Robert is a great friend of mine who is currently living in South Korea. We lived together before he left and I can attest to his love for, and extensive knowledge of NASCAR. If you think the sport is dumb, or laughed just now when I called it a sport, Bobby will change your mind after a 10 minute conversation. He sent me this piece he wrote containing some cool history about the Daytona 500 and what this race means to the sport and to us fans. Without further adieu…
Have you ever heard of Earnest Hemingway? I know it’s an odd way to start a sports article, but have you? He was a book writer. He wrote some American classics in his time. He had an odd way of going about his life. Well, at least some thought it was odd, and at best eccentric. He worked with the Red Cross in World War I. There, he was seriously wounded while delivering chocolates and cigarettes to American men at the front line of the Italian front. He saved an Italian enemy soldier, for which he received the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery. He is known as an award winning author, journalist, traveler, and the real life version of the Dos Equis guy. The reason I tell you these things is because of a quote I want to start this article off with. His advice to writers was, “Write drunk; edit sober.” I’m going to attempt that right now.
Daytona International Speedway is a beautiful sporting complex. Its creation is the dream of Bill France, Sr., realized. Mr. France organized several drivers who enjoyed racing souped up sedans in 1948. A good part of these drivers were Southern boys who had taken a liking to outrunning the law while running moonshine on country roads. Eventually, these gentlemen wanted to find out who was the best at doing so. Mr. France saw an epic opportunity, to market such do it yourself car enthusiast and to bring it to the American public eye. Most of you racing enthusiast know all about this story. But, there are some details a lot of people just don’t know about this sport consisting of rednecks turning left at a high rate of speed.
Mr. France was a very successful businessman. In fact, I think he was a bit of a genius. He saw the competitive nature of the American everyman and foresaw the appeal of that exact type of person to the mass public. He knew in the 1950s that Americans love someone they could relate to. In fact, the cars that were racing in his sanctioning body were cars bought from American manufacturers, like Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Dodge, Buick and Oldsmobile, etc. They were bought from the show room, had a roll cage added, and were tinkered on by regular folks like you or I to make them have more power and better handling. The American automobile industry was booming in the 50s, and his series became so popular that investors would help him build the beautiful Daytona International Speedway to display all that American engineering competing against each other and see just who, and what brand, was better.
When big Bill went about designing this speedway, that was opened in 1959, he had tons of racing in mind. He made the track long. It also had extremely high banking to keep the car speeds up. He also made a road course to run through the infield of the facility. Also, that huge lake that you see near the backstretch, it was built for the intention of racing boats, which has happened on it, well, a lot. He’d made a revolutionary race facility for every facet of motor racing imaginable. When you hear the “International” part of Daytona International Speedway, it’s probably homage to the fact that the track is almost exactly 4 km long. He wanted this place to appeal to every motorsports enthusiast in the world. The only thing missing, really, is a drag strip. It is an amazing and revolutionary motorsports facility that was far ahead of its time.
The next thing you ought to think about is, why Daytona? Why is this place the super bowl event of American auto racing? A lot of people don’t even know that this used to not even be the opening of the NASCAR season. The season usually started in Riverside, California. That track was a road course. Crazy, right? The season used to start there in January and then take a month off to make sure everyone had plenty of time to get back home to North Carolina, Georgia or Alabama and get their cars ready for the Daytona 500. That Riverside race was the series opener right up until 1981, when Daytona became the perennial race for the NASCAR season. Did you know that? I learned that fact, to great surprise, just a few years ago.
Still, you gotta wonder, why Daytona? It’s not the biggest racetrack on the schedule. It’s not the fastest track on the schedule. It’s not the oldest superspeedway on the schedule. Many series visit Daytona once or twice a year to run the road course or superspeedway, but this is NASCAR’s showcase. They are the reason that money pours into this place. They get the rear ends in the stands more than any other series. They show the most competitive and exciting racing for the everyman. They are the reason it’s important. That has always been the case. That’s why it’s an important auto racing event.
Well, that and just plain outrageous luck.
The inaugural running of the Daytona 500 took place in 1959. It was, well, kind of a big deal. Every American car manufacturer poured money into the event to make sure their car make looked good. It was a serious test of endurance for drivers and their equipment. During the race there wasn’t a single caution. However, there were a ton of mechanical failures. A little known driver from Level Cross, NC, Richard Petty, fell out of the race very early on, just 8 laps in. The engine on his convertible, I say that again, convertible, had failed. Immediately after his engine failed and he was out of the race, he helped his dad’s team change tires on his car for the rest of the race. You sure don’t see that sort of stuff in auto sports anymore.
