Daytona ~ Let’s Begin
Seventy-one years ago, when what is now the NASCAR Cup Series first raced at Daytona Beach, it was in July on the beach-road course, not in February on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
The first season for what was then known as the Strictly Stock Division didn’t get underway until June; Daytona was the second event. Fortunately, winner Red Byron’s car passed post-race inspection, because the first race’s winner, Glenn Dunaway, had been disqualified at Charlotte for cheating, and two straight dumped winners might have put an early end to Big Bill France’s new racing model.
For the record, 28 cars started that race – three driven by women – and there were nine different brands in the field. Byron earned $2,000 for his efforts, and 10th place finisher Jack Etheridge took home $75. Officially, cars finishing outside the top 20 received nothing.
This is from the 1952 race – more cars, but otherwise probably the same scene.
By the next year, the Daytona race began the season, and it has done so for the past 38 years, but it wasn’t always that way. From 1952-81, things were different. In 1952, a race at West Palm Beach, Fla., opened the season three weeks prior to Daytona. Then, in 1955, NASCAR began its oddball practice of running races late in the previous calendar year and counting them toward the next year’s championship; a long-gone track in High Point, N.C., opened the 1955 season with a race in November 1954 (races at West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, Fla., also were run before Thanksgiving as 1955 events). By 1956, there were four late ’55 races on the schedule, as well as racing at the old Phoenix, Ariz., fairgrounds dirt track in January, a month before Daytona.
This is said to be racing at the old West Palm Beach track
A variety of tracks made up those before-Daytona races, even after the beach-road course was replaced by the superspeedway in 1959, but that changed in 1963, when Riverside International took a weekend in January. Races at the end of the prior calendar year would continue until 1969, but Riverside became a staple, and it would continue that way until the road course fell victim to what developers call “progress” after the 1981 season.
As he did so much, Dan Gurney leads the pack at Riverside
That gave Daytona the full spotlight, and with the France family owning both the track and NASCAR, there was no doubt but that further adjustments weren’t going to happen.
People who compare racing with other sports talk about NASCAR’s oddity of having its biggest event – its “Super Bowl” – at the beginning of its season, but except for long-season team sports, it’s really not much of an anomaly: the Masters, Kentucky Derby and Indy 500 are relatively early in their seasons. That really has to do with the weather, and you can race earlier in Florida than farther north.
The timing generally has served the sport well, though. Doubtless, the photo finish for the 1959 Daytona 500 drew much attention to a second-tier sport competing in the shadow of Indy cars, and the Cale Yarborough/Allison Brothers fight after the 1979 race (televised live and available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mucSyo9yLLQ) generally gets credit for drawing more attention to the sport than anything else in its history.
The Yarborough/Allison Brothers fight gave NASCAR what Dick Berggren called its first “water cooler” race – people talked about it around the water cooler at work the next day
Conversely, many see Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 race to mark the beginning of NASCAR’s decline, although attendance and other popularity indicators make that a harder thesis to prove.
Last year NASCAR made the curious decision to carry over the previous year’s aero and other rules for Daytona, then begin implementing them, so the 2019 event was “The Great American Race*” (with an asterisk). This year, we’re in limbo before more dramatic car and schedule changes go into effect for 2021, so maybe the odds are higher – if Daytona isn’t a good race, what else are we going to use to generate interest in the season-before-the-season-of-change?
There’s an effort to drum up interest around there possibly having one or two more cars than starting positions, harkening back to the era when qualifying meant something. But almost everybody with a serious following is guaranteed a starting spot, so there may be a limit to how much excitement will build around which ultra-underdog has to go home.
If you want to see what how serious competing for a Daytona 500 starting position can be, go back to 1971, when 65 cars raced for 40 spots in the field.
Here’s the start of the first 1960 qualifying race – there were 37 cars
For that matter, here’s how you can get ready for the 500 and give some thought to how things have changed over the years and how they might change to restore the luster the sport once enjoyed. There are Daytona 500 videos from just about every era on YouTube, and if you watch a few of them, you might just ignite your racing fever and give yourself some things to think about.
You can go all the way back to the first 500 in 1959 – where you’ll see dozens of photographers standing, unprotected, out in the tri-oval grass as the race starts. My favorite is the 1963 race, when it rained earlier in the day, and without Air Titans and such, the event began with large water puddles down pit road. During pit stops, you can see hand-turned lug wrenches being used, with drivers rolling their stock windows up and down. A 30-second pit stop is considered a wonder.
To me, a return to some of the more human elements of the sport would be a good thing. You might disagree, but you should see some interesting racing on these older videos, regardless.
With any luck, it’ll tide you over until we start another racing cycle next month.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
A week ago I wrote about the ill health of pavement late model weekly racing, using dirt track sprint car racing as something of a positive alternative. Now comes a story about Ford and Toyota entering the sprint car engine business, long dominated by individual, relatively small-time engine builders working with a Chevy engine design that goes back decades.
The fear is that these new engines will raise the cost of a motor, already in the $55,000-$65,000 range, and put lots of weekly racers out of business. The World of Outlaws sanctioning body, whose rules effectively govern weekly sprint racing as well, expressed confidence that those rules would keep anything awful from happening.
Good luck with that.
Car counts in weekly sprint car racing are already declining, and more owners with resources are picking-and-choosing events, rather than supporting any track every week. This isn’t a positive trend.
It’s all about money – the “American Way,” I guess – but when the money needed to be competitive in a regular program at the local short track exceeds what nearly everybody can afford, we’ve got a problem, whether it’s Cup racing or 4-cylinder "bombers” in a corn field. Eventually, it will hit all sports, but I think racing might be the canary, and that little bird looks to me like it’s having trouble breathing.