Daytona 50 Years
In the '50s there was just Darlington. The paved, high-banked 1.4-mile South Carolina track was the fastest on the Grand National circuit during NASCAR's first decade, with winning speeds typically topping out at more than 90 miles per hour. But then Daytona International Speedway opened, in 1959, and a year later came kindred tracks in Atlanta, Charlotte and Hanford, Calif. NASCAR's space age had begun. Like Darlington, all of the new venues allowed cars to run with stability at high speeds, encouraging drivers and manufacturers to push the outside of the envelope with greater horsepower and sleeker aerodynamics. The pursuit of pace was never more exciting, as increases in velocity came in large jumps. As the '60s began, average speeds on dirt tracks were typically around 60 or 70 miles per hour. But on the shiny new speedways, the cars' big V-8 engines began to take them far beyond those limits. By the time Talladega opened, in 1969, the 200-mph barrier was within reach.
With high speed a permanent part of the game, NASCAR initiated one of its first safety revolutions. In the years that followed, several measures were implemented to protect drivers: Fire-retardant suits became mandatory, gas tanks were replaced with impact-resistant fuel cells, and manufacturers strengthened their racing tires to prevent the blowouts that started many accidents. There was very little that was "stock" about the cars racing at the end of the '60s. NASCAR had entered a brave new world, leaving its dirt-track past in the dust.