Ring of Fire: An Oral History of the Daytona 500
As the “Great American Race” celebrates its 50th anniversary, the legends of Nascar weigh in on the thrilling, violent, whiskey-soaked contest that changed everything.
Every winter for half a century, a narrow strip of shoreline 60 miles northeast of Orlando is transformed into an automotive mecca where thousands flock to worship at the altar of speed. With the 50th running of the Daytona 500 this February 17, the city of Daytona Beach will play host to 230,000, a riot of rowdy and fiercely loyal fans cheering on the 43 drivers competing for a $19 million purse and the title of champion of the Great American Race.
More than even the Super Bowl or the World Series, the Daytona 500 transcends sports. It’s a clash of industrial titans (Chevy, Ford, Dodge, and now Toyota). It’s about technical advancement and iconoclastic athletes risking their necks for the checkered flag. It’s about family legacies and feuds, glory and death, and the never-ending quest for the almighty dollar. But in the beginning—before the multimillion-dollar TV deals, before NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France dreamed of building a titanic speedway by the sea—there was nothing but a hard-packed strip of beach and some rolling waves. And it was on that beach that a handful of cars gathered in the early days of the automobile to give birth to American motor racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2004 Daytona 500 Champion
When you drive around Daytona, there aren’t any signs saying this is where racing started. After all these years, you’d assume that every sign in town would have a racecar on it. But you don’t really feel like this is history, that it’s a big fucking deal, until you’re on the speedway property—then, bam!
Historian with the NASCAR Hall of Fame
It goes all the way back to the turn of the century, when rich folks would come [to the Daytona Beach area] for what they called the winter season. The automobile was fairly new, and these folks would bring their newfangled cars down on the train so they could show them off. At the time there was less than 150 miles of paved road in the entire country, and most of that was in metropolitan areas. So these guys had their cars and no place to run them, and they darn sure couldn’t run them at full speed. The beach was a God-given gift. It was rock hard.
1960 Daytona 500 Champion
The sand was basically like asphalt, and the closer you got to the water, the faster the car would run because the ground was so hard. So they’d race when the tide went out.
The first match race, in 1902, was between Ransom Olds, of Oldsmobile, and Alexander Winton, who was the biggest name in the automotive industry at the time. Before long, worldwide attention was focused on the Daytona Beach area.
1967 Daytona 500 Champion
Because of the nature of the beach, you had a very long stretch where you could get a good run in an open area. So they set many land-speed records there. Then the obvious thing happened: Development came. After that so the drivers trying to set world speed records moved to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
The land-speed era lasted on the sands from 1903 to 1935. There was so much development on the beachfront that it was really getting impossible to run 275 mph down the beach, because you’re basically in people’s backyard. In 1936 the city said, “Hey, we’ve got to keep this racing tradition going.” So they ran the first stock car race. It was a financial disaster. The city lost $20,000, and they said, “Guess what, we’re out of the racing business.”
The old course was [a loop made up of] the beach and Highway A1A. Coming off the pavement, you had to slow down before you hit the beach or you’d go off into the trees and bushes. Sometimes as many as 25 or 30 cars would be piled up there.
2006 Daytona 500 Champion
When-ever I see those old videos, I smile and think of how much fun it must have been to race on that combined course. Well…I’m not sure I’d want to race a car with just a shady lap belt and a leather cap for a helmet, but it does look fun.
1968, 1977, 1983, 1984 Daytona 500 Champion
Big Bill [France] used to run a filling station in Daytona. He started off as a racecar driver and went from driving to promoting. He was determined to make this sport go.
The guru of all race promoters was a fellow named Ralph Hankinson. Bill France said, “Jeez, if I can get the old man to promote a race, we know it’s going to be a success.” But Bill didn’t have the 25 cents to make the call, so he called collect. Hankinson didn’t know who this Bill France guy was, so he refused the call. Bill complained to a friend who had some money. The friend told Bill, “Let’s go in partners. I’ll put the money up, and you do the footwork.” They ended up splitting a $200 profit, and Bill said, “Hey, this is pretty cool.” He realized how big racing could be, and came up with the idea for NASCAR. So if you look at NASCAR and what it’s become, it all came about because of a 25¢ phone call that wasn’t accepted in 1938.
