Daytona Beach, Fla. has been up to its sunburned neck in automotive speed for more than half a century. In the get-a-horse days, romantic daredevils like Barney Oldfield furrowed the smooth sands at the Atlantic's edge, and for a time world-famous seekers of absolute land speed records—men like Sir Malcolm Campbell—brought their monsters to the same inviting shore. But since the mid-1980s, when the speed-record men changed allegiance to the vast Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, Daytona has not been able to boast the superlative "fastest."
Now, on the eve of the annual Speed Week (Feb. 15 through 22), Daytona has a magnificent new automobile race track, and if it is not the fastest in the world a lot of citizens will have to eat their hats.
This impressive racing plant, diagramed at left, is called the Daytona International Speedway. It is the greatest achievement of a rumpled, 49-year-old, deceptively casual giant of a man named William Henry Getty France. Many other hands were involved in it, to be sure, but it was Bill France who dreamed the dream and bulldozed it through.
Six years in the planning and more than a year abuilding, the speedway sprawls over what was, not long ago, a swampy pine-and-cypress thicket at the western edge of Daytona. The city airport is conveniently near. So is a one-fifth-mile dog racing track. A jai alai fronton is going up across the highway.
February 16, 1959
The principal element of the speedway is a 2½-mile superfast track of asphaltic concrete, banked at a steep 31° in the two big turns and at 18° in the apex of the fast dogleg past the grandstands. To the eye the high banks seem even steeper than 31° suggests; this illusion invariably draws ohs and ahs from visitors, and France gleefully says the view from the top is "like looking down off a jailhouse roof."
The lap distance of 2½ miles was candidly chosen to equal that of the Indianapolis "500," this nation's foremost and the world's richest race, but the shape of the Daytona course is unique. It was conceived by France to make possible an unobstructed view from the grandstands. No part of the track (called a tri-oval by the Daytona people) is obscured, nor does a spectator have to lean forward, past adjacent fans, to focus on distant action on the homestretch.
Already in place are grandstands seating 18,800 and portable bleachers accommodating 6,500 more. There is parking space for 35,000 cars in areas outside and in, and space for approximately 75,000 spectators in the enormous infield.
A road course of slightly over two miles has been laid out in the infield. This will be used in conjunction with the speed track for road racing, providing a total lap distance of about 4.5 miles. Additionally, there is a course for motorcycle racing.
The 45-acre lake in the infield, nine feet at its deepest and 1,000 yards long, was made simply by digging down below the level of the water table. Part of the dirt removed was used to bulwark the banked sections of the track. Everything but the squeal of the racers' tires, by the way, seems destined to be utilized in this project. The lake, named for the Daytona civic leader J. Saxton Lloyd, who worked assiduously to promote the speedway plan, will serve not only as an ornament but also as a site for hydroplane racing. Eventually there will be a football field in the plot of ground between the pit access road and the central grandstand.
Every responsible racing official is acutely concerned with safety these days, and the solutions at Daytona seem to have been well thought out. A thick, steel-reinforced, 42-inch-high concrete wall extends along the outside of the track in front of the stands, which are well above track level. Above the wall stands a 10-foot-high steel mesh fence, and surmounting this is a mesh overhang, extending trackward, which is meant to trap any object that might fly off a racing car—for example, a wheel. A steel guardrail encloses the rest of the track. Fencing keeps infield spectators well away from the racing strip.
Considered as a whole, the speedway is undoubtedly one of the very finest in the world. It is the only one built in the U.S. on what might be called a heroic scale since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway bowed in, in 1909. Many other racecourses have been built in the U.S. in the last few years, and some are elaborate, but they are primarily road, not track courses, and none is so imposing as the Daytona operation.
Probably only two other tracks stand comparison with it—the high-banked, 2.64-mile oval at Monza, Italy and, of course, Indianapolis. The fastest track in the world today is the one at Monza, where the record average speed for a race is just over 166 mph. This was set last summer by the Indianapolis driver Jim Rathmann as he won the Monza 500-mile race in a typical Indy roadster. The record for a single lap at Monza is a breathtaking 177 mph.
Stock cars tuning up for the three days of racing that will climax this month's Daytona Speed Week, Feb. 20-22, have already bettered 143 mph on the new track. This is sensationally fast for stock cars—a speed equal to that of a very quick lap at The Brickyard by the far more powerful, much lighter roadsters.
When the Indianapolis cars make their first visit to Daytona—in a 100-mile race April 4—they are likely to reach speeds never before recorded by racing cars on a closed circuit. Lap speeds of 175 to 180 mph—"a conservative estimate"—have been predicted by Thomas W. Binford, president of the U.S. Auto Club, which supervises racing in the "500."
Now there will undoubtedly be considerable gloating in Daytona when this occurs, because the citizenry is eager to see Indianapolis outdone, and the record for a single lap at The Brickyard is exactly 148.148 mph. Sheer speed alone, however, does not make a classic race. By its nature, the Indianapolis track, fast as it is, could never yield the speeds expected at Daytona. Yet the "500" has been thriving for years, and it annually attracts one of the world's largest sports gatherings. It exudes tradition. And if it has no spectacularly steep turns, it does have four immensely difficult corners which demand driving of a high order. Daytona will complement Indianapolis, then, not overshadow it, no matter how fast the new track proves to be or how astutely it is managed.
Indeed, Bill France was aware, when he began to consider designs, that the track would have to outdo not Indianapolis but his own past promotions on the picturesque old beach and road course at Daytona. Weary of his dependence on the fickle sea for a raceworthy beach, he had decided years ago that the racing events of Speed Week must eventually be moved to a reliable location.