At the end of the day, Johnny Beauchamp was declared the winner of the first Daytona 500. Well, he got the champagne and the pretty girls’ kiss, but not everyone agreed on it. Lee Petty thought it was a pile of, well, excrement, that he wasn’t declared the winner. It took 3 days for someone to finally come out and say who won the race. The opening race had a photo finish. Due to video evidence, it was decided Lee Petty had won. The controversy over the finish kept the fledgling sport on the front page of newspapers for several days after the race was over, which helped the race gain notoriety with the public.
The inaugural event had been a huge success. However, it still wasn’t even remotely the most important race in American motorsports. That race was the Indy 500. The Indy 500 was regarded as the most important American race by not only the American viewing public (t.v. ratings), but by the international viewing public. The trend of it being the most important American race to people abroad of the U.S. continues to this day. More people attend the Indy 500 today than attend the Daytona 500, even though the Daytona 500 eclipsed the Indy 500 around 1996 or so for American t.v. viewership. So how is it the best race of the year for American motorsports?
It’s because of the magical allure of Daytona. It’s overtaken Indianapolis. That’s the truth, plain and simple. Eventually, the NASCAR stories were just better than the Indy guys’ stories.
For a long time, the only way you could find out about what was happening in NASCAR was by watching ABC Wide World of Sports, or reading your local Southern newspaper. In 1979, that all had a dramatic change. That was the first year that the Daytona 500 was covered flag to flag on national television. It didn’t hurt that the race was terribly exciting. Near the end of the race Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison had an amazing battle for the lead down the backstretch of the track. Nearly immediately after the crash, former golden gloves boxer Yarborough decided to take matters into his own hands by swinging a helmet into Donnie’s brother Bobby’s face and they’d all continue to take part in one of the best moments in sports. You can see the excitement here…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXbHQtZH8dE Enjoy Donnie Allison lying out of his teeth about the events that took place. It’s rather cute.
You’ll start noticing that NASCAR kind of gets lucky about marketing itself. Another fantastic example of this is when in 1984, Richard Petty won his 200th NASCAR race while at Daytona on July 4th. He held off Cale Yarborough to win the race by a foot, maybe less. The magical part of it all was that Ronald Reagan called from Air Force One to order the drivers to start their engines. Midway through the race a great picture was taken of Air Force One landing next to the track while Petty’s car sailed down the backstretch. I learned about all this stuff when I was about 8 and my grandfather, who worked at a tobacco warehouse, gave me a Winston Cup NASCAR racing highlight tape. There’s a great documentary about this out there on youtube. It comes in three parts. Here’s the link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7X0ouyIxe0
Another great example of how important this race is to drivers would be the “Boogity boogity” guy himself, Darrell Waltrip. While Waltrip spends most of his time being the corniest most white bread guy from Kentucky you’ve ever heard from in your life, you can’t deny how special this race is to champions. Just watch him in victory lane while he finally won the thing after 17 years of trying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQlXKEPhZ64
Also, to keep the long winded sense of this article going, you can’t forget about Earnhardt. Dale Earnhardt had spent 18 years pretty much dominating the sport. He’d also dominated superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. He’d had a flat tire on the last turn of the last lap, hit a seagull, blown engines, ran out of gas, had been involved in accidents not of his doing, had finished 2nd several times, had won more races at Daytona than any other driver at the time (counting twin qualifiers, IROC races etc., 30 wins altogether) and still had not won the big one. When he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, his career was complete. If you’ve ever seen him talk about the race, you knew how much it meant to him. When’s the last time you saw every team member from every other team racing against someone come out to shake a competitor’s hand before they’ve made it to victory lane? Here’s the scene. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0X-_XqTKngg Who knows when something like that will happen again?
Not to mention, Ned Jarrett calling his son’s victory at the Daytona 500, as he held off Earnhardt to win it all. That was pretty special. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wedZ8S_WBO8
I get real excited about racing, especially racing at Daytona. I’ve spent a long time today telling you why I do. I grew up in the middle of nowhere amongst the highest quality people I’ve ever met in my life. When you get your life started in the country of North Carolina, there ain’t much to do. My dad worked on cars as a hobby. He built engines for drag racers and short trackers. I was handing him tools to help him rebuild engines at the age of 5 or 6. I guess you could say this stuff just runs through my blood. I love racing. I love the Daytona 500. Anyone who knocks it doesn’t know much about it. I hope the race is exciting this Sunday. Also, I hope you enjoyed the article, and maybe even learned something.
I opened with a Hemingway quote. Here’s one for the closing of this bit of “journalism.”
Hemingway said, “Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports…others are just games.”
I agree. And good day to you all.