A Speedway Is Born
On December 14, 1947, after nine years of promoting races in and around Daytona Beach, Bill France Sr. gathered a group of racing aficionados in a smoke-filled room at the Streamline Hotel and officially formed the National Association for Stock Car Racing. Always a masterful marketer and promoter, France recognized the fundamental appeal of his sport to its audience: the ability to identify with the good ol’ boys on the racetrack. The fans drove the same model cars, and they came from the same small southeastern towns. Unlike all other sports, stock car racing was a torture test of consumer products in front of a live audience. If fans saw a Chevy winning on the track, they showed up at Chevy dealerships. The big Detroit companies started flooding NASCAR with money, upping the quality of the cars, the speeds, the purses. As NASCAR’s audience grew over the next decade, its signature Daytona races along Highway A1A and the beach became increasingly crowded and hard to control. In 1952 the race had to be shortened by 10 laps to get everybody out before high tide. The situation was becoming unmanageable. By the mid-1950s, Big Bill had decided to risk his financial future on replacing the beach course with an imposing superspeedway that would attempt to outshine even the country’s most well-known track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Indianapolis had been established since the beginning of the century, and it was really the center for racing in America. The France family thought they needed a marquee event to represent stock cars, so they decided to build a track even faster than Indy. Stock cars are obviously not as fast as open-wheeled cars, so he had to build the banking to get the speeds up. Indy has no banking. Daytona was a different animal from the start.
President of Daytona International Speedway
Bill France took all kinds of risks. The turns have 31-degree banking. The technology is just now here today to actually pave that kind of banking. Any modern engineer is always amazed that Big Bill was somehow able to do it 50 years ago.
NASCAR vice president of corporate communications
Even in the industry, nobody took France seriously. He was some nut down in Florida building this two-and-a-half-mile track. Money was a huge problem. At one point he needed $30,000 to complete the track and had exhausted all his sources. He got the money from Pepsi in return for giving them the soda-pouring rights at the track. That was the beginning of corporate involvement in motorsports.
The first time I drove in there, I really thought Bill France had lost his mind. I didn’t know how he was going to get cars to run long enough to last 500 miles. Back then our cars just didn’t last like they do now.
1993, 1996, 2000 Daytona 500 Champion
Daytona was bigger than life. I can remember standing on the back of our car in the infield as a seven-year-old kid watching my father [two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett]. There was nothing in my life that seemed bigger than there.
The first time [someone] took me to the Daytona speedway, I couldn’t believe how big and fast that place was. I was hanging on the fence, and before I knew it 43 cars had gone by me in the blink of an eye. I was like, “This is serious.”
No one had ever seen anything that big before. The driver Jimmy Thompson said, “There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone.”
What was amazing about the first Daytona 500 [held in 1959] was that it turned out to be a photo finish. Bill France saw Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty running neck and neck. They didn’t have a finish-line camera set up, so he went down to watch the cars come across. But Joe Weatherly was a lap down and on the outside, and he blocked France’s view. There was no way to know who won. Beauchamp was flagged the winner, but Petty protested. They put a hold on everything, and France put out an APB for anyone who had photographs or movies of the finish. Everybody in the racing world was sitting there with bated breath, and after three days of looking at every picture and studying every film, they finally determined that Lee Petty had won. After that they put a camera at the finish line.
1961 Daytona 500 Champion
They ran convertibles in 1959, because Bill wanted to get a convertibles circuit going. When you were in a convertible, the fans could see you working the car, watch your arms and everything. So Bill came by and offered me $1,000 to cut the top off my car. I did, and it was the biggest mistake I ever made. The convertibles were so much slower, it almost felt like you were being sucked out of the car. That was the only time they ran convertibles in the 500.
