Who would have thought all those years ago that a race which is run partially on sand would become the biggest race in NASCAR?
What would become the Daytona 500 started out on a track that wasn’t your typical track. It started off as a long square that was partially in the sand and partially on a highway that was near the beach. Can you imagine a race going from sand to asphalt then back to sand? Imagine trying to set up a car for sand then sliding onto a highway!
In 1959 the first Daytona 500 was run, but its roots could be traced back as far as 1903. That was the year some daredevils decided that the level, hard-packed sands of Ormand Beach, Fla. would be a perfect place to see how fast a race car could run. From there, beach racing in the Daytona area became a hit. It actually was the second 500 mile race, following the Southern 500. Did anyone realize that the best was yet to come and soon the race would be the iconic race it has become today?
Yes, there was one man who saw what things could be. It was 1934 when a mechanic named “Big Bill” France migrated to Daytona from Washington D.C. The only thing France enjoyed more than working on cars was racing them. It was “Big Bill” that announced in 1955 that he was building a track that was going to be called Daytona International Speedway He would also go on to organize the drivers and NASCAR was born. By 1961 the race was referred to as simply the “Daytona 500” but it would be far from simple. We just didn’t know it yet, or perhaps we did, but who would have guessed that it would grow to the magnitude that it has today?
The year was 1979 and for the first time a 500 mile race would be broadcast in its entirety. Eager fans tuned in to see this race and it did not disappoint. Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were in a tight race for the win. Neither driver was going to give and Yarborough ended up spinning into Allison, both cars ended up in the grass and a disagreement ensued. Bobby Allison, who at that point was a lap down, would stop his car, get out and then the fight was on. It was shown on live television and that race cemented Daytona as the place to be. Richard Petty would go on to win that race with Darrell Waltrip coming in second.
NASCAR has had several great finishes at Daytona, too many to even really write about, which also has made it such a special place. It’s the one race every driver wants to win. It’s the race that little boys watch with their fathers and think “this is what I want to do.”
NASCAR is all about family. The Alabama Gang of Bobbie, Donnie, and Davey Allison, along with Red Farmer is one example. You also have Ned Jarrett and son Dale, Dale Earnhardt and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well as Darrell Waltrip and his brother Michael. Most of those named have won the Daytona 500, though for some it was easier than others.
Darrell Waltrip finally won the Daytona 500 in 1989 on his 17th attempt in the car No. 17 and celebrated by doing the “icky shuffle.” Dale Earnhardt Sr. tried 19 times and so many times something would happen on the last lap. His is probably the most special win of all, as on his 20th time he finally conquered the Daytona curse and won the race. No one will forget seeing the black No. 3 coming down pit road with members of other teams and the media lined up to slap his hand and congratulate the “Intimidator” on his victory. When he got to victory lane, all he said was, “finally!”
There has been tragedy as well, 22 drivers have been killed at the track. Of course the most notable was Dale Earnhardt Sr. but others have been lost as well, including Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr.
What makes Daytona special? I think Darrell Waltrip summed it up perfectly when he said, “For a race driver, when you drive through that tunnel and into the infield at Daytona, it’s like you’ve entered the gates of Heaven. If you roll onto the track at Daytona and don’t get goosebumps, buddy you ain’t a racer.”
So as we get closer to Daytona this year think to yourself, what was your special moment that gives you goosebumps? Close your eyes and picture yourself there, feel the sun hitting your face and the roar of the crowd. Imagine that you can see Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Tiny Lund, and Pete Hamilton taking the checkered flag. If you close your eyes and look into turn four you can see the black No. 3 coming at you and that smirk on his face as he takes the checkered flag. Little boys that will be drivers someday dream of that checkered flag, and we are lucky enough to experience it all.