Editor’s Note: Starting today, Matt McLaughlin takes an 11-part look at the history of NASCAR Racing at Daytona Beach. From the very first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1949 to the thrilling finish to the 2006 Daytona 500, the Great American Race has provided us with thrills, spills, and a little bit of controversy. Today’s first article focuses on all that and then some, recollecting the early races on the beach that occurred before a 2.5-mile race track was ever a thought in anyone’s head.
For 10 years before the first Daytona 500 was held at Bill France’s magnificent new superspeedway, NASCAR’s Grand National Division ran on the storied old beach and road course in Daytona Beach in what was considered the biggest event on the tour’s calendar. While the race had run prior to NASCAR’s arrival on the scene (starting in 1936), and, in fact, Bill France Sr. had promoted some of those races, it was with the second “Strictly Stock” (the forefather of the Grand National division) that the event grew in stature of one of the crown jewels of the circuit that helped decide the National Champion.
This old beach and road course used a section of state highway, A1A, as a front straight. At the end of that straightaway, the racers entered the beach rounding a big wide corner that led out onto the shoreline, which served a back straight and worked up into the sweeping north corner that led back out onto the highway. While the course varied a bit in measured length, it averaged about 4.15 miles each year.
Of course there were problems with running on the beach. Depending on the tide, the back straight could be either narrow or wide. Races had to be timed to avoid high tide. Ruts quickly formed in the sand and got deeper as the race progressed, eventually getting deep enough an out-of-shape racecar could hook a rut and flip over. The only thing that kept an errant racecar out of the surf was sheer good luck. The sand played havoc with engines, bearings and brakes, and the salty air destroyed electrical systems. Mist off the ocean often required running the windshield wipers down the back straight to see where you were going, and sand would pit and streak the windshields. Still, the course provided some exciting racing, as well as a lots of tourist dollars for the Daytona Beach community.
The first NASCAR-sanctioned race on the beach and road course took place July 10th, 1949. 28 drivers showed up to have a go at the big $2,000 prize, and 5,000 fans showed up to see the action. There were three female drivers among the competitors that day, with Ethel Mobley the top finisher of the distaff gender; she came home 11th. Louise Smith had the misfortune of putting her Ford on its roof, but with the aid of some helpful spectators managed to get it back right side up and went onto to finish 20th. Gober Sosebee led the first 34 laps, but got sideways in the north turn, allowing Red Byron, who went on to be NASCAR’s first “Strictly Stock” champion, around to grab the top spot. Byron led the rest of the race in one of the hot new Oldsmobile “Rocket” 88s, leading a 1-2-3-4 finish for that brand on his way to the checkered flag. Byron had a 1:51 lead at the end, averaging almost 81 mph for the distance. In fact, only 11 cars were listed as running at the end of the attrition-filled event… six of them were Oldsmobiles. Oldsmobile was well pleased with the sudden sales surge afterwards of their factory hot rod, the “88.”
The 1950 running of the beach and road course moved to the more traditional month of February, becoming the inaugural race of the season for the first time. The “Strictly Stock” name had given way to the “Grand National” division, a name that stuck until 1971. Harold Kite, in his first NASCAR start used his experience as a military tank driver to pilot his huge ’49 Lincoln over the tough and rutted beach sections of the course. Defending champion Byron took the lead on lap 15, but his pit stop and a second stop for a jammed gear shifting linkage dropped him from the lead, allowing Kite to take the point again. While Kite led unmolested to cruise to a 53-second lead, Byron thrilled the spectators with a wide-open sprint to overtake second-place Lloyd Moore, capping off the comeback with a last-lap pass to take the second position. Attendance was up to 9,500 people, though the winner’s purse was down to $1,500… well, some things always seem to stay the same.
The fact 54 cars showed up for the 1951 beach and road course classic shows how popular NASCAR racing was becoming in a short period of time. The crowd swelled to 14,000 people, a huge number by the day’s standards and nearly triple the original crowd who came in 1949. The locals were thrilled that day by a hometown boy, Marshall Teague, who was surprisingly strong in a family-owned Hudson Hornet. No one seemed to have anything for early NASCAR legend Tim Flock driving a big honking ’50 Lincoln, but a bad pit stop dropped Flock out of top spot, and the hometown hero took the lead and was never headed. Teague did have one close call, though, when a trackside press photographer decided a photo of that car taken in the middle of the track would look good on the front page. That paper almost contained the journalist’s obituary, as Teague was just barely able to avoid hitting him.
