February 07, 2008

The first Daytona 500 I saw in person was the 2000 race. Dale Jarrett won handily, which didn't come as a shock -- the reigning Cup champion, he had earlier in the week won the Budweiser Shootout and put his Ford on the pole. After Jarrett crossed the finish line in the 500, a veteran p.r. person turned to me and said, "Too bad it was such a boring race." While technically true, I guess, that assessment struck me as odd, because there was still an energy in the air, an undeniable buzz born out of the feeling that we'd all just witnessed a unique and remarkable event, a feeling we couldn't get just anywhere. That's the way it has always been with races in Daytona, a town built by -- and for -- speed.

To walk on the sands of Daytona Beach is to walk on a surface created, it would seem, with racing in mind. The sand is hard and tightly packed, and the beaches are broad and flat, wide enough to land a plane on.

Which explains how, in 1907, a plane took off and landed on the beach. It was part of a race -- aeroplane versus motorcar -- one of many held on the sand shortly after the turn of the century. (The car won by a nose.) The races attracted the likes of Ransom Olds and Henry Ford, automobile-industry tycoons who were among the few people in those days who actually owned the machines they built. The lure of speed filled local inns with curious spectators and newspaper reporters, who relayed the exploits of the speed merchants to their readers up north. In '03 the Decatur (Ill.) Review reported, "The panting autos spin along within but a few feet of the salt sea waves and, to say the least, the surroundings savor of the unique."

Among those drawn to those savory surroundings was Bill France Sr., a gas station owner from Washington, D.C., who, in 1935, packed his wife and son into the family Hupmobile and headed south to outrun the Depression. Shortly after France pulled into Daytona, he watched Sir Malcolm Campbell of Great Britain take a run at the world land speed record; it was then that France knew he had found his family's new home.

France never left Daytona, but eventually the envelope pushers did. They headed west, to Utah, and the Bonneville Salt Flats, which were more wide open and conducive to challenging speed records. So France and some other local gearheads turned their attention from racing against the clock to racing against other cars. They laid out a makeshift oval -- half beach, half Highway 1A -- and began running races on it, in 1937. Eventually the beach became an impractical venue. There wasn't much room for spectators, and cars kept getting stuck in the muck when the tide went out.

So in the mid-1950s France set about building a track unlike anything anyone had seen -- a 2 1/2-mile oval three miles inland from the beach course. At the time, the NASCAR boys ran on just one oval bigger than a mile: Darlington, in South Carolina, which is 1.366 miles. Building one nearly twice that size might have seemed like overkill, but France wasn't looking to build just a track. He was looking to build an event, one that would one day surpass the Indianapolis 500 as the premiere automobile race in America. "Unquestionably, Indy was the genesis of Daytona," says Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "It was grandiosity, it was outdoing the other person. Bill built Daytona to be faster than Indianapolis."

Like Daytona -- which opened in 1959 -- Indy is 2 1/2 miles. But it's practically flat (its turns are banked at just 9 degrees), and it's shaped like a rectangle with rounded corners, which necessitates the use of the brakes. Daytona, on the other hand, is 3 degrees at its flattest, 31 at its steepest. Were it not for pit stops, cars could be built with one pedal. "In one sense it was easy, because you didn't have to lift," says Wheeler. "The first five years, speeds were relatively low. Then, in 1964, when the factories came in and brought a lot of horsepower with them, speeds began to ascend dramatically. That's when a whole lot of people had to change their underwear."

But fast speeds and daring drivers weren't enough to elevate the 500 into the institution it is today. France put the race at the beginning of the season's schedule, so fans who had been jonesing for action all winter could soak up not just the 500, but the fortnight of racing -- Speedweeks -- that precedes it. "You have new cars, new sponsors, and it's been three months since anybody has seen any of us," says Richard Petty, who won seven 500s. "You had guys coming from England, from France, because there wasn't anything else going on. If you're a race reporter, you've got to have something to write about."

France scored his biggest coup in 1979, when he got CBS to air the race live from start to finish -- the first time a NASCAR race got flag-to-flag coverage. He caught another break when a blizzard in the East left millions of people buried under snow and unable to get off their couches. The race they were forced to watch was a doozy: Petty won his sixth, crossing the finish line as Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough commenced to brawling on the infield. From that broadcast forward, the race has been a staple of the winter TV schedule. And it has turned into the rare event that each year produces a story line that becomes a part of its sport's lore. There's the one in which Cale won in a show car after he wrecked his primary ride (1983). The one in which Darrell finally won ('89). The one in which Dale lost a heartbreaker (take your pick). The one in which Dale finally won (1998). The one with Gordon's three-wide pass ('99). The list goes on.

All of which explains why the 2000 race was still a pulse-quickening experience. So much was on the line, and failures big and small would have to be lived with for the next 12 months. "If you look back at my career, I grew up with Daytona," says Petty. "As Daytona got bigger, I got bigger. Daytona put me out to the world as much as any one thing. Winning championships, that's a big deal, but it was just another add-on. Daytona is more than an add-on. The thing about winning Daytona, you're a winner all year long."

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