Editor's Note: No race today represents the heart and soul of NASCAR and stock car racing as much as the Daytona 500. We offer the following two stories in recognition of Feburary's 50th running of this historic event.
There came a blizzard to the nation's capital in the winter of '33. Bill France loaded up the car, put out the fire, and headed south.
Some claim he ran out of gas and money in Daytona Beach, and began work at a service station he later owned.
Anyway, his trip from Washington to Daytona Beach has left some mighty big tracks from sea to shining sea.
France did so much to bring stock car racing from the ragged ridges of the southern mountains to the cities that it would take volumes to tell all the stories. But that is not what we're here to talk about today.
We know he raced, organized the old beach and road course in Daytona, and then went about forming a sanctioning body for racing, called NASCAR.
But our sermon today, folks, is about the Daytona 500. We're coming up on the 50th Daytona 500 this February. You know, the one that the great Ken Squier, of television fame, refers to as "The Great American Race." It could not be said better, nor with a better voice than Squier's.
The old man fishing off Port Orange bridge looked up at the clouds from the approaching thunderhead and remarked: "That air France man's gonna keep messin' with them old racecars 'till he comes up with somethin' big, really big."
Inland a couple of miles and right alongside Volusia Avenue, unknowing to a few down on the beach, huge Catepillar dirt moving machines, aka the Big Cats, were cleaning up the swamps, pushing up stumps so that the land could dry.
Finally, the roar began right after church services on the first day of February in 1959. It rolled down Volusia toward the Atlantic Ocean like one of those violent summer storms.
"Listen," said Big Bill France, "it's the sound of the future."
The ShowThis was France's dream, to build the ultimate, high-banked race course, one even larger and more modern than the venerable and world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1958 he named his creation Daytona International Speedway, and now, nearly a year later, it was time to wake up and smell the high octane. On this Sunday afternoon, the awesome rumble and whine of high-powered engines pumped life into what some skeptics had referred to as France's pipe dream.
This was the first day for cars on the new 2.5-mile track.
Among those making shakedown runs were Glenn "Fireball" Roberts. He drove a modified Ford to 145.7 miles per hour. Then Curtis Turner drove a Ford Thunderbird to a speed of 143. France couldn't stand it any longer. He jumped into the pace car, a Pontiac, and ran 114 miles per hour.
The track, however, needed more work, so France closed the doors for another week, and announced the official opening the next Saturday, February 7.
France's plans included a 500-mile race for his NASCAR Grand National cars and Convertible Division cars. There would be two preliminary races of 100 miles each. They would be point races and would determine starting positions for the 500. One of the 100 milers would be for NASCAR Grand National cars, and the other 40-lap feature for Convertibles. He also scheduled a 200-mile Modified-Sportsman race for Saturday, a preliminary to the 500.
As qualifying time drew close, only 13 drivers were registered to qualify in the Grand National event, and six of the cars failed inspection. A good bit of the trouble was that the drivers were afraid of the place. They had never seen a racetrack so large where cars ran so fast.
About 6,000 fans showed up for qualifying. Only seven cars ran against the clock. Roberts captured pole position for the 100-mile qualifying race. He qualified at 140.581 mph. Tim Flock, in another Ford, ran 138.121 mph. Joe Weatherly, driving a Chevrolet, ran 137.741. Jack Smith drove a Chevrolet at 136.425, and Bobby Johns, in a 2-year-old Chevy, rounded out the top five at 126.528. Tom Pistone was Sixth in a Thunderbird and Bob Welborn Seventh in a Chevrolet.
After the first wave of cars qualified without a problem, a long line of drivers registered for second- and third-round time trials.
For the qualifying race for Convertible Division cars, which would race with the Grand National machines in the very first Daytona 500, Marvin Panch qualified a Glen Wood-prepared Ford "ragtop" at 128.810 mph, and Gene White ran a 1957 Chevy at 120.048 mph. Of the 59 cars that started the first 500-miler, 20 were convertibles.
Welborn, averaging 143.198 mph, won the 100-mile Grand National qualifying race and started from the pole in the first 500. Lloyd "Shorty" Rollins won the 100-miler for Convertibles. He started Second in the 500.
The track's first fatality occurred on Wednesday (February 11) of the week leading up to the big race. Local driver Marshall Teague, driving an Indianapolis-type car, died in a crash trying to set a world record.
