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.
The “Daytona Beach Road Course” as it was known, was a 4.2-mile race course consisting of a 2-mile stretch of hard-packed sand on the beach and a 2-mile stretch of pavement on State Highway A-1-A. Each “leg” was connected on the north and south ends by a .10-mile corner topped with clay. Long straightaways, two tight turns, and transitions to three different surfaces made for some wild and wooly races, and “Big Bill” — ever the canny promoter — was there at just the right time.
But with Daytona Beach and surrounding communities growing, and the value of beach-front property beginning to rise, France could see that in time, his lucrative event could be squeezed out by other community interests. By the late 1950s, it was clear that the race needed to be moved, but to where? And that’s when the genius of “Big Bill” really came to light.
Scraping together his own savings, France was able to secure some land about five miles inland, west of downtown Daytona Beach. Considered marginal for development, France saw that it would be perfect for his latest brainchild — a true “superspeedway”, designed to provide an asphalt track surface where V-8 powered stock cars, modified for racing, could attain speeds theretofore unheard of. At 31 degrees banking in the corners, and featuring a curving front-stretch that was dubbed a “tri-oval” and banked at 18 degrees, Big Bill’s Daytona International Speedway would be like no other racetrack on the planet.
Trouble was, funds were limited and bankers were wary of the grandiose plans that France had revealed. At a critical moment, a few key corporate backers stepped in and guaranteed sufficient funds to complete the mammoth track, on schedule for a February, 1959 opening, replacing the venerable beach race that had been the mainstay for so many years. Big Bill always thought and acted outside that proverbial “box”, and his gut told him that in order for the sports media and, more importantly, racers and race fans to take him seriously, he had to create a Big Event, something far beyond expectations.
So it was that a 500-mile stock car race on the world’s fastest closed course was created, and the “Daytona 500” was born. That first race in 1959, before a crowd much smaller than the more than 200,000 that will pack into the grandstands and infield for this year’s edition, was a barn-burner. Speeds of 140 mph, the effects of the draft felt for the first time, and dramatic door-handle-to-door-handle duels had arrived. When the checkered flag flew, it was a photo finish at the line, with Lee Petty edging out Harlan’s Johnny Beauchamp, although it took three days to sort out the camera angles and declare a winner.
Today, NASCAR races are scored electronically and such “Who won?” challenges are clearly a thing of the past, but the fact that the first Daytona 500 was so close and exciting at the finish set the stage for future contests at the “World Center of Racing,” and ignited the imaginations of millions of race fans. For 54 years, the Daytona 500 has been the benchmark against which all NASCAR events are judged, and the event that sets the tone for the racing season to follow. Small wonder that it was recognized as the “Super Bowl” of stock car racing, though ironically our sport’s mega-event is at the beginning, rather than the end, of every NASCAR season.
Most drivers who have won NASCAR championships, but not the Daytona 500, would gladly trade a season championship for a trip to that hallowed Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway. It’s the reason that seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt cherished his 1998 win — in his 20th attempt at victory in the Great American Race — more than all of his other 75 triumphs.
So here we are in 2013, and the 55th Annual Daytona 500 is just a few days away, this Sunday, Feb. 24. For most Iowa race fans who will not be among the throngs in Daytona, that means watching NASCAR’s “Super Bowl” on a Fox affiliate television station, which for those of us in Newton would be KDSM, channel 17.
There is another alternative, however, and that is to join the staff of Iowa Speedway at our 7th Annual Daytona 500 Party in the track’s fabulous Newton Club, which is located on the ground floor of our suite tower behind the front stretch. No matter what it’s doing outside, inside we’ll be having a great time starting at 11 a.m., with food and drinks available, door prizes and generally just lots of fellowship and fun among race fans.
It’s just 10 bucks a person, and tickets are available in advance if you like, or you can just come on out and get them at the door. We’ll be greeting our race fans and friends with a smile, and then we’ll all find one of the many television screens throughout the 10,000 square foot clubhouse, and kick off the 2013 racing season in style with the Daytona 500 airing at Noon.
Looking down on all the to do about his beloved Daytona 500, “Big Bill” must be very proud.