The Daytona 500 is commonly referred to as the “Super Bowl of Stock Racing,” or “The Great American Race.” The race not only offers the season’s biggest prize purse (nearly $19 million in 2012), but is considered by far the most prestigious event on NASCAR’s schedule. For almost two decades, the 500′s television ratings have topped all other North American auto-racing telecasts, including the much older legendary Indianapolis 500. Major NASCAR corporate sponsors take advantage of Speedweeks to promote their product whenever and wherever possible, but perhaps nowhere is their presence as saturated as at Daytona. Although the overall economic malaise has caused sponsorship to diminish throughout the first dozen years of the 21st Century, the 500 remains “the” absolute showcase for NASCAR, and they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the event is memorable for all involved.
The event is held at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., where NASCAR is headquartered and where the organization was founded in 1948. Daytona Speedway was opened in 1959, with original construction costs estimated at $3 million. With a seating capacity at just under 168,000, Daytona is second only to Indianapolis Motor Speedway (est. 400,000) in North America. The race itself consists of 200 laps on the 2.5-mile tri-oval asphalt surface, which has four 31-degree banked turns. The track was most recently repaved in 2010, and lights were added in 1998.
The winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 was the legendary Lee Petty, who collected $19,050. Contrast that with the $1,589,387 awarded to the 2012 500 winner, Matt Kenseth. The first million-dollar Daytona 500 winner was the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1998, who had endured years of near-misses before taking the checkered flag on his 20th attempt. When his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the 2004 race, the Earnhardt’s became the third father-son team to be victorious in The Great American Race. The other two father-son combos to take the checkered flag were Lee (’59) and Richard Petty (7 time-winner) and Bobby (3-time winner) and Davey Allison (1992). Bobby Allison’s 1988 victory made him the oldest winner (50 years, 73 days), while Trevor Bayne’s surprising 2011 win made him the youngest Daytona 500 winner (20 years, 1 day). Richard Petty’s seven wins lead all drivers, with Cale Yarborough’s four victories the second-most. Petty (1973-74), Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) are the only three drivers to win consecutive 500s. The Waltrip brothers, Darrell (1989) and Michael (2001, 2003) are the only brothers to have each won a Daytona 500.
The Daytona 500 has presented more than its share of memorable races in the 54 years the event has been staged, beginning with the very first race. Three cars (Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, Joe Weatherly) crossed the finish line at the same time in the ’59 race, with Petty and Beauchamp racing for the checkered flag with Weatherly a lap down. Weatherly’s car inadvertently blocked the official NASCAR camera, leading to three days of official review before Petty was declared the winner. Richard Petty’s 1964 victory was the most dominant in the event’s history, leading 184 of the 200 laps to win going away. A last lap duel between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 1976 500 led to a spinout in the homestretch with both cars winding up in the infield grass, short of the finish line. Petty was unable to restart his car, but Pearson somehow coaxed his vehicle back onto the track and staggered across the finish line for the victory. A fierce blizzard that paralyzed most of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. played into CBS’ favor in the 1979 race, which was being nationally-televised live for the first time. The television audience was well-above expected due to the snowstorm, and the telecast was also the first to introduce in-car cameras. Race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, and subsequently began fighting on the infield grass after exiting their respective vehicles. As the drivers scuffled, Richard Petty, who’d been at least a half-lap behind the leaders, guided his car across the finish line to a most improbable victory. The thrilling finish is frequently credited with providing NASCAR with the national “shot” of attention it had long sought to elevate the sport to major-league status. The 1988 race featured several notable events, including Bobby Allison’s “oldest driver to win” the 500, and became even more of a “family affair” when his son Davey finished runnerup. The race also featured one of the scariest wrecks in the event’s history when Richard Petty went airborne on Lap 106 and was nearly cut in half when other drivers couldn’t avoid it upon settling back on the track. Miraculously, Petty escaped serious injury. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. appeared destined to finally win at Daytona in 1990 until he blew out a tire on the final lap, allowing Derrike Cope to slip past for the win. In his career, Earnhardt had four times been leading the race with under ten laps remaining only to fall victim to either mechanical issues or just bad luck.
The most unforgettable Daytona 500 occurred in the 2001 race when the iconic Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was killed on the event’s final lap after losing control and slamming into the outside wall in Turn 4. Tragic and bittersweet, Earnhardt Sr’s. crash happened at almost the same time two of the drivers for DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were crossing the finish line to end up 1-2. Earnhardt’s death brought about immense changes from NASCAR to protect their most valuable asset, the drivers.
The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, the 2013 Daytona 500 is scheduled to be held on Sunday, February 24. This will be the 55th running of the Great American Race.