20,000 folks showed up to see 61 drivers compete in the 1952 Daytona event. The vast throng proved to be a logistical nightmare, and the race had to be delayed to give everyone time to fight the traffic, find a parking space, and get to a seat. Again, some things never seem to change. The delay would prove costly as high tide was going to cause the event to have to end early. Herb Thomas, driving a team car for defending champion Teague, led the first lap, but Teague himself took the lead on lap 2. As the tide came in and began narrowing the back straight, Bill France realized the back straight was going to be sub-aquatic before the race could go the distance. Word was passed around the pits on lap 27 that there would be 10 more laps. Teague had built up a huge lead, so he eased out of the throttle so he could run the distance without a pit stop. Thomas came home second. Tragedy was narrowly averted when seventh-place finisher Tommy Thompson lost control racing to the stripe and hit flag man Johnny Bruner, who was thrown 10 feet into the air but, miraculously enough, wasn’t badly hurt.
Teague did not come back to defend his two consecutive titles in 1953, having defected to the rival AAA stock car league. Bob Pronger took the pole for that year’s event at a blistering (by standards of the day) 115.77 mph, leading the field of 57 cars to the stripe. The irrepressible Pronger made a bet with outside polesitter Fonty Flock as to who would lead that first lap. The bet must have been for a considerable sum, as both drivers went hells bells for that first lap. As they entered the north corner, the two drivers were playing chicken, neither willing to lift. Finally, Flock got out of the throttle and slammed on the brakes… Pronger won the race into the corner, but was going far too fast to make the turn. The Oldsmobile crashed through the guard rail, flipped down a sand bank and sent spectators scrambling as he appeared to be heading into the grandstands. The Olds came down on four wheels and Pronger drove off, but he was soon sidelined by mechanical problems caused by the wreck. And he lost the bet, too. Meanwhile, Fonty backed off to a more manageable pace but was still turning laps kissing close to 90 mph. He seemed to have the race well in hand… leading right up until the white flag. Crossing the line, his Delta 88 ran out of gas, but a helpful teammate, Slick Smith, saw Fonty’s predicament and pushed the car back to the pits with his car. Still, that wasn’t enough; Bill Blair, who had been fully 1:05 behind when Flock’s car ran dry, managed to come around in time to take the win. Flock returned to the track in time to take second, while Thompson finished third and was kind enough not to run over the flag man again.
27,000 fans showed up for what was billed as the last race on the beach and road course in 1954. Bill France was boldly predicting that his new high-banked superspeedway would be ready for the 1955 staging of the event. (As it turned out, he was a little off, about four years to be exact.) There were 62 cars on hand, the weather was perfect, and the racers put on a memorable show. Lee Petty set pole speed at 123 mph-plus in a big Hemi Chrysler and was a pre-race favorite. During the race, Fonty’s brother Tim seemed to have Petty’s measure, and he did indeed beat Lee to the line by almost a minute and a half. Third-place went to Buck Baker, who had overcome the minor annoyance of not having any brakes by throwing his car sideways into the corners to scrub off speed. After the race, Tim Flock was disqualified; the carb in his Olds was found to have polished bores to increase airflow, and the butterflies that were held to the throttle shaft by screws in a production car had been soldered in place to keep the screwheads from obstructing the incoming air. Flock was so disgusted with the decision he quit NASCAR after being stripped of his win. Petty was declared the winner and Baker got a break and moved up to second… no brakes and all.
There was a new face at Daytona in 1955. Car owner Carl Kiekhaefer arrived with an immaculately prepared and lightning-fast Chrysler 300, but no one to drive it. Kiekhaefer had decided stock car racing would be a fine way to advertise his Mercury Outboard marine engines, and like everything he did, he went about it full bore, jumping in with both feet. Ironically the driver he ended up with was Tim Flock, the driver who had quit NASCAR after being disqualified from the previous year’s Daytona Race. Flock was making a comeback to NASCAR racing and needed a ride, and Kiekhaefer needed a top name driver. The combination was perfect. Flock turned some heads by posting a 130 mph-plus qualifying speed. For a brand new team, Flock and the white Chrysler seemed to do extremely well in the race, holding down second for most of the event… but nobody had anything for Fireball Roberts that day. Roberts drove a blistering pace with a ’55 Buick (complete with wide whites and a hood hold down strap that wrapped around the hood ornament) sponsored by Fish Carburetor (the mysterious device that claimed to boost horsepower and mileage to unheard of levels that supposedly the big auto and gas companies killed off). However, in a double irony, Flock was later awarded the race win when Roberts was disqualified after NASCAR tech director “Cannonball” Baker found the pushrods in Robert’s car were .016 of an inch too long. Petty was credited with second-place aboard another Chrysler.
