DAYTONA BEACH – There is no other stock-car race like the Daytona 500. Even its place on the racing calendar is unique – the Sunday before the third Monday of February.
That time is finally here. Gentlemen start your engines.
I wasn’t much of a racing fan until it became part of my job description in 1978. I was responsible for sports in Volusia County, which consisted primarily of high schools, Stetson basketball, Bethune-Cookman football and the Daytona International Speedway. What a mix.
During my first trip to Daytona, I watched David Pearson rebound from going a lap down with a flat tire to winning the summer race in 1978. My first Daytona 500 was seven months later. I couldn’t have picked a better one.
That was the first time a NASCAR race was televised from flag-to-flag. Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough bumped and banged around the 2.5-mile track for a couple laps until they eventually ran each other into the third turn wall a mile short of the finish line. Richard Petty was a straightaway behind in third and he coasted past the melee to the unexpected victory. As Petty’s team celebrated, Allison and Yarborough got into a fistfight on the track. Older brother Bobby Allison parked his car and joined the fracas.
“I remember blocking some of Cale’s punches with my face,” Bobby still likes to say 42 years later.
All three were fined $2,500 by NASCAR founder Bill France. What most don’t know is they got their money back a few days later when France admitted he got “a million-dollars’ worth of advertising from the fight.
That race pushed stock-car racing into the sports consciousness. A massive blizzard on the East Coast forced the postponement of NBA and NHL games. Suddenly, NASCAR was the only game in town – and the only live event on television. Long before there were 342 cable channels, many new fans, perhaps in a sense of curiosity, tuned in. They were treated to a show – and a finish – like no other. All of a sudden, NASCAR’s fanbase doubled. A photo of the third-turn fistfight made the cover of Time magazine.
So much has happened to the sport since. Legends have come and gone. Cars have changed. Wooden bleachers and $2 beers have been replaced with sky boxes and Wi-Fi zones.
But one thing never changes: the Daytona 500 always will be one of the most-iconic sporting events on the planet.
One of my dearest friends was Benny Parsons. We spent a lot of time together at and away from the track. He said no matter what, he always remembered earning the moniker Daytona 500 winner in 1975 and keeping it for the rest of his life – and beyond. “And that ain’t bad,” he usually said with a laugh.
Who will drive to racing immortality this year? Who will join the exclusive club where membership limited to those who earn their spot in Victory Lane? It’s a select fraternity that includes names like Earnhardt – both Dales – and Waltrip – Darrell and Michael. Bill Elliott raced his way into NASCAR lure there. So did Pearson, Petty, Yarborough and my buddy, Benny.
Daytona is a track that doesn’t discriminate. Derrike Cope, Ward Burton and Trevor Bayne have won the Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart have not. It’s a race where fathers and sons – Lee and Richard Petty and Bobby and Davey Allison – have won, and iconic racing families – Mario Andretti in 1967 and A.J. Foyt in 1972 – have planted their legacies at stock-car’s most-hallowed grounds.
And it’s also where we saw seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, arguably one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, die.
Daytona 500 winners get more than a trophy and a big paycheck. They get to join history.
And that ain’t bad.