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It is a place like no other in racing (save for maybe Indianapolis). When you mention its name, even to non-racing friends, they KNOW what it is. The more you know about racing, the more you know how BIG this place truly is. If you’re a fan, a crewmember, a crew chief, an official or an owner, but especially if you’re a driver, THIS is the ONLY place you want to be. Daytona International Speedway–”The World Center of Racing”. That title was earned every step of the way, ever since “Big” Bill France Sr. dreamed of a place bigger than anything else back in the late ’50′s. Having already formed NASCAR some 10 years earlier, France realized that racing stock cars on the beaches at Daytona Beach had to come to an end and a purpose-built facility was badly needed. But just like everything else in his life, it had to be big–REALLY big. Not content to build a 1/2 mile or even a ”super-speedway” (a mile in length) that were the norm of the day, France’s big dream was to be 2 1/2 miles around. To help acheive even greater speeds, the turns HAD to be banked, in this case an unheard of 31 degrees. To make that happen, huge amounts of dirt was scooped out of the infield to make the base of the banking. What to do with the giant hole that was left afterward? Simple–fill it with water! Thus, Lake Lloyd was created and added even more mystique to the place.
A project this large had the potential of failure but that word was not in France’s vocabulary. Despite almost going broke, the track was completed and ran its first race in 1959. Word about the place spread like wildfire all over the country, especially in the southeast where small tracks were all anyone ever ran on. Imagine the emotion created in every racer when they heard the news back then: ”2 1/2 miles around..the biggest track EVER??? I gotta be there!!!” There was even a bumper sticker created years ago which pretty much summed it up: “If You Wanna Race, Daytona’s The PLACE!!!”
Ever the promoter, France allowed 59 cars to qualify for that first race. There were convertibles and hardtops, with drivers from all over the country, who came to see and race Daytona. That first race also lived up to the size of the facility and the hype surrounding it. The last lap became the stuff of legend–3 cars crossing the finish line at the same time (1 of those a lap down). The other two crossed as one and Johnny Beauchamp was originally named the winner. Lee Petty (father of 7-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty) felt as though he had won and lodged a protest. Remember, there were no in-car cameras, no slow-motion replays, no digital cameras. Film cameras was the ultimate technology of the day and France sought out several photographers who had pictures of the finish but he had to wait until they were developed. When the pictures came back, it provided visual proof that Petty was right. Thus, from its very first race, Daytona established itself as a legendary place.
Word again spread quickly about the size of the place and the speeds that could be generated there. Racers being what they are, they started to flock to the place in greater numbers. Daytona’s legendary status grew year after year and continuing improvements were made to it on almost an annual basis. Not to be content with hosting just stock car racing, France invited sports cars, motorcycles and even go-karts to run races at his new place. Those, too, have grown in prominence over the years along with the track itself. Although it started off as just a 3-hour event, the Rolex 24 at Daytona grew in both time and reputation as the biggest North American sports car race. AMA Motorcyles have their biggest event here too–the Daytona 200.
Nothing, however, compares to the grandeur and pageantry of “The Great American Race”– the Daytona 500. Long considered the “Super Bowl of NASCAR”, the 500 welcomes fans and media from all over the world. It’s so big it requires the running of “Speedweeks”, consisting of several smaller races which help build excitement leading up to the big event itself. Crowds estimated at 250,000 come to Daytona to witness first-hand racing history. (For racing fans and drivers here in the chilly northeast part of the country, Speedweeks in Daytona is like a harbinger of spring–when they start racing at Daytona in February, we know that racing in our part of the world will be starting soon!).
Ask nearly any driver of any kind of racing that races at Daytona what they would like to have on their racing resume and they all say the same thing–a race victory at Daytona. Some will even tell you that they would trade any and all previous wins for just one at Daytona–it is THAT special. Ask any racing fan: if you could choose just one race to go to, where would it be? The overwhelming response would be “DAYTONA!!!”. It ranks right up there with the emotion it evokes as the old Yankee Stadium did for baseball fans.
To this day, no matter who you are, whether you’re in racing or not, the first time you see the place is something you’ll always remember. If you’re a driver, the first time you WIN there is something you’ll never forget!!!
Mike Paz, Daytona International Speedway PA Announcer