The 500 would be a historic event. Mechanical failure sidelined some early runners, and as the race began to wind down, two hard chargers-Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp-emerged as the only two drivers in the lead lap. A dozen times they swapped the lead in the final 125 miles. The crowd of 42,000 realized it was coming down to the wire between Petty's Oldsmobile and Beauchamp's Ford.
There was confusion at the finish, and the deciding factor was a newsreel film France received. After looking at it, he made a decision, and on Wednesday, three days after the race, announced Lee Petty the winner of the race and $19,000 in prize money. For the 500 miles, Petty averaged 135.521 miles per hour.
From 1959 forward, the Daytona 500 has left a ribbon of history as colorful as the sport itself. Lee Petty's career ended in 1961 at Daytona after he and Beau-champ locked up in turn three during one of the qualifying races and Petty sailed over the wall, suffering injuries that led to his eventual retirement.
Meanwhile, Lee's son, Richard, became a seven-time winner of the 500.
Dale Earnhardt once turned a car over down the backstretch, got out, looked at the car, got back in and finished the race in the crumpled car.
It took Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip a long time to ever be declared winners of the 500, with Earnhardt finally claiming victory in 1998, nine years after Waltrip claimed his sole win in the event. In 2001, the great Earnhardt died in a fourth-turn crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Junior Johnson won the second annual Daytona 500 and claims he discovered how one car drafts another in the wind currents.
Bobby Johns finished Second, a young Richard Petty Third, Lee Petty Fourth and Johnny Allen Fifth.
Marvin Panch won the 500 in Smokey Yunick's Pontiac in 1961. Joe Weatherly finished Second, Paul Goldsmith was Third, Fred Lorenzen was Fourth and Cotton Owens Fifth.
The great Fireball Roberts won the 1962 Daytona 500. Richard Petty was Second, Joe Weatherly was Third, Jack Smith Fourth and Fred Lorenzen rounded out the top five.
Tiny Lund won the 500 in 1963, taking over for Marvin Panch in the Wood Brothers Ford after he pulled Panch from a burning car during a sports car race. Fred Lorenzen finished Second, Ned Jarrett Third, Nelson Stacy Fourth and Dan Gurney Fifth.
The year 1964 was not a good one for racing. Weatherly, Roberts and Jimmy Pardue were all killed in accidents. Richard Petty, however, with the introduction of the Hemi engine, drove to his first Daytona 500 victory. Jimmy Pardue finished Second, Paul Goldsmith Third, Marvin Panch Fourth and Jim Paschal Fifth.
Victory in 1965 went to Fred Lorenzen. Second was Darel Dieringer, Third was Bobby Johnson, Fourth Earl Balmer and Fifth Ned Jarrett.
Richard Petty bounced back into the Daytona 500 spotlight in 1966, winning for the second time and beating Cale Yarborough, who edged David Pearson, who was in front of Fred Lorenzen, who finished ahead of Sam McQuagg.
Mario Andretti stopped off at Daytona from his racing days at Indianapolis and won the 1967 Daytona 500. Fred Lorenzen finished Second, James Hylton Third, Tiny Lund Fourth and Jerry Grant Fifth.
Then began the Cale Yarborough era. He won the 1968 Daytona 500. LeeRoy Yarbrough finished Second, Bobby Allison Third, Al Unser Fourth and David Pearson Fifth.
LeeRoy Yarbrough in Junior Johnson's Ford won the 1969 Daytona 500. Charlie Glotzbach in Cotton Owens' Dodge was Second, followed by Donnie Allison, A.J. Foyt and Buddy Baker.
Pete Hamilton, in a Petty Plymouth prepared by Maurice Petty, slipped by David Pearson to win the 1970 Daytona 500. Bobby Allison was Third, Charlie Glotzbach was Fourth and Bobby Isaac Fifth.
It was Richard Petty's turn again in 1971. A.J. Foyt slipped in to win in 1972, and Petty took First again in 1973 and 1974, winning two years straight in Dodges.
Benny Parsons, driving a Chevrolet, won in 1975, and David Pearson was the 1976 winner in a Mercury after surviving a last-lap crash with Petty.
Cale Yarborough came back to the front in 1977, and Bobby Allison took the 1978 Daytona 500.
Richard Petty won in 1979 and his last victory in the 500 at the Big D was in 1981 with Buddy Baker getting his win in 1980.
Bobby Allison won in 1982, and Cale Yarborough took the next two straight, winning in 1983 and 1984.
Bill Elliott came on the scene in 1985 and won the 500, followed by Geoff Bodine in 1986 and then Elliott again in 1987.
