“It was the tides,” Bill France, Jr. says, “that drove NASCAR from racing on the beach at Daytona and precipitated the creation of the Daytona International Speedway.” This and other little-known facts are a part of what’s shaped the 50-plus–year history of NASCAR.

The Beach

The first Stock Car race held on the beach at Daytona occurred in 1936. Bill France Jr. was only 3 years old when he and his family came to watch his father compete and finish fifth in a starting field of 27 entries. The ’36 race was sanctioned by the AAA and staged by the city of Daytona. Milt Marion of Long Island, New York, won the race in a ’36 Ford. However, the event was a financial disaster. The Elks Club tried to host it again in 1937, and again it was a debacle. Finally in 1938, the city asked Bill France Sr. and Charlie Reese (both local fellows) to organize the event. After paying all the expenses, prize money, and so on. They each netted a whopping $100 profit.

The first NASCAR-sanctioned race on the beach at Daytona took place in 1948. The cars were modified prewar coupes—most of them were flathead Fords. Red Byron, a World War II hero who almost lost a leg after being shot down over the Aleutian Islands, won the race. He had to have a special foot brace built in his race car so he could drive. Byron went on to win the first two NASCAR championships. In 1950 the race featured, for the first time, strictly stock (100 percent stock) cars—many of them were driven off the showroom floor. Only the headlights could be removed and seatbelts added. The drivers would cover the front of their cars with masking tape so the paint wouldn’t get sandblasted off.

From February 1949 until the inaugural race at the Daytona International Speed-way in 1959, the NASCAR-sanctioned Stock Car races at Daytona were run five miles south of town on a course comprised of a combination of pavement and half sand. With homes and urban development encroaching on the original site, the race was moved even farther down the beach.

The morning of the race, France Jr. went along the beach to wake campers and tell them that a race would be run where they were sleeping. This was not a particularly fun job to do, according to France.

“We never knew what kind of a racetrack we would have until after the tide went out,” he explains. “We didn’t know how smooth the beach would be. Depending upon which way the wind was blowing determined what the surface of the beach and the track would be like.”

The qualifying process required each car to be timed over a straight mile down the beach. This meant the drivers never went around the racetrack until the race started.

“They would be going pretty slow into that first turn when the green flag dropped, but where it became spectacular was at the end of the 2-mile straight run down the beach, when the cars would go into Turn 3,” France says. “The first lap was the practice lap and the first lap of the race all in one. For the rookie drivers, they had nothing to gauge what to expect next.”

Tides were another factor in how the race was run. France says there was a six-hour low-tide window that allowed just enough time to let the fans park and run the race, and then get the fans and their cars out before they were consumed by the ocean. Those first races were 200-plus miles. Finally, the race had to be shortened to 160 miles due to its own popularity and the growing number of fans (up to 30,000) who crammed the preciously small amount of beach along the race route.

Building the Legend

Bill France Sr. knew something had to be done to keep the momentum going for this Stock Car racing series. He went to Daytona’s town fathers and said, “If we want to keep motorsports and the thriving economy that it brings in the Daytona area, a speedway needs to be built.” The rest is history—the Daytona International Speedway was built.

The length of Daytona International Speedway (2.5 miles) was a calculated decision made by Bill France. He knew if he was going to grow Stock Car racing into the potential he believed this spectator sport held, the new speedway had to match the size and stature of another famous speedway: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indianapolis was the benchmark at that time against which all other racing venues around the world were measured.

The inaugural Daytona 500 was run at the Daytona International Speedway in 1959. In that first race, 59 cars started and 30 finished. The late Lee Petty (father of Richard, grandfather to Kyle, and great grandfather of the late Adam Petty) won the race in a ’59 Oldsmobile. For three days after the race, they didn’t know if Lee Petty or Johnny Beauchamp was the winner. France Jr. told us that they made a public appeal to the fans and to anyone who might have taken a photo of the cars crossing the finish line. When they finally found a photo, Lee Petty was declared the victor. Today at every NASCAR race, there are cameras at the start/finish line that shoot at speeds of 64 frames per second.

The Legends of Daytona

Richard Petty also drove in the first Daytona 500. Driving a ’57 Oldsmobile, he started in Sixth Place but finished 57th after his engine blew eight laps into the race. Over the next 22 years however, Petty won seven Daytona 500s and remains the winningest driver in the event’s history.

The list of great drivers at Daytona is legendary. In 1962 Fireball Roberts won every event he competed in at Daytona, including the Firecracker 250, the pole-qualifying race, and the Daytona 500. In 1967, in one of his few NASCAR starts, Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500. A.J. Foyt won the 500 in 1972, and Cale Yarborough has won four Daytona 500s.

We asked France about some of the drivers that stand out in his mind over the past 50-plus years of NASCAR. “Richard Petty’s record certainly speaks for itself. His father, Lee, won his share. Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner were spectacular. David Pearson’s name would show up on any list. Cale Yarborough had his day in the sun. I don’t know of anyone who has done so well in such a narrow window of time and at such an early age as Jeff Gordon. Even though he’s leveled off for the time being, Gordon has had a tremendous run. Dale Earnhardt won the championship seven times, and his name would certainly go on that list,” he says.

Rules of the Road

The birth of NASCAR came out of a discussion over rules. As with many sports, motorsports was put on hold during the War, but Stock Car racing surfaced immediately afterward. However, it had never been organized. Unscrupulous promoters were known to have walked away with the gate. There was not any one set of rules applicable to the cars or to racing itself. Knowing this, and also knowing that stock car racing held great potential as a spectator sport, Bill France Sr. stepped up to the plate in 1947. He called together the major players (drivers, mechanics, sponsors, and so on), and together they forged the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).

France Jr. has carried on the legacy of his father. “In life you’ve got rules you have to live by, and you have to have people to enforce those rules. If you don’t have rules, you have chaos. Basically we are the government in the little country of motorsports,” he says. “Our rules are the statutes and the laws of this little country. To gain and keep the confidence of everyone involved with NASCAR, those participating need to know, as evidenced by our behavior, that the rules are applicable to everyone and are enforced fairly.”

The result of this simple philosophy is history. Seven million fans will attend Winston Cup events in 2001, while 100 million viewers will watch a race on television. Not bad results for a bunch of “good ol’ boys” getting together to discuss some rules.