And there was no better place for it all to start than in Daytona Beach. Drivers attempting to set land-speed records had been going there for more than four decades, putting their machines to the test on what was to become Daytona's beach-road course. Between 1904 and 1935, 15 world marks were set on the course's hard-packed sand. There weren't any paved tracks on the Grand National circuit until Darlington opened for racing in 1950. In '56, the season Buck Baker won the first of his two consecutive points titles, NASCAR sanctioned 13 races on paved tracks. That number would grow to more than 20 by the start of the next decade, and it wouldn't be long before the circuit had brushed the sand off its tires for good.
Tim Flock is best remembered as the man who drove with a monkey in his car for eight races in 1953, but his legacy is no laughing matter. His .212 career winning percentage (40 wins in 189 starts) remains a NASCAR record, and he was the second driver to win two Grand National crowns (1952, '55). From '51 through '55 the Fort Payne, Ala., native won 34 races, including a then record 18 in '55. At the height of his celebrity, in '53, he initiated NASCAR's first (and only) monkey experiment, driving with a rhesus named Jocko Flocko until the primate experienced a mid-race freak-out at the Raleigh 300, forcing an unscheduled pit stop and costing Flock the race. Despite the lighthearted stunt, the driver wasn't always a fan favorite. Driving for owner Carl Kiekhaefer in '55 and '56, Flock was the star of NASCAR's most successful team. Rival drivers and owners accused the Kiekhaefer outfit of cheating, and fans eventually turned on it as well. Burned-out and fed up, Flock quit the team in April '56 and raced sporadically until he retired in '61. NASCAR had lost a true original.
Perhaps no driver defined his era better than Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, a hot-rodder from Daytona Beach who never won a Cup but who drove with a singular abandon born in the rough-and-tumble of racing on the hard sands. From 1956 through '64 Roberts won 32 races driving with a style best described as win, wreck, or blow. When NASCAR took to the superspeedways, Roberts proved well suited to the challenge. From 1959 through '61 he won 15 poles and five races in 27 starts at Atlanta, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona and Hanford. But there was a high price to pay for all that speed, and on May 24, 1964, Roberts's bill came due. Racing in the World 600 at Charlotte, he slammed into the wall at 140 mph, and his car burst into flames. Burned over 75% of his body, he lay in a hospital for five weeks before he fell into a coma and died at the age of 35. He had been a fan favorite, and his death sent shock waves through racing and spurred NASCAR's first safety surge.
In so many ways Junior Johnson still defines NASCAR. Part outlaw, part pop-culture icon, the original good ol' boy was one of the Grand National circuit's first superstars. It hardly mattered to fans that he never finished higher than sixth in the point standings. They loved his aggressive, wide-open racing style -- the same one he'd learned as a teenager while running moonshine for his father near their home in Ingle Hollow, N.C. Johnson was just 22 when he made his Grand National debut at Darlington in 1953. Three years later he was arrested while stoking his daddy's still and spent 11 months in prison. He returned to NASCAR in '57 and raced for nine more years before getting "aggravated" and retiring at age 35 to become a car owner. In 1985 President Reagan granted Johnson a pardon for his previous bootlegging crime, a generous if unnecessary gesture for a man who was fiercely proud of his past and the only kind of racing he ever really loved.