The Frontstretch: That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time: Beach Dreams by Amy Henderson -- Monday February 13, 2006

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Before the towering, glittering Daytona International Speedway was built in Daytona Beach, racers flocked to the area. Not only were the sands of Daytona once host to a legion of designers and daredevils hoping to set world land-speed records, but also to one of stock car racing’s greatest challenges-the infamous beach-road course.

The designers and daredevils left Daytona for the Utah salt flats in the 1930’s, but racing stayed on. The beach-road course predates NASCAR by a decade. Concerned that Daytona Beach would lose its identity as a Mecca for speed, city planners turned to Sig Haugdahl, a mechanic-turned-driver who had once lit up the sands himself in search of the elusive speed record; who had once, albeit unofficially, broken that magic barrier.

Haugdahl’s racetrack was a superspeedway longer than even Daytona and Talladega today. It included two straightaways, each as long at 1.5 miles as Lowe’s Motor Speedway, connected by two of the most difficult turns in racing history. The turns and one straightaway were carved from the sand dunes of Daytona Beach. The second straightaway was a section of US Highway A1A.

The beach-road course saw its first race in March of 1936. The field included an Indianapolis 500 winner, Bill Cummings; the eventual race winner, Milt Marion; and a local mechanic who, more than a decade later, would change American stock car racing forever, William Henry Getty France. The city of Daytona Beach lost over $20,000 on that race, a 250-miler in which much of the field simply bogged down in the sand and stayed there. Others disappeared over the sand berm, never to return that day.

Yet the following year, the race was back, and by 1938 France was running the show. A mixture of clay and limestone, called marl, was added to the sand to harden the turns, improving the churned-up sand that ended many a driver’s race early.

The course saw several races over the next few years before and after a hiatus for World War II. In 1948, the course hosted the first race of a brand-new stock car organization called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing-NASCAR.

Ironically, the innovation and popularity of NASCAR probably, in the end, helped spell the end of the old beach-road course at Daytona Beach. That venue was hard to police in terms of gate crashers-spectators simply wandered in from the beach. Then in 1950, Harold Brasington built the first paved superspeedway at Darlington, South Carolina. Racing’s face was changing, and Big Bill France had a new vision for Daytona Beach-Daytona International Speedway. In the end, perhaps he was right-the Daytona 500 became and has remained NASCAR’s premiere event. The beach-road course days are over and have been for half a century, but that’s history.

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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