When Kiekhaefer returned to Daytona in 1956, he was well on his way to his ultimate goal of winning every NASCAR race run. In the five races prior to Daytona that year, three had gone to Kiekhaefer-owned cars. Old Carl wasn’t about to mess around at the biggest race of the year, either; he entered six cars in the event. (As a historical footnote, one of them was driven by an African-American, Charlie Scott. Scott placed 19th in the race, the second-best finish in one of the Kiekhaefer cars.) By 1956, the cars were making huge horsepower that allowed even those overweight behemoths to run at frightening speeds. As such, the race will be recalled as “Flipper.” While the television dolphin and his pals were a long way off, the rutted track conditions and high speeds combined to send a record number of cars rolling. Russ Truelove got the award for most consecutive flips, rolling his Ford about a dozen times. While the car was destroyed, Truelove endured. In the synchronized car flipping division, the nod had to go to teammates Jim Wilson and Buddy Krebs, who rolled their identical appearing cars at the same time going into the south corner (and were probably seeing double for a while after that.) The Harry Houdini Escape Artist Award went out to Junior Johnson, who rolled his Pontiac three times, battering the car up so badly Junior had to crawl out of the hole where the rear window once resided. However, the best flip may have occurred towards the front of the field. Ralph Moody showed how it was done, rolling his Mercury, landing on the wheels, speeding away without losing a single position and going on to finish third. Of the record 76 starters in the race, only 20 were listed as running at the end of the event, finished two laps shy of the scheduled distance due to high tide. The Big Kahuna on the beach that day was Tim Flock in a Kiekhaefer Chrysler, who led flag-to-flag except for the four laps after his first pit stop.
Kiekhaefer had quit NASCAR by 1957 after the fans started booing him and his team for dominating races, and for a highly questionable wreck at Shelby, N.C., where one of the team cars took out title contender Thomas in a wreck that wound up badly injuring Thomas. Kiekhaefer driver Baker took the title, but it was under a dark cloud and the owner decided to back out of the series. That left the race a wide-open affair, and in the most thrilling beach event to date, Cotton Owens in a Pontiac and Paul Goldsmith in a Smokey Yunick-prepped Chevy treated the crowd to a Battle Royale. The two drivers swapped the lead five times, and lightning-quick pit work (by ’50s standards) seemed to give the advantage to Goldsmith, whose crew managed a 47-second stop, while Owens crew took a tick over a minute. It was all for naught, though, when Goldsmith blew an engine, giving Owens a strong cushion out front. Meanwhile, Petty was involved in a spectacular wreck during the race. In those days, when a car was disabled it was pushed to the side of the track, not towed away; Petty’s windshield was so dirty and sandblasted, he ran into one of those disabled cars in a corner running at over 70 mph. Owens went on to take the victory by 55 seconds in front of 35,000 fans and received a check for $4,250.
1958 was the swan song for the beach and road course in Daytona, and it proved to be a thriller, as cars prepared by two names that would go on to be legends in the sport battled it out right down to the checkered flag. Goldsmith was back in a Smokey Yunick-prepped Chevy hoping to avenge the bad luck that had cost him a win in 1957, while Curtis Turner was wheeling a Holman-Moody Ford. Goldsmith grabbed the pole position with at a blistering 140.5-mph speed and led the race from the drop of the green… but Turner maintained Goldsmith in his sights. Lap after lap, he gave Smokey’s driver all he could handle as 35,000 fans cheered the pair on. While Turner was trying to get around Goldsmith, though, he unexpectedly came up on a lapped car and spun his big Ford trying to avoid a wreck. Turner’s Ford ended up crashing through the surf, spraying water all over, but he wheeled the car around and rejoined the fight 10 seconds behind Goldsmith. Goldsmith then started having problems of his own. His windshield was pitted and his wipers had shorted; vision was so bad that on the last lap, Goldsmith literally missed the north corner and drove on up the beach. Realizing his mistake, Goldsmith did a bootlegger turn in the sand, drove back to the race course and hooked a hard right with Turner closing hard behind him. However, Goldsmith still managed to lead Turner to the line by five car lengths to go down in the record books as the last driver to win on the beach and road course at Daytona.
In 1959, the new Daytona Speedway became the site of the big February race in Daytona. Of course, the beach is still there, and if you know where to look, the Concrete South Stands still exists. While you can still drive on the beach, ironically enough for a city that boasts itself as the “Birthplace of Speed” the speed limit on the beach is 15 mph, radar enforced. But late at night, if you close your eyes and listen out there on the beach, it’s easy to believe the crashing of the surf is Turner taking an unexpected detour into the Atlantic, and some say if you listen very, very hard to the night wind you can still hear the sound of NASCAR officials disqualifying the apparent winner of a race.