Richard Petty celebrated his last of seven Daytona 500 wins in 1981...
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.
...and claimed his first in 1964.
"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.