I found out about drafting in 1960. I was out trying to get my car faster [in practice sessions before the 500], and Cotton Owens came by. I knew his car was a lot faster than mine was, so as he went by I ducked in behind him. Going down the backstretch, shucks, I was sitting there running only half-throttle, and I started thinking to myself, Why in the world am I keeping up with him? I finally figured it out, but I didn’t say nothing about it. I just waited till the race started and began grabbing those fast cars and drafting them. As they dropped out, I’d get the next one that came along. I drafted myself all the way to Victory Lane. I won $19,500. Oh, Lord, $19,500 was like you were rich.
2007 Daytona 500 Champion
I don’t know the exact number, but the prize when I won was about $1.5 million [out of an $18 million purse]. But to be able to see your name on the trophy with the greats, that was probably the best part.
Daytona Revs Up
Like many of his early racing contemporaries, Junior Johnson cut his driving teeth as a moonshiner, outfitting his car to outgun the authorities while running hooch throughout the Smoky Mountains. For years drivers like Johnson had been racing their souped-up whiskey wagons throughout the South. These early drivers’ skills and mechanical knowledge may have been born out of necessity, but their wheel-handling and fearlessness made them instant players on the NASCAR circuit. The sport’s whiskey-running roots helped give NASCAR its character and lent to its legend. And there was no better place to watch the moonshine runners run than Daytona.
In those days you didn’t have much [driver] influx from other parts of the States. You were out of style unless you had a drawl. But if you look at the drivers that were champions then, they were as good as they come.
Daytona was sort of a party town when the race showed up. A lot of times [infamous drivers] Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly would stay up all night and race the next day. They could handle it; I could never handle it that strong. That used to be a big part of racing. And now it just doesn’t happen at all.
There’s more than one story about what happened to rental cars back in the old days. You’d have to rent a car to drive around the city when you were here, so Turner and Weatherly would race their rentals around the traffic circle in the middle of town.
I’ve heard that Joe Weatherly ran a rental car into the swimming pool one night.
People were always pulling pranks on each other. One night a guy who worked for Goodyear came into a bar. Everyone was having drinks and laughing when all of a sudden this explosion went off. We all turned to see this guy standing there under the chandelier with a shotgun. He said, “I think I got it.” He wasn’t arrested; he was just doing it to scare the crap out of people.
1989 Daytona 500 Champion Crew Chief for Darrell Waltrip and Current FOX Analyst
Since the inception of NASCAR until somewhere around 1995, cheating was accepted. You’d come to Daytona with a dozen things you had done that you knew NASCAR wasn’t going to like (such as using nitrous or narrowing the chassis). When they got through the inspection process, if six of those things got through, you had a successful outing. It was all part of the spirit that made our sport so exciting.
Television Takes Hold
By the late ’70s, the stock cars that had run at about 145 mph during the inaugural 500 were approaching 200 mph. Two decades of speedway racing had built an expanding pantheon of stars that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, and the brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison. But Daytona’s popularity was still confined largely to the Southeast. That all changed on February 18, 1979, when CBS broadcast the first live airing of the Daytona 500. A huge blizzard happened to be pounding the East Coast that day, confining many Northerners to their homes. With nothing better to do, they tuned in to the 500. What they saw immediately pushed both NASCAR and the Daytona 500 into the national consciousness.
2001, 2003 Daytona 500 Champion
Thirty years ago my family used to get into our car and drive an hour toward Bowling Green, Kentucky and sit on the side of the road to listen to the races on the radio being broadcast out of Nashville, just to hear how my brother [eventual 1989 Daytona champ Darrell Waltrip] was doing. That’s how desperate you had to be to want to know something about our sport. So [the 1979 Daytona 500] being live on network television was a huge deal.
Worked the 1979 Pit Crew for Cale Yarborough
Once the race got under way, it was pretty obvious to everyone that Cale and both Donnie and Bobby Allison had good, fast cars. And as the race was winding down, everybody could see that Cale was just holding back, biding his time, trying to set Donnie up. Down on pit road, we all thought we were on our way to Victory Lane.
