As NASCAR returns to Daytona Beach, Fla. this week for the annual festival of speed known as Speedweeks 2012, there are fewer and fewer fans and competitors who remember how it all began.
|Daytona's Beach course|
Daytona’s venerable Beach & Road Course served at once as the birthplace of organized stock car racing in America and one of the country’s first off-road competitions. More than half the temporary track was sand; a pair of turns and a long strip of beach linked to Route A1A’s pavement. It was unique, to say the least. The combination of sand and asphalt made for spectacular racing and breath-taking crashes that drew tens of thousands of post-war race fans to Central Florida, laying the groundwork for the multi-million dollar industry that now plies its trade just a few miles northwest at Daytona International Speedway in 1959.
“It was just like a dirt track,” recalled NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, who won three sportsman races on the beach and finished 11th in his only NASCAR premier series start in 1957. “The turns were like a half-mile track – one bank to the other.”
Racing began on a 3.2-mile course in 1936. Daytona Beach racer Sig Haugdahl promoted the first two events, neither of which proved to be a commercial or financial success. City officials gave promotional rights to NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. beginning in 19838, with France wearing both a promoter’s hat and a competitor’s helmet. “Big Bill” won the Labor Day event in 1938 and a July race the following year.
France reinstated competition following World War II, lengthening the course to a whopping 4.1 miles, beginning at 4511 S. Atlantic Blvd. and continuing two miles down the A1A asphalt to the Beach Street approach. From there, the track’s south turn led onto the hard=packed sand for a two-mile run back to the north turn. Races were scheduled to coincide with low tide.
|Fans flocked to the Beach course|
The formation of NASCAR at the nearby Streamline Hotel made the annual Daytona beach races the sanctioning body’s premier event, until the construction of Darlington Raceway in 1950. The 1949 beach race, won by NASCAR’s first champion, Red Byron, was held in July. The following year’s event was moved to February, where it remains today.
A total of 10 NASCAR premier series (now Sprint Cup) races were run at the Beach & Road Course, along with events for convertibles, modifieds and sportsman cars during NASCAR’s first decade, creating a Speedweeks template that France expanded upon with the opening of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Highlights from the early years included:
- A1952 race, won by Marshall Teague in a Hudson, being shortened two laps because of the incoming tide.
- The 1953 event, which started a whopping 136 modified/sportsman cars; the largest field in NASCAR history.
- Technical infractions that caused the apparent winners in 1954 and 1955 – Tim Flock and Fireball Roberts – to be disqualified, handing victories to Lee Petty and Flock.
- Charlie Scott became the first African-American driver to start a NASCAR premier series race in 1956. Scott, driving one of Carl Kiekhaefer’s famed Chrysler 300s, finished 19th in a field of 76 cars.
- Cotton Owens drove a Pontiac sponsored by Daytona Beach auto dealer Jim Stephens, to the automaker’s first NASCAR premier series win in 1957.
|Trouble in Turn Two!|
Flock and Teague won twice on the Daytona sand. Byron, Owens, Petty, Harold Kite, Bill Blair and Paul Goldsmith prevailed in the remaining six events. The race retained a decidedly local flavor throughout its years on the beach course, thanks to local boys Teague -- who later lost his life testing an Indianapolis-type roadster at Daytona International Speedway -- and master mechanic/car builder Smokey Yunick, who fielded Goldsmith’s winning Pontiac in 1958.
Teague was nicknamed “King of the Beach” based on his performanceon the Daytona sand, but Wood’s favorite was Curtis Turner, who won two convertible races and had a best NASCAR premier series finish of second. Turner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore will be inducted into the Oceanside Rotary Club of Daytona Beach Hall of Fame on Feb. 20 of this year.
Turner’s driving style stood out on the beach portion of the course. “He was the most spectacular of anyone,” said Wood. “He’d turn it sideways (on the straightaway) but he was under control the whole time. You knew it was him when he’d come into sight crossways. Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly were fast, but not as spectacular.”
|Marshall Teague wrestles his Hudson Hornet|
Racing conditions were often hit-and-miss, with the track deteriorating during the race’s latter stages. The turns would become choppy and filled with deeps ruts, and historic photos of the era’s modified and sportsman races show large numbers of cars that had gone over the embankments and overturned, abandoned by their drivers and left where they came to rest.
“I remember Ralph Moody did a complete flip, landed back on his wheels and kept on going,” said Wood, who completed eight of the nine races in which he participated and never was involved in an accident. “If you missed the turn, you’d go down the beach, turn around and come back.”
One of Wood’s beach course victories came in truly unusual fashion. Competing in the Sportsman division, the Woods replaced their car’s vacuum-powered windshield wipers with an electrical unit, which promptly caught fire. Wood pulled off the track, expecting to watch his 1950 Ford go up in flames. A man appeared out of the palmetto bushes with a fire extinguisher and quashed the flames; apparently undeterred by France’s “Beware of Rattlesnakes” signs, designed to discourage non-paying customers.
“I still had my helmet on, so I got back in, kept going and we still won,” said Wood.
|Smokey built `em, and even drove `em!|
While the Woods flat-towed their cars to Daytona, many competitors drove to the event before taping over their headlights and taking to the track. “(It was) basically like running on the highway,” said Wood. Not everyone, however, was able to make the return trip on four wheels. NASCAR pioneer Louise Smith, according to Wood, was one of many drivers forced to make an “uh-oh” telephone call after crashing her Ford on the opening lap of the race in 1950. “She called her husband to tell him she’d wrecked it,” said Wood. “I’m not sure it was even paid for.”
This Friday, 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne will drive his No. 21 Ford – owned by Wood’s legendary Wood Brothers Racing -- over a portion of the old beach course to the track’s former north turn. Following a brief press conference, Bayne will continue on to the speedway, where he’ll present the American Ethanol Green Flag to symbolically open Speedweeks 2012.