Cat Flag’s Guide to the Daytona 500

It’s Presidents Day weekend once again, which means that it’s time once again for the most famous and prestigious race in NASCAR. The Daytona 500 is the season-opener for the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest tier of racing competitions sanctioned by America’s most popular auto racing organization. It is held at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, on its 2.5-mile “Tri-Oval” asphalt track. Every February, NASCAR fans across America tune in to watch their favorite race car drivers take the challenge to win their spot in history.

I have been a NASCAR fan for years, but I gained a renewed appreciation for it last year. With many professional sports shut down for several months due to the ongoing pandemic, NASCAR was one of the first sports to find a way to reopen safely. Shortly thereafter, I was able to introduce it to some people in my life who have now become new fans of the sport.

So, this year, I figured I would celebrate the running of the biggest race on NASCAR’s calendar with some fun and interesting facts about the Great American Race.

NASCAR’s shocking criminal roots

You may be surprised to learn that the history of the all-American auto racing competition begins with bootleggers during Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, alcohol was banned in the United States. The intent of the ban was to improve “public morality” and combat alcoholism. The actual result, though, was the growth of a whole criminal industry of people making and selling illegal liquor. From small-time moonshiners in Appalachia to famed gangsters like Al Capone, these crooks needed a way to get their booze to their customers without it being confiscated by law enforcement.

To do this, “runners” would modify their cars with faster and more powerful engines, more agile and durable suspensions, and other under-the-hood features that would give them an edge when outrunning the police. Thus, while the car would look like an ordinary, nondescript, stock car just like any other on the road on the outside, it would secretly be a powerful racing machine. Before long, runners started racing each other to see whose machine was fastest. The end of Prohibition and legalization of alcohol put an end to the need for the runners’ services, but many car enthusiasts still wanted to see how far they could push the mechanical limits of what their stock cars could become.

This is where Bill France, Sr. comes into the picture. Originally from Washington, D.C., he moved to Daytona Beach and opened an auto repair shop. At the time, Daytona Beach was growing as a destination for auto racing enthusiasts, who would drive their machines up and down the beach. People would sometimes organize races that would be spectator events, with cash prizes for the winners. Unfortunately, some of these races would be run by dishonest con artists, and there was no consistency in the rules or requirements in these events. France decided to fix this by creating an official governing body for the sport. On February 21, 1948, he founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Of course, France wanted to make his hometown an important part of this new, emerging sport, and after years of planning and work, was able to open Daytona International Speedway in 1959. The first Daytona 500 race was held that year, won by Lee Petty.

The history of the Great American Race

That first race at Daytona had 59 participants and 41,000 attendees. Not bad for a new race in a new venue for a young sport, if you ask me. The race only grew from there, as NASCAR continued to gain in popularity among the gearhead community. In 1967, the famed Italian-born international racecar driver Mario Andretti became the first, and so far only, Daytona 500 winner who wasn’t born in the United States. Meanwhile, racing legend Richard Petty won a record seven Daytona 500 races over the course of his career, starting with his win in 1964, his last win being in 1981. Petty was actually involved in one of the most famous wrecks in Daytona 500 history, smashing into David Pearson’s car in the final lap of the 1976 race; Pearson was able to get his car across the finish line and win the race in spite of the wreck.

In 1979, the Daytona 500 was televised for the first time. This helped boost the sport’s popularity in the American mainstream, especially since the race was held while much of the East Coast was stuck inside during a bad blizzard. In 1988, father and son raced against each other, with Bobby and Davey Allison chasing each other in the final stretch to the finish line, Bobby ultimately coming out on top.

Tragically, not all Daytona 500 stories have happy endings. In 2001, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in a wreck in the final lap. This terrible event led NASCAR to redesign the racecars with additional safety features and to implement stricter safety rules for the sport. Three years later, his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would go on to win the Daytona 500.

Janet Guthrie was the first woman to race in the Daytona 500, earning a 12th-place finish in 1977. The best performance by a female driver at the Great American Race was in 2013, when Danica Patrick won 8th place. Wendell Scott was the first black driver at the Daytona 500, racing from 1963 to 1971, peaking with a 7th-place finish in 1964. This year, Bubba Wallace will be following in his footsteps as the driver who had the best practice time in the run-up to the race.

The Daytona challenge

The famed Tri-Oval racetrack at Daytona is quite the beast for a driver to conquer. At two-and-a-half miles long, the road itself is 40 feet wide and banks as steep as 31 degrees off the horizontal in some places. Even the start/finish line is 18 degrees off the horizontal! The longest, straightest part of the track is the Backstretch, at about 3,000 feet long. The track has garage capacity for up to 74 cars, though the final race will only have 43 drivers participating.

Qualifying for the race is a multi-step process. First, you run a series of individual qualifying laps. Nobody else is on the track but you, and all that matters is that you place as fast of a time as you can. You run two laps in this way, and the average of your two times is used to calculate your speed. The two fastest cars are awarded the “pole position”, or the front row in the starting lineup of the big race. Only those two cars are guaranteed their spots in the Daytona 500. The rest of the cars are then arranged a spot in one of the Duels.

The Duels (currently called the Bluegreen Vacations Duels for sponsorship reasons) are a pair of qualifying races that are held a few days before the big race. Each Duel determines the starting position for the two rows of racecars at the start of the big race. So, for example, if you win third place in your Duel, you will be in the fourth row on race day. What drivers at the Duels do NOT want is to finish in the back of the pack; those who don’t qualify for one of the 43 exclusive spots pack their bags.

The race itself is called the “Daytona 500” because it is 500 miles long. Because of the track length, this means there are 200 laps. The race is held in three stages: Stage 1 and Stage 2 are both 65 laps long, and the final stage is 70 laps. At the end of each stage, cars are locked in their track positions, and will start the next stage in the same position. In addition, the top 10 finishers in each stage will earn a number of points toward the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs at the end of the year. For what should be obvious reasons, there are far more points awarded for those who finish at the top of the third stage.

The ultimate winner of the race is awarded the Harley J. Earl Trophy, named for a GM executive and car designer who was friends with Bill France, Sr. The trophy itself stays at Daytona and is put on display, though a replica is given to the driver to take home. In addition, the crew chief of the winning driver’s pit crew is awarded the Cannonball Baker Trophy in recognition of the fact no driver can win without his or her pit crew.

You’re darn right!

I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s race. I hope for an exciting contest of speed and skill, though I also pray for safety for the participating drivers. Hopefully this blog post gives you an appreciation of why I love this race and this sport.