I had Donnie set up for the last lap to slingshot past him on the backstretch. Then when I made my move, he ran me right off the racetrack. It had been raining all night, and there wasn’t nothing but mud in the infield. When I hit that mud, I was out of control at 200 miles per hour.
Cale and Donnie got out of their cars, Bobby Allison drove up, and they all got in a wild, drag-down fistfight. I was 15 years old and standing right there in the infield. I thought seeing grownups fight was pretty cool.
1978, 1982, 1988 Daytona 500 Champion
I pulled up in the vicinity of the wreckage. Cale started yelling, and at that point I probably questioned Cale’s ancestry. That did not calm him down any. He ran toward me, and I think I probably questioned his ancestry a little bit more. With that he hit me in the face with his helmet. I said to myself, “I have to get out of the car and handle this right now or run from him for the rest of my life.” So I climbed out of the car, and—my interpretation—he started beating on my fist with his nose.
I never hit anybody with my helmet. I just pushed [Bobby] one time. It didn’t last that long, but it lasted long enough to give the sport a boost, I’ll tell you that.
Live TV commentary at that very moment
Here comes Richard Petty! He leads Darrell Waltrip by five car lengths, five more lengths to A.J. Foyt. Richard Petty takes the outside…And Richard Petty will win the Daytona 500! Apparently, we may have a fistfight. We see drivers in helmets, safety officials trying to jump in and separate them, as tempers have really flared after this amazing incident on the final lap!
That’s the way NASCAR was. You had to sometimes make a stand, and that’s what Bobby felt like he had to do. And Cale felt like he needed to also. That will always be the day that we woke up America to what stock car racing was all about.
Everywhere I go, people still ask about it. About 80 percent of the country was snowed in that day, so it was the biggest TV audience we ever had. Usually when people watch ball games and stuff, they turn the TV off when it’s over. When this was over, they were jumping up and down in the middle of the floor.
2002, 2005 NASCAR Points Champion
I remember seeing it on TV. I was about eight years old. That was my first memory of Daytona. Nobody would have known that day was going to build this sport to what it is now.
NASCAR fined us $6,000 apiece. Then I think they used the $18,000 to make commercials with the fight. They play the clip all the time, but they haven’t given me a royalty or commission. I’m still waiting for it.
The Earnhardt Era
1979 was also the rookie year of the man who would go on to become one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history: Dale Earnhardt. The son of accomplished dirt track racer Ralph Earnhardt, Dale had dropped out of high school against his parents’ wishes to follow in his old man’s footsteps. Fearless to the point of near-recklessness, Earnhardt drove with a brazenly aggressive style that earned him both the nickname “the Intimidator” and a legion of die-hard fans. Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors in his first full year on the circuit and the season championship his second. But a victory at Daytona continually eluded him. During the ’80s and ’90s, Earnhardt won more qualifying races at the superspeedway than any other driver in history, yet on the days of the 500, fate seemed determined to keep his No. 3 Chevy out of Victory Lane. In 1986 he was in the lead with three laps to go—and ran out of fuel. In 1990 he was in the lead on the very last lap—and blew a tire. In 1991 he was in the lead early on—and hit a sea gull. It wasn’t until his 20th attempt, in 1998, that Earnhardt finally won. His years of frustration, his eventual victory, and his on-track death in 2001 became the defining drama of Daytona in the modern era.
1998 champion crew chief with Dale Earnhardt. My first year with Dale was 1997. We took the lead with about 25 laps to go. Then with 11 or 12 laps to go, Jeff Gordon turned us sideways and the car started barrel rolling. The car finally settled down on its wheels, and Dale got into the ambulance. You could tell he was frustrated. He was sitting there looking out the back door, and he said to himself, “You know, all the tires are up on that car.” So he got out of the ambulance, got into his car, cranked it up, and drove it back to the pits. We pieced and patched just enough to get to the end of the race. It was another one of those years.
