The Daytona 500
Daytona Beach International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Size: 2.5 miles
Banking in corners: 31 degrees
Built: 1958, 1959
First Cup race: 1959
Seating Capacity: 168,000
Owned by: International Speedway Corporation
In the world of auto racing, there are facilities that need no introduction. Le Mans. Indy. Monaco.
The Daytona International Speedway is a member of this elite group. Since 1959, this Florida venue has provided some of the best racing in the world in a variety of motorsport classes, but Daytona is the icon for NASCAR stock car racing.
The Daytona 500 is the season-opener for the annual Sprint Cup tour and in many fans’ minds is the premier event on the 36-race circuit.
Scheduled for February 17, this year’s Daytona 500 will be the 50th running of what is known as “The Great American Race.” The 200-lap event will also be the first Daytona where NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” will be raced as this new chapter in NASCAR car design is ushered in.
Over the past 50 years, Daytona’s reputation and presence continues to reach new benchmarks. It carries the largest purse of any NASCAR Cup race, it is unique in the world of sports as this race is the start of the season, and the season’s most important, and the race has produced the highest US television ratings of any auto racing event since 1995.
There were few paved ovals on the NASCAR Grand National (now the Sprint Cup) circuit after NASCAR organized in 1949 and during its first decade. But while the Daytona races were held on a temporary beach/road course during the 1950s, NASCAR founder Bill France was thinking ahead. In 1954 plans and permits were already underway for a paved, D-shaped “tri-oval” configuration of 2.5 miles in length. Late in 1957 the earthmovers took to the ground, and in order to build up the track surface for the 31 degree banking in the corners, scooped out the ground in the middle of the oval. This man-made area soon filled in with water, and the 29-acre lake became known as Lake Lloyd.
There were some funding issues with the building of the facility late in 1958, but France and his group were able to get the necessary backing, and on February 22, 1959, the first Daytona 500 was held in front of 41,000 fans who witnessed speeds never before obtained in NASCAR racing.
Taking the starting green flag for the inaugural race were 59 cars, all vying for top prize in the “500-Mile International Sweepstakes” which offered a total purse of $67, 760. The famous finish in this first race had Johnny Beauchamp winning the 200-lapper, but Lee Petty believed he had won. Track officials spent the better part of the next three days going over photos of the finish, and it was decided Petty and his Oldsmobile had just inched out Beauchamp, thereby winning the first 500 and just over $19,000.
By contrast, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner, Kevin Harvick, won $1,510, 469.
In the 1960s, famous drivers such as Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, and Tiny Lund all took home the Harley Earl Trophy by winning the Daytona 500, but in 1966 Richard Petty won his first 500, and the “King” went on to win five more, the most Daytona 500 victories on record.
Some exciting 500 finishes
Over its 50-year history, the Daytona 500 has produced some of the most exciting finishes in auto racing history, starting with the 1959 race.
Richard Petty had won the 1971, 1973, and 1974 races, and was determined to take his Dodge to victory lane in 1976. But with one lap left, David Pearson passed Petty. Coming out of turn four, Petty ducked low inside and passed Pearson, but the two tangled and ended up on the infield with the finish line in sight. Both cars were severely damaged. Petty could not car his car refired, but Pearson was able to gather himself and his car back together, winning his only 500.
The 1979 Daytona 500 finish could be the most memorable, as it was the first live televised broadcast of the race, and viewers watched in disbelief as last-lap leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarbrough tangled and crashed on turn three. A heated word exchange between the two soon led to a physical encounter, and Donnie’s brother Bobby saw what was happening, and got into the exchange while television cameras captured all this off-track action as Richard Petty drove on to his sixth 500 win.
After 20 years of trying, NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt finally won the 1998 Daytona 500 after leading so many of the races to break one of the biggest jinxes in sport. Earnhardt’s win was also the first 500 where the winner received more than $1 million, as he took home $1,059, 105.
The 2007 running of the Daytona 500 must rank as one of the most thrilling finishes in the track’s history, as Kevin Harvick beat out Mark Martin during the race’s green-white-checker last lap by 0.020 seconds. Harvick’s win was the closest margin of victory since the advent of computer scoring in 1993. Harvick’s win also denied veteran Martin his first 500 win in 23 attempts. Harvick’s win was also the first for car owner Richard Childress since the Earnhardt win in 1998, and his starting position of 34th spot was the lowest starting position of any Daytona 500 winner.
The 2008 Great American Race
Simply now known as the Daytona Speedweeks, the track opens its season for the running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona January 26, a 24-hour endurance sports car race, using parts of the Daytona oval along with an infield road course.
Then NASCAR officially opens its 2008 season with the running of the popular Budweiser Shootout February 9 for the Sprint Cup cars, along with the ARCA 200. For the rest of the week, fans will witness Daytona qualifying, the Gatorade Duel, the Chevy Silverado 250 for the Craftsman Truck series, the Camping World 300 for the Nationwide Series, and on February 17 the 50th running of the Daytona 500.
NOTES – The United States Senate recently designated February 17 and the running of the 50th Daytona 500 as “Race Day in America.”…the US Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron will provide the flyover during the national anthem…the winner of this year’s Daytona 500 will receive a special gold-plated Harley Earl trophy, named after the former General Motors design chief…according to conducted studies, the Daytona 500 generates $1 billion in economic impact as NASCAR’s richest and most prestigious event.
Written exclusively for: www.nascarcamping.com.