The five-hundred-mile, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Daytona 500 is commonly referred to as "the Great American Race." Its reputation for exciting finishes, horrendous crashes, Florida-in-February weather, and bumper-to-bumper and door-handle-to-door-handle racing along the Daytona International Speedway's two-and-a-half-mile, tri-oval, high-banked track with the long back-straight thrills the fans and challenges the drivers and mechanics. Stock car legends are born here.
The first race of the NASCAR season, the Daytona 500 is the final, paramount event of a spring speedweek featuring three weeks of racing starting with the world-famous 24 Hours of Daytona and two qualifying races. Thanks to television and professional marketing, the Daytona 500 is the premier stock car race of the year, bringing the thrills and violence of racing into the homes of millions. Sponsors of the top cars are afforded a three-and-a-half-hour commercial. Although the Indianapolis 500 has a larger viewing audience, in-car cameras at the Daytona 500 allow the viewer to watch the driver, the cars in front, and the cars behind from the safety of the roll cage. A roof-mounted camera shows the hood buckle in the wind. Another allows the viewer to ride out a spin at two hundred miles per hour. Another planted under the rear bumper allows the viewer to read bumper stickers on the car behind.
The winner of the race is awarded the Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 trophy and a quarter million dollars in prize money. (Earl, 1839-1969, was responsible for the design of the modern American car while at General Motors in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s when the "stock car" was born.)
The track was started in 1957 by Bill France to take his fledgling NASCAR franchise off the beach of Daytona and bring it into a legitimate race facility. The first Daytona 500 was run in 1959 and won by Lee Petty. Since that time, the number of fans as well as the speed of the cars have increased. The cost of racing has also gone up, and NASCAR and the Daytona track owners have continued to enlarge their entertainment empire. The corporation that owns Daytona also owns Darlington (South Carolina), Talladega (Alabama), and Watkins Glen (New York) race tracks.
The track design and the speeds require an appreciation, if not a dread, on the part of the mechanics and drivers of the modern high-speed professional racing leagues that use the track. The turns—wide U-shaped continuous corners—are banked at thirty-one degrees, and because there are no short chutes between them, they are called onetwo and three-four, too steep to walk up let alone drive on. The tri-oval (sort of a turn five) is relatively flat at eighteen degrees but is connected by short, flat straights from the exit of turn four to the entrance of turn one. Flipped up on their sides by the banking, the drivers look "up" to see ahead in the turns, and have to deal with a downforce caused by the car wanting to sink down into the pavement. Drivers actually steer fairly straight to accomplish a 120-degree change in direction (one thousand foot radius for three thousand feet of turn). Drivers must do all that and keeping his 3,400-pound car out of the front seat of the one next to him.
The road abruptly flattens after three thousand feet of turns onetwo where the equally long straight that is the signature of Daytona now requires the driver to draft within a yard of the car in front, race three wide, keep his foot to the floor, and relax—for a moment—until the car upends again in turns three-four. The driver and car suffer gravitational forces that push down and out in the high banks, immediately followed by a tremendous downward slam at the start of the back-straight, and then in the tri-oval the g-forces are more outward than down. The suspension has to keep the wheels evenly on the surface, and the aerodynamics have to keep the car in a line with itself. Two hundred laps, six hundred left turns, three or four stops for gasoline, all lead to one winner.
Daytona is the track where "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" Elliott acheived fame and fortune, and Lee Petty began the Petty dynasty. It is the race Dale Earnhardt took twenty-one years to win after winning NASCAR races everywhere else. It is the race Mario Andretti won once in 1967, but, like Indy (1969), never repeated. Two lasting images from the race are Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough (1968, 1977, and 1983 winner) duking it out in the back-stretch grass, and Richard Petty and David Pearson colliding with each other after coming out of turns three-four on the last lap—Petty spinning off the track with a dead motor and Pearson sliding along the track killing his engine, too. As Petty, farther downtrack than Pearson, frantically tried to restart, Pearson ground the starter with his Mercury in gear to creep across the finish line and win the race.
—Charles F. Moore