Owner of the No. 3 car. We came so close to winning so many times. We won the Daytona 499 on several occasions, but we didn’t get to 500 till 1998. That was like a burden was lifted off of all of us. [After winning under a caution flag, Dale] came on the radio and said, “Mr. France, can I go out here and tear your grass up?”
That’s the first time I remember seeing anyone do donuts in their racecar. Then when we got into the press box later and looked down, the son of a gun had almost made a perfect 3 with the marks from his donuts.
But what was so cool was seeing everyone from the other crews step out on pit road to congratulate him.
I was there. It was a real slow roll down pit road . It was almost like a general on review. It was like all the troops came out and stood on the line and saluted the general as he came down the ranks.
Whom Earnhardt signed in 2001 to drive for his team Dale Earnhardt, Inc
[Before the 2001 Daytona 500], Dale said, “Me and you and Dale Jr. can work together and win this race.” That right there just goes to show you how perceptive Dale was, because when I looked up in my rearview mirror with 10 laps to go, it was the three of us running one, two, three. And I was fortunate enough to get to the front first.
1989 NASCAR points champion and current ESPN analyst
I remember coming down the back straightaway, and it was the last lap. Dale came flying across my bow with the nose pointing right at the wall at over 200 mph. I missed him by about six inches. He hit the wall, and we went on. Michael won the race, Dale Jr. was second, and I finished third. I’ll never forget thinking, Boy, old Earnhardt’s going to be mad as a hornet—he wrecked on the last corner. Never could I have known he would have lost his life right there.
who joined the Fox broadcast team in 2001
It was our first broadcast [with me in the booth]. I saw the ambulance leave, and it didn’t even make a stop at the infield care center. At that point I didn’t feel good at all. I was sitting at the Daytona airport eating a hamburger—I remember exactly where I was—when our producer called and said, “Larry, Dale didn’t make it.” The Elvis Presley of our sport had been killed.
The 50TH 500
In the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death, NASCAR ramped up safety efforts, installing impact-dampening track walls, mandating head and neck restraint systems for all drivers, and eventually engineering a newly designed racecar with multiple safety features that will make its Daytona debut this year at the 50th running of the 500. Today, a century after America’s earliest speed demons took to the sands of Daytona Beach, and half a century after Big Bill France inaugurated the 500, NASCAR stands unchallenged as America’s fastest growing sport. As its signature event, the 500 reaches an audience 100 times greater than that of a normal race, challenging even the Super Bowl as the biggest sporting event in America. And on February 17, NASCAR’s latest crop of supertars will start their engines, looking to drive 500 miles into the Daytona record books.
1997, 1999, 2005 Daytona 500 Champion
Winning the Daytona 500 gets better each time. The longer you’re in the sport, the more you appreciate the big races. With this year being the 50th anniversary, it’s going to be huge.
[With historic races,] you look at who won the first, the 25th, and then the 50th. Those things really carry weight and prestige. It’s not like we need any more motivation out there, but it’s something we’re all going to be thinking about.
I’ve won two championships, and I’ve won the Brickyard 500 in Indianapolis twice; Daytona’s the only major race I haven’t won. That definitely makes it a high priority. Our biggest race is the Daytona 500.
There’s nothing even close that measures up to the Daytona 500. And to actually win the race, everywhere you go now you’re introduced as Daytona champion. It’s the race that makes our sport what it is.
The Daytona 500 is the only race that brings a title with it. That just speaks to how big it is. Before I won my season championships, I would be introduced as the Daytona 500 winner. You’re never introduced as, say, the Darlington champion. No, you’re the Daytona 500 champion.
So many greats drivers have come into our sport and never won the Day-tona 500. It’s such a hard prize. I used to think I’d never win. So when it does happen, it’s amazing and you cannot fucking believe it. Winning the Daytona 500 is the single most exciting moment of your life. That was the single most-coolest day ever.