The History of the Daytona 500

The 2012 Daytona 500 logo
The 2012 Daytona 500 logo | Source

Background

The Daytona 500 has become one of the biggest dates in US motorsports, and is now considered the equivalent in terms of status within the stock-car racing world with the Indy 500, for there is no race that is bigger, more popular or one that more drivers want to win. It is quickly approaching the status of a true international motor-racing event.

It is the eve of the 2012 edition of the running of the "Great American race", but how did the Daytona 500 become the event that it is today?

The Beginnings of NASCAR

The Daytona 500 evolved into its current form through a series of different incarnations of what was essentially the same race in spirit, if not in name or even location. Thus to look at the development of the Daytona 500 we must look at the history of NASCAR itself.

When NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing) first started up as an idea in the '50s and '60s, Daytona International Speedway had not yet been built. Stock-car racing itself evolved out of illegal auto-races involving bootleggers at the time of the prohibition. Ordinary street-cars would be souped up with bigger engines and drivers looking to evade the police would deliberately design their cars with increased power and better handling for evasive purposes.

Soon, stock car racing evolved into a concept of its own right, with races held at county fairs and fairgrounds across the country. Yet there was no series at this time which combined all these events, and many were independent, had their own rules and regulations, and were designed in a variety of ways.

At the same time, Daytona beach in Florida was gradually becoming a by-word for speed. It had become a popular location for trying to set speed records and gradually people began to organize races along the beach. These would take place on an elongated hybrid oval road course, made up of two long straightaways with two very sharp corners at each end. Drivers would race along the beach before taking a sharp turn onto highway A1A.

Daytona Beach - the setting of over 10 land-speed records
Daytona Beach - the setting of over 10 land-speed records | Source

The France Family

It was during the days of early stock-car racing that William France, Sr., a mechanic, moved to Daytona Beach in 1935, looking to try and escape the effects of the Great Depression. As an entrepreneur, and having watched and taken part in a couple of races, Frances began to conceive the idea of a sanctioned body which would standardize stock-car racing and act as a formal sanctioning body to maintain an organized championship which would bring together a bunch of popular stock-car races into one series. In the early days, two of these main events was the race at Daytona Beach, and the increasingly popular Charlotte Speedway stock-car race.

In 1948, NASCAR was born, and ran its first ever sanctioned race along Daytona Beach, followed with its first ever "strictly-stock" sanctioned race at Charlotte Speedway (different to today's Charlotte Motor Speedway), arguably the first race that NASCAR organized that can really be called a purely stock-car race.

Red Byron, a driver already considered a legend in the early days of stock-car racing taking place in county fairs and fairgrounds across the country, won the first organized race.

The Construction of Daytona International Speedway

It quickly became apparent that NASCAR was incredibly popular. Record crowds turned out to watch the events at Daytona Beach and Charlotte Speedway, and soon the key figures in NASCAR decided that a dedicated track would be needed at Daytona if the racing there was to continue.

In 1950, just a couple of years after the formation of NASCAR, the first asphalt super-speedway, Darlington Speedway, was built in South Carolina. It was an immediate success, with fans turning out en-masse to watch drivers who quickly became regional heroes. The concept of driver's fans was born, and Frances quickly realized that this ever-growing expansion needed to be tapped into. This resulted, in 1959, in the construction of the 2.5 mile-long Daytona International Speedway, just a few miles off the coast of Daytona Beach.

A highly-banked speedway by even today's standards,of 30 degrees in the turns, means that the race-track has something of a legendary quality about it today. Its reputation was certainly helped by the fact that the running of the inaugural Daytona 500 didn't officially end for three days, as it took that long for the officials to study photographs of the finish between drivers Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp to decide who had won. This was only the first of what would be many great races held at Daytona.

The '60s and '70s

The construction of Daytona Beach had set off a wildfire of construction across the South. Racetracks at Atlanta and Charlotte (Charlotte Motor Speedway) were opened. Legends such as Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and Bobby Allison led NASCAR through some of its greatest years. Often-times a season would consist of 60 races a year on the schedule, almost double today's number of races which is today considered one of the toughest and most gruelling motor-racing schedules in international motor-sports.

It cannot be doubted that Daytona International Speedway has played a major role in the promotion of NASCAR, with many incredible finishes and races taking place there over the years. In 1979, one of the most famous events in NASCAR history took place when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough came together fighting for the lead. A fistfight followed, and received enormous publicity, with newspapers reporting on the incident across the country, and many have pointed to this event as being key to the continuing growth of NASCAR's popularity.

The 1979 event is now considered one of the most important races in stock-car racing history not only for the "Infamous Fistfight", but also for the fact that it was the first 500 mile race to be completely broadcast live, beating even the Indy 500 which was only being shown tape-delayed at this point.

On the day the race was held, a major snowstorm in the Northeast of the US meant that many people were stuck indoors and TV ratings for the race soared as a result. The free publicity that NASCAR received as a result, combined with millions of people witnessing the incident between Donnie and Cale, meant that many fans of NASCAR were born on that day.

The 80s and 90s

During the decades of the 80s and 90s, new drivers became prominent heroes of the NASCAR world. Drivers such as Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt became household names and helped NASCAR to consolidate its reputation and publicity.

It was during the 1980s that businesses started to become heavily involved in NASCAR to help promote themselves and it saw the rise of races such as the Coke Zero 400, the mirror race of the Daytona 500.

It was in 1998 that "The Intimidator" Dale Earnhardt, winner of seven championships, finally managed to grab victory at Daytona, winning the 1998 Daytona 500, with a race win having previously eluded him. Unfortunately, the same race in 2001 also tragically took his life, and in the 2011 Daytona 500 the commentators on FOX paid tribute by going silent on-air, with fans around the track holding up three fingers in tribute to his driving of the #3 car.

A mythical quality about Daytona since Earnhardt's death is that something associated with Earnhardt has always won the race since 2001, whether that be through family, or through his team.

Conclusions

The Daytona 500 is an incredibly important date in US motor-sports, not just because of the event's prestige, but also because of numerous incidents and events that have happened that have further increased its publicity and reputation. Its place as the premier event of stock-car auto racing is well-deserved, hence why the speedway made it onto my list of the top 5 motor-racing circuits of all time.

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