AN UNCOMMON MAN
That he then set out to build a supertrack is characteristic of him. There are three things to keep in mind concerning Bill France: his doggedness, his flair for the dramatic and his extraordinary ability to charm, win the confidence of and get constructive help from perfect strangers.
Here is an example. When already past the point of no return on the building of his dream track, the speedway corporation, which France heads, still needed large financial commitments to be sure of its completion. One day France happened to attend an airpower demonstration at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where he met Clint Murchison Jr., son of the rich Texan. Young Murchison needed to make a quick trip to Miami, and France happened to have his private plane at hand. Result: an executive of Murchison's construction firm visited Daytona. Upon his recommendation France obtained a $500,000 construction loan.
France has been turning on the charm ever since he arrived in Daytona in 1934, an automobile mechanic with a taste for racing.
"I'd always liked to fool around with race cars," he says. "I'd driven them some, and I'd gotten to love the smell of castor oil [a once-popular lubricant]."
When Sir Malcolm Campbell, last of the great Daytona speed merchants, forsook the beach for Bonneville in 1936, first the city and then the Elks Club promoted races at Daytona. These lost money. France, who had driven in these races, began in 1938 to share in the management of subsequent events. When racing was resumed after World War II, he became the principal sponsor. Influential friends flocked to his side. Ultimately the stock car races on the 4.1-mile beach-road course and the passenger car runs on the beach—the main ingredients of Speed Week—won national prominence.
France founded and developed NASCAR, the major U.S. stock car racing organization, and he promoted races in other cities of the Southeast. None had more color, however, than those on the Daytona sands, and no one worked harder at the racing game than Big Bill France.
He has always been a do-it-yourself man of formidable energy, seemingly unable to delegate authority completely. Anyone who has seen him attacking the workaday details of past races—including such trivial missions as shooing motorists from illegal parking places near the beach—will have guessed that he has had a hand in every aspect of the new speedway. In fact, a general contractor was not even employed. France personally negotiated the agreements for virtually every phase of the work. When this writer visited the speedway the other day, France had just zipped down to Miami in his plane to close an advertising deal. His codirectors, among them Paul (New Faces of 1928) Whiteman and the former Detroit baseball executive Walter O. (Spike) Briggs Jr., have paid him the ultimate tribute by voting that the corporation take out a $1 million insurance policy on his life.
Daytona has, year after year, crowded more and more events into its February outburst of speed, and this month the calendar is jammed as never before.
The preliminaries have been under way since the first of the month: practice and qualifying runs for some racing cars, tire testing by Firestone and Goodyear, the only U.S. companies which produce tires for racing.
The first eliminations in a new economy run at the speedway, sponsored by the Pure Oil Company, are to begin this Thursday. Each contestant, driving an American passenger car, will try to get as many miles as he can from one quart of gasoline. There is a $5,000 prize for the winner of Sunday's finals.
FLYING DOWN THE SANDS
Also on Sunday begin the traditional straightaway trials on the broad, flat sands beside the sea. Things have quieted a bit since the days when the U.S. manufacturers sent platoons of engineers, mechanics, admen and publicity men to these trials, but even though the manufacturers have withdrawn, speeds have stayed up. It has become old stuff for a passenger car to exceed 120 mph on the beach. American luxury cars will have the sands Monday, low-priced cars Tuesday, a wide range of new, optimum-performance production models Wednesday, and on Thursday come the acceleration sprints from a standing start.
What everyone is really waiting for, however, is the onset of racing at the speedway. This will begin in earnest at 2 p.m. Friday with a 100-mile dash for the NASCAR Grand National cars (late-model closed cars), to be followed by a 100-mile race for convertibles. On Saturday the so-called modified and sportsman cars, those shabby jalopies with the wonderfully tuned engines, will have a 200-mile go. Finally, starting at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Washington's Birthday, 64 closed cars and convertibles will slam into the first turn of the speedway in the featured event, a 500-mile race for the largest purse ever offered in stock car racing, $60,160.
"Over on the beach," Bill France says, "the good Lord always looked after us. When things looked bad and we needed an east wind to send those big waves to smooth out the sand, we always got one just in time. If we keep getting the breaks, this track will have to be equal to any."
[BLACK PENTAGON]TICKET BOOTH
[BLACK RECTANGLE]CONCESSION STAND
BACKSTRETCH 3400 FEET
PIT ROAD, 2000 FEET
GUARD RAIL 2¼ FEET HIGH
RIM MAINTENANCE ROAD
31° BANKED CURVE
SPEED WEEK SCHEDULE (February 15 through 22)
SUNDAY: Flying mile beach runs for experimental (i.e., highly modified) cars and pickup trucks; finals of $5,000 Pure Oil Co. economy run, at Daytona International Speedway (preliminary eliminations Feb. 12, 13).
MONDAY: Flying mile beach runs, prestige class (Cadillac Eldorados, Chrysler Imperials, Lincoln Continentals); NASCAR driving-skill tests (speedway).
TUESDAY: Flying mile beach runs, Big Three class (Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths), automatic transmission, single carburetor, production camshaft.
WEDNESDAY: Flying mile beach runs, standard production passenger cars and station wagons, primarily for optimum-performance 1959 models.
THURSDAY: One-way acceleration runs, standard production passenger cars and wagons, on the beach.
FRIDAY: Antique car races, noon; 100-mile NASCAR Grand National race (for closed stock cars), 2 p.m.; 100-mile convertible race, 3:30 p.m.
SATURDAY: 200-mile NASCAR modified-sportsman race, 2 p.m.; 25-mile consolation race for Friday's poorest performers, 4:15 p.m.
SUNDAY: 500-mile NASCAR Sweepstakes, for 64 late-model closed cars and convertibles, 12:30 p.m. Purse $60,160.