Do Not Dis DIS: the Daytona International Speedway

Daytona 500Roy A. Erickson, Jr.

Imagine, if you will, a 9 year old boy, in late December 1958, riding with his parents to the Dog Track and Jai Alai Fronton that were major attractions for the little community outside of Ormond Beach.  As the family approach the area of those attractions, an anomaly of gigantic proportions off to the left.  The family decided to investigate.

As they exited the car, the anomaly’s full magnitude started to sink in.  As the young boy approached the fence, he saw something that was amazing to him, he was looking down what would be called the tri- oval and seeing an expanse of blacktop like he had never seen before.  Few Americans, at that point, had seen a mile of Interstate highway, let alone what now laid before the boys eyes.

Off to the left, was a wall of highway that would be known as turn 4.  It looked like a highway on its side, to the boy.  Squiggling through the fence, the boy entered the grandstand area and sat, with mouth agape, taking in the massiveness of the facility.  Moving around he could see the tri- oval, where in a scant 6 weeks a defining moment of the speedway would occur, the first and second turns, the backstretch where so many passes would occur and turn 4, where Cale Yarborough would flip and back into the banked wall in excess of 200 mph and where Neil Bonnett and Dale Earnhardt would meet their ends.  As the black top lay fallow before the boy, none of this was evident, but would not have been doubted.

Over the years this would become the theater of triumph, defeat and devastation of Olympic proportions.  People would, occasionally, sit in the same seats the boy had years before.  And the race track would become a major magnet, people, mostly, from the south spilling over the sides and throughout the infield.  It would be 1976 before it would become a national event.  On that mid-February day, David Pearson and Richard Petty would trade the lead numerous times on each of the closing laps, each time seeming to get closer to each other until, coming out of turn 4, they touched and slammed into the wall and spun into the infield.  Pearson had depressed the clutch and was able to keep the motor running, enabling him to creep to the finish line as Petty struggled to get the motor started.

In 1979 a fight broke out on the last lap that saw Donnie Allison and, again,  Cale Yarborough  smash each other down the backstretch and then end up in a fight in the grass at turn 3.  Other tid bits of Daytona lure includes Smokey Yunick’s perfect 15/16ths scale model of a Chevelle and Junior Johnson running the exhaust pipes straight out the back of his car, a simple thing, but anyone who tried to draft the car ran into 1500 degrees and burnt paint.  All of these are part of the lure and history of the Daytona International Speedway.

That lure is captured in the Daytona 500 Experience, formerly Daytona USA. It is an interactive museum where you can change tires and get up close to that year’s Daytona 500 and rumble through the memorabilia and history of that storied track.  You can take a bus ride around the track, or if that is not fast enough you can take the Driving Experience there and run around the track at speeds that would have you thrown under the jail a few yards away.

And Daytona is not just for roundy rounders.  It has world class motorcycle events each March and the Rolex 24 each January.  Each of those events would make Daytona International famous, if it wasn’t for this pesky Daytona 500.  There is so much to experience at the speedway that it would be a shame to miss it, simply because you may not be a fan of NASCAR.

By the way, the seat that boy sat in is still available for the 2014 race, and many others that date back to the initial race in 1959.  In 2014 you still have the opportunity to sit in seats that have held the people who have witnessed all those events and much, much more.  After that, the largest night lite sports facility on the plant will have undergone a renovation that will make them history themselves.  Yes, it will become a state of the art sports facility by the time the 2016 race roles around and it will gain something, but lose something at the same time.  Do not miss your opportunity to sit in history.