For the longest time, the Fourth of July in NASCAR meant race day. From its introduction in 1959 until it was moved under the lights in 1988, the summertime event at Daytona International Speedway was run on Independence Day itself, and often produced fireworks on the track that would rival those exploding in the sky that night. It was a different era that brought with it a different schedule, one where the green flag waved at 10 in the morning and the trophy was handed out before the heat of the day settled in.
The garage opened at 4 a.m. Crews pushed cars through technical inspection at around dawn, and soon after the race was over most everyone was on the beach enjoying the closest thing NASCAR offered to a summer vacation. Teams played volleyball against one another, drivers taught their children to swim. That all ended when the lights went up, and then the national television cameras appeared, the combination changing what was long known as the Firecracker 400 from a low-key event into a prime-time showcase. But the race has never lost its festive atmosphere -- it is still summertime in Daytona Beach, after all.
There were times, though, when even the holiday was eclipsed by the drama unfolding on the 2.5-mile oval. One of the most famous moments in NASCAR history occurred on the Fourth of July in 1984, when Richard Petty outran Harry Gant and Cale Yarborough to record his 200th victory on the sport's premier circuit, complete with President Ronald Reagan in attendance. The Gipper gave the command to start engines from aboard Air Force One, sat in a spell with the Motor Racing Network, even stuck around for a picnic afterward. "Everything was perfect," Petty has said of that day, and from his vantage point it's difficult to argue.
Though he probably doesn't feel the same way about another memorable July 4 race at Daytona, this one coming 10 years earlier, and culminating in a one-on-one battle rich with significance. David Pearson and Petty, the two drivers with the most victories in the history of the sport's top division, ran first and second in the final laps until the No. 21 car suddenly dropped low on the track and slowed down at the white flag. "Is something wrong with Pearson?" ABC play-by-play man Keith Jackson wondered aloud. No, it was just the Silver Fox at his most cunning, realizing the guy in front was a sitting duck, and using a slingshot move to overtake the King off the final turn.
Going back further in time, Fourth of July was when A.J. Foyt recorded his first NASCAR victory, outrunning Bobby Isaac in a 1964 race where he was nearly taken out by a spinning Reb Wickersham shortly after the green flag. Then there was the last regularly-scheduled Independence Day race in 1987, where confusion over positioning after a caution led everyone to think Bobby Allison was a lap down when actually he was the final car on the lead lap. Even ABC's Jackson is confused when the No. 22 car races up through the field. "Check and see if Allison is a lap down," he says on air. He isn't, and he wins in a chaotic finish that includes Ken Schrader spinning and rolling at the checkered flag.
The legacy of those Firecracker days still lives at Daytona, even though the race is now called the Coke Zero 400 and because of the whims of the calendar is rarely run on July 4 -- Tony Stewart's victory in the 2009 edition marked the only time the event has been contested on Independence Day since it was moved to Saturday night. But the pageantry has never left, and this weekend will surely bring another night draped in American flags and military might. For the fourth consecutive year Daytona will recognize Medal of Honor winners, reviving a tradition that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. started in the 1970s. Just like the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, which is no longer on Memorial Day proper, the significance of the holiday transcends any specific date.
But beyond that, there's something about Independence Day that just seems to fit NASCAR, a sport that allows its competitors an enviable degree of freedom. Of course there are rules to abide by, and templates that must be met, and tolerances that cannot be varied from. But at its essence, this is still a series where theoretically, anyone can show up with a car and compete. It's a little more complicated and expensive than that, to be certain, but there are no franchises to be awarded, no boards of governors to vote you in or out. When Joe Gibbs wanted to start a race team, he built a shop and leased some cars and started one, and there was no one -- well, except maybe his accountant -- telling him no. When Tony Stewart wanted to move into ownership, he struck a partnership. If Michael Andretti wants to indeed branch out into NASCAR, he'll follow the leads of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi by opening a new shop and buying some new cars.
Deep down, that's the beauty of NASCAR -- anyone with enough courage and wherewithal can compete. There's risk with that, to be certain, but also a great deal of freedom. Yes, owners can only field four cars, which have to be built a certain way. But you can hire whomever you want. You can spend whatever you want. You can buy whatever equipment you want. Does that raise the stakes of competition? Sure. This game is not for everyone. But trying to compete with the Yankees isn't exactly cheap, either. At least in NASCAR, there's no finagling under a salary cap, no deferring payment on a jack man or a crew chief to make room, nobody saying Jack Roush can't hire someone because he has to spend as much money as Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress.
It's a sport that offers Steve Turner and Joe Denette and Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip all the opportunity to be involved at whatever level they're willing and able to be. As much as the patriotic bunting and the military presence, that's the kind of freedom NASCAR stands for. Yes, the old Firecracker 400, and all those Fourth of July races won by the likes of Petty, Pearson, and Allison, belong to the past now. But even so, there seems no other sport better built for Independence Day.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.