Allison got another victory in '88, and Waltrip won in 1989. Derrike Cope did the trick in 1990 while Ernie Irvan won in 1991. Davey Allison wheeled into Victory Lane in 1992, Dale Jarrett in 1993, and Sterling Marlin put back-to-back wins together in 1994 and 1995.
It was Dale Jarrett's turn in 1996, and Jeff Gordon's in 1997.
Earnhardt's win in the '500' came as NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998, and Gordon again in 1999. Jarrett won another one in 2000, and Michael Waltrip drove an Earnhardt-prepared car to victory just ahead of Earnhardt's fatal accident.
Ward Burton drove Bill Davis' Dodge to victory in 2002, and Michael Waltrip won again in 2003. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it to Victory Lane in 2004, and Jeff Gordon in 2005. Then it was Jimmie Johnson, the winner in 2006, and Kevin Harvick won in 2007.
Yes, The Great American Race.
Getting The Word OutMonths Of Preparation Went Into Making This Year's Milestone Running Of The Daytona 500 An Event To RememberYou're now well aware that this year marks the 50th running of the Daytona 500.
It's a landmark for the sport, a half-century of races at the world's most significant stock car track.
One man, in particular, has been busy the past 18 months or so keeping the media apprised of events and developments, which in turn channeled them on to you, the readers, viewers and listeners. We're speaking of Andrew Booth, 33, Daytona International Speedway's Manager of Media Relations.
Before the green flag falls at the 2.5 mile speedway on February, 17, Booth will have authored something like 100 press releases on the event.
Put in recognizable terms, if laid end-to-end, those releases would equal an 11-car draft down Daytona's backstretch, or to put it another way, if taped up on Daytona's infield scoring pylon, those releases would reach up well past that 70-foot distance.
But that is hardly even denting the surface on what Booth's duties have encompassed coming into this 50th celebration.
Everything from reunions to face lifts and fan-friendly attractions have come under his direction.
"Planning for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 started at least 18 months in advance of our race date of Feb. 17, 2008," he says.
And how did Booth and his staff come up with ideas and promotions?
"We had many meetings with many different departments within the Daytona International Speedway and International Speedway Corporation family, brainstorming and putting together our plans for the most anticipated event in racing history," Booth says.
One of those undertakings was the reunion of Daytona 500 winners at Daytona last July.
"That was a major undertaking. To get the biggest names in motorsports history in one place at one time had its challenges," Booth says. "You've got current drivers whose schedules are busy as well as legends all coming from different parts of the country. It was a team effort between Daytona International Speedway and our media agency Taylor to put together the logistics and pull that off. The legends were very excited about this reunion and many changed their schedules to take part in this high-profile event.
"We had 22 of the 24 living champions participate in the event and the reward was worth it for everybody. The group picture of all the Daytona 500 champions is one that people will look back on for years and the media truly enjoyed talking to many of the legends in the sport.
"The event produced the early buzz on the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and I believe many reporters will use the material they gained during that event for advance coverage on the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in January and February."
That wasn't the most challenging endeavor leading up to the race, however, says Booth, a native of the Daytona area.
"The biggest part of the job leading up to the 50th running of the Daytona 500 has been putting together the 50th web site, www.daytona500.com." Booth says. "That site has a ton of video, photos, audio and other historical information, and gathering that material was time consuming. We also had to work with our designers in the construction of the site but the product that it has become is something that everybody here at the Speedway is very proud of.
"We encourage race fans to get their Daytona 500 fix by visiting that site. It's worth the trip."
One of the amusing stories that came out of the room of Daytona 500 champions was when the group learned that Buddy Baker got a speeding ticket the night after winning his 1980 Daytona 500. Those present also got to listen and watch as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti reflected on their racing days.
"That day was unforgettable." Booth says.
So what will fans see as the fruits of Booth's and his associates labors when they arrive for Speedweeks 2008?
"The first thing fans will notice when they come to Daytona International Speedway for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 is that it'll be dressed in gold," Booth says. "From street signs to the banners hanging on the grandstands, Daytona International Speedway will have a gold look.
"We will have several special activities planned. We're attempting to gather as many Daytona 500 winning cars together and we're planning on having the Daytona 500 champions return for the race. We will have top-notch pre-race entertainment, and a special cement casting at The Daytona 500 Experience motorsports attraction.
"In addition, our marketing partners such as Chevrolet, AAA, Kroger and UPS are providing opportunities for guests to take part in the event through various promotions."