point where today the same thrill is enjoyed by more than 7 million fans who attend Winston Cup events each year and 500 million television viewers who tune in to watch the competition.
Initially, the thrill of automobile racing was brought to the beaches of Daytona by automobile enthusiasts from the North who migrated to Florida for the winter. The first “my-car-can-beat-your-car” contest was won in 1903 by H.T. Thomas in a Pirate owned by Ransom Olds. Thomas beat Alexander Winton’s Bullet by one-fifth of a second. The top speed was 57 mph. In the wake of this “speed” festival, Daytona’s smooth beaches became the place where world speed records would be set and broken for the next several decades.
The first actual stock car race on the beaches of Daytona took place in 1936. Bill France Jr., now NASCAR’s chairman of the board, was only 3 years old when he and his family came to watch his father (who was considered a very good driver) compete. Known as “Big Bill,” France finished fifth in a starting field of 27 entries. The 1936 race was sanctioned by the AAA and staged by the city of Daytona. The track for that first race was half pavement and half sand. Milt Marion, of Long Island, New York, won in a 1936 Ford. Even though the event was a financial disaster, it was staged again in 1937. Again, it lost money. Finally the city asked France and restaurateur Charlie Reese (both from Daytona) to organize the 1938 event, and they did so successfully. France and Reese promoted the event the next year, and after paying all expenses and prize money, they each netted a profit of $1,000.
So how did the NASCAR phenomenon get started? As were other sports, auto racing was put on hold during World War II. Immediately after the war, stock car racing resurfaced, but the sport was unorganized. Race promoters were known to walk away with the gate receipts, and no standard set of rules existed for the cars or the racing event itself. Knowing that stock car racing held great potential as a spectator sport, Bill France Sr. stepped up to the plate in 1947 with a plan to organize. He called the drivers, mechanics, sponsors, and race promoters together, and through his efforts created the association known as NASCAR.
The first NASCAR-sanctioned race on the Daytona Beach & Road Course in 1948 consisted of modified pre-war coupes; most of them flat-head Fords. Red Byron, a World War II aviation hero who nearly lost a leg after being shot down over the Aleutian Islands, won it. He had a special foot brace built in the car so he could drive. Byron went on to win the first two NASCAR championships, including the first strictly stock title in 1949. That race featured 100 percent stock cars for the first time, many of them being driven right off the showroom floor or out of the family garage. The headlights could be removed and seat belts added, but those were the only modifications that could be made to the machines. The fronts of the cars were covered with masking tape so the paint wouldn’t get blasted off by the sand from the beach. This was the beginning of the Winston Cup Series as it is known today.
When NASCAR racing on the beach at Daytona first started, there was a six-hour window for low tide. That was just enough time to get the fans parked, run the race, and move the fans and their cars off the beach before the surf rolled in.
The qualifying process required that each car be timed over a straight mile down the beach. This meant that the drivers never drove on the actual track until after the race started. When the green flag waved, the cars would slowly enter the first turn. The racing action became interesting at the end of the sandy 2-mile back straightaway when the cars would go into turn three for the first time. For the drivers, this was not only the first lap of the race, but also their first lap on the track. Rookie drivers had no way of knowing what to expect. Those first races on the beach and road course were 200-plus miles. But the races finally had to be shortened to 160 miles as the popularity of the race and attendance (25,000 to 35,000 spectators) continued to grow.
With the meteoric rise in attendance, France first tried to shorten the race so it would be completed well before the tide rolled in. But the real wave NASCAR had to deal with was the increasing popularity of this annual event. France went to Daytona’s city leaders in 1949 and told them that if they wanted to keep motor sports in the Daytona area, a major speedway away from the beach was needed. Ten years later, the 2 1/2-mile, D-shaped oval known as Daytona International Speedway opened.
The length and 31 degrees of banking in the turns at the Daytona International Speedway were no accident. It was a calculated decision made by France as he was designing the track. He knew that if stock car racing were to grow into the potential he believed it held, the new speedway had to match the size and stature of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the benchmark against which all other racing venues were measured.
The design of the track immediately led to more speed. Bob Welborn won the pole position for the first Daytona 500 with a speed of 140.121 mph. Later that year at the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, the largest and fastest stock car track until Daytona, Fireball Roberts was the fastest qualifier at just 123.734 mph. Bill Elliott set the qualifying record at Daytona in 1987 with a circuit at 210.364 mph. Although speeds dropped into the mid-190-mph range after restrictor plates were mandated in 1988, that hasn’t stopped fans from flocking to the speedway. Today the stands at the Daytona International Speedway have seating for 165,000, and when the fans on the infield are counted, attendance easily approaches 200,000.
