The Daytona 500 is one of the most exciting races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but its origins, and that of its famous home, Daytona International Speedway, are a long way away from the fast track. The earliest auto races in Daytona actually took place on the Florida beaches, with Daytona serving as the backdrop for the formation of NASCAR in the late 1940s. Over the years, Daytona has evolved into one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, the site of many triumphs and, unfortunately, one of the sport's greatest tragedies.
Earliest days of speed on the beach - Fast cars at Daytona Beach date back to the 1920s, when drivers went there to attempt land speed records. Sir Henry Segrave was one of the most successful drivers there, setting two land speed records: March 1927 at 203.79 mph (the first person to go over 200 mph) and March 1929 at 231.45 mph. Sir Malcolm Campbell attempted land speed records five times between 1928 and 1935, reaching a top speed of 276.82 mph on his final attempt. Witnessing the event that day: William Henry Getty France, later known as "Big Bill" France, the "father" of NASCAR.
The formation of NASCAR - France had a need for speed that drew him to Daytona Beach in the mid-1930s. France worked his way up from mechanic to racing promoter, and in 1947, he promoted a motorcycle race and a modified stock car race on the beach. In December 1947, France and 18 others gathered at the Streamline Hotel on South Atlantic Ave. in Daytona to discuss the formation of a stock car racing sanctioning body, which went on to become the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing - better known as NASCAR.
The 1979 Daytona 500: first live race telecast - France went on to build Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959 with the first running of the Daytona 500. In 1979, the Daytona 500 became the first 500-mile auto race to be telecast live from flag to flag, and it had a captive audience: on February 18, 1979, much of the Northeast and Midwest United States was experiencing a snow storm, leaving many stuck inside watching the race. While Richard Petty went on to win the race, the real action on the final lap was on the backstretch, where Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison got together and wrecked while fighting for the lead; tempers flaired, and when Allison's brother Bobby showed up to see what was going on, a fight erupted. The fight - not the race - made national headlines, and NASCAR began its climb to the top.
Too much speed on the superspeedways - In 1987, Bill Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a speed of 210.364 mph - the fastest lap ever in NASCAR. Later that year at Talladega Superspeedway, he shattered that record with a lap of 212.809 mph. In that fast Talladega race, Bobby Allison got airborne and took down part of the frontstretch catchfence, injuring several fans in the process. NASCAR made the decision afterward to use restrictor plates on the engines at both superspeedways beginning in 1988, insuring that Elliott's records would like never be broken. Drivers getting airborne - that's still happening, even with the plates.
The death of a champion - If there was one driver who lived for Daytona International Speedway, it was "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt. He won more than two dozen races at the track - including that elusive Daytona 500 win in 1998 - and was always near the front shaking things up. On February 18, 2001, the world of NASCAR came crashing down at Daytona, as Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap accident as his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line one-two.
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers the sport at Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.