Track Talk: Time for NASCAR's "Super Bowl"
Few sporting events achieve the universal acclaim that the Daytona 500 enjoys after over half century of running the annual 500-mile speedfest in Daytona Beach, Fla. The NFL’s "Super Bowl" is one of them, of course, as is the MLB "World Series", the PGA's "The Masters" tournament in Augusta, and the century-old Indianapolis 500.
But, back in 1959, the fate of his family’s business at stake, who would have thought that a 500-mile stock car race on Bill France, Sr.’s newly minted 2 1/2 mile, high-banked superspeedway would one day be mentioned with the same reverent tones reserved for those other, far more established sporting events? Or that a live television audience of over 35 million people would be tuning in to watch "The Great American Race", as the iconic CBS broadcaster Ken Squire dubbed it during the first flag-to-flag coverage in 1979.
No doubt the elder France was a risk-taker. A bombastic promoter with guts, tenacity and a persistent dream that, with a lot of luck and a steady hand on the wheel, a rag-tag bunch of outlaw stock car racers could be molded into a respected national racing series. His vision of what he and a few other visionaries founded 65 years ago at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach has become one of the most dynamic sports leagues in modern history and the world’s leading motorsports sanctioning body.
But without first-class race track facilities, stock car racing’s early stars — even those racing in NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) division — were relegated to slugging it out on dusty little dirt tracks and small-town asphalt ovals in the southeastern United States. The biggest thing that NASCAR had going for it in its first decade was the long-standing beach-highway race in Daytona Beach, and France, Sr. — or “Big Bill” as he was known, due to his stature and charismatic manner — had turned it from an on-again, off-again community event to a profitable “going concern” when racing resumed following the end of World War II.
Correctly sensing that a mid-winter break in central Florida would always be appealing to most of the rest of the country, and especially to racers eager to shake off the cabin fever, “Big Bill” was convinced that his most bankable events would continue to be on the famous Daytona Beach sand. The beach races had reached legendary status among race fans, and as France had predicted, the crowds were growing after each successful running.
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