In the 1959 inaugural Daytona 500, 59 cars started the race and 30 finished. That first race was won by the late Lee Petty (father of seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard, grandfather to Kyle, and great-grandfather to the late Adam Petty). He won driving a 1959 Oldsmobile. For three days after the race, NASCAR officials couldn’t determine whether Petty or Johnny Beauchamp had won — the finish was that close. An appeal went out to the fans for anyone who might have a photo of the cars crossing the finish line. When one was finally found, Petty was declared the victor. Today, at every NASCAR race, cameras film the start-finish line, shooting at speeds of 64 frames per second.
In that first Daytona 500, Richard Petty (driving a 1957 Oldsmobile) took the green flag from the sixth starting position. His engine blew up after eight laps and he ended up finishing 57th. It would be one of his few disappointments in the event as he went on to become the winningest Daytona 500 driver ever, with seven victories. He captured his first win in 1964, and his final Daytona 500 victory came in 1981. Interestingly, another piece of bad luck for Petty, known simply as “The King” to race fans, kept him from winning an eighth Daytona 500 title. Coming out of turn 4 on the final lap of the 1976 race, Petty and David Pearson were battling side by side for the lead. The two cars touched and both spun into the wall. Petty’s car slid to a stop on the infield grass. He tried to restart his engine, but it wouldn’t fire. Pearson was able to keep his car running and limped across the finish line to win. Petty was credited with second place.
The list of great drivers at Daytona is legion. Cale Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times and Bobby Allison was the first to take the checkered flag on three occasions. Dale Jarrett became the most recent three-time Daytona 500 winner when he won the 1999 race.
In 1962 Fireball Roberts swept every event he competed in at Daytona, including the qualifying race, the Daytona 500, and the Firecracker 250. In 1967, in one of his few NASCAR starts, Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500. With his Indy 500 win in 1969, he became the first man to capture the biggest prizes in both open-wheel and stock car racing. The best cross-over racer of all time, however, was A.J. Foyt, who won the Daytona 500 in 1972, two Firecracker 400 races, and four Indy 500s. Junior Johnson, known as the godfather of stock car drivers, collected his only victory at the speedway when he won the 1960 Daytona 500.
Winston Cup racing in Daytona isn’t limited to just one event. In July, fans flock to the speedway for the Pepsi 400, also known as the “Mid-Summer Classic,” a race that also boasts a long history. Held the first time in 1959, it was originally called the Firecracker 250. In 1963 it became the Firecracker 400, which subsequently became the Pepsi Firecracker 400 in 1984, and finally the Pepsi 400 in 1989. David Pearson won the July race five times (1961, 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1978).
This is also the event where, in 1984, Richard Petty won his 200th and final Winston Cup race with President Ronald Reagan looking on. Cale Yarborough won the July race four times, while Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, and Bobby Allison each had three victories. Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, and the late Dale Earnhardt each have two wins. In 1998, the track was equipped with a lighting system so the Pepsi 400 could be run at night, out of the hot Florida sun. Unfortunately, the first July night race was postponed until October, because summer wildfires had scoured the state. Jeff Gordon held off pole winner Bobby Labonte to win the race by 0.176-second.
Here’s another bit of history that lends itself to our discussion about great drivers sometimes not winning the Daytona 500. Although it took seven-time Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt 20 tries before he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, by that time he already was the winningest driver ever at the track when all of the events he had participated in at Daytona (Busch, Winston Cup, and IROC races, and Daytona 500 qualifying races) were tallied. Many of the best drivers in NASCAR history have failed to drive into Victory Lane. In fact, 10 former Winston Cup champions have never won either of the Winston Cup races at Daytona since it was built in 1959, including Buck Baker, Ned Jarrett, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, the late Alan Kulwicki, and Bobby Labonte, to name a few.
Old-timers still talk about how when the race was being run on the beach, Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner were the last drivers to slow down going into the north turn. They would slide their cars sideways into the turn and use that to slow them down enough to make it through the turn. And when the spectacular new Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, driver Jimmy Thompson, noticing the long straightaways and high banks, commented: “There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone.”
Hundreds of other interesting facts, figures, and anecdotes can be told about Daytona’s racing history, Bill France, and the development of big-time stock car racing. When it comes to Daytona and NASCAR racing, the well from which stories can be drawn runs very deep.
For more information about races at Daytona International Speedway, call (386) 254-2700 or visit the speedway’s Web site, www.daytonaintlspeedway.com.