For any race fan the off season seems to stretch into eternity. Much like winter itself, the offseason seems gray, bleak, and cold even when rumors of seat swaps and tire testing offer embers of warmth that hint of what is to come in the new season. Even a short couple months without racing is too much for the real race fan and from the moment the last engine falls silent every fan counts the days until the walls of Daytona will again reverberate with that glorious sound.
This is part of what makes Daytona so very special, not only to NASCAR fans but to all race fans. It is the first race of the new season across all disciplines of motorsport. It is the ray of sunlight that breaks through the clouds of the off-season and offers the first hint of the season that is to come. The sun is warm, the cars are hot, and absolutely everyone is ready to race. Whatever your motorsport passion, the Daytona 500 kicks open the door to the new season like no other race could.
The first Daytona race was held in 1959 and was won by the legendary Lee Petty, father of the one and only Richard Petty. The race was so close that even NASCAR owner William France thought that Johnny Beauchamp might have won it. Petty would not be denied though and with the help of the press proved he was the champion.
Before that race, which is the official start of the race at a permanent track, the race was held half on the beach and half on the pavement with consideration being given to incoming tides when necessary. In 1961 it was known as the 500 and not only an American, but a motorsport, tradition was born.
By the 70s it was another Petty, Richard, that was making waves at the famous Speedway and a new era in stock car racing was born. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, and at the end of the decade, Dale Earnhardt, were all up and coming and racing like there was no tomorrow. Legends such as A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti came down to race the hallowed banks on the beach and take part in America’s Race. The Daytona 500 had arrived and race fans everywhere were embracing the hard racing stock car drivers.
In the 80s and 90s it was Earnhardt. There were contenders like Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliot but there was only one Earnhardt, the Man in Black, the one man who took that time in racing and made it his. He defined an era and was the definition of what a racer really was. He was the meaning of “Rubbing is Racing” and fans either loved him or hated him but he propelled NASCAR, and the Daytona 500 to a level like no one else. Despite that fact, it took Earnhardt 20 years to win the actual 500. He had won every other race the Speedway held but the 500 had eluded him until February 15th, 1998 and on that day all racers, and race fans, everywhere celebrated with the man they called the Intimidator.
As is the case with life, racing is ever evolving: Jeff Gordon and his like ushered in a new era, and once again Daytona led the way, changing rules and regulations as new fans were drawn to the sport and technology marched forward. Gordon became a regular in victory lane, as did Jimmy Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Junior. Fans still clamor to watch the first car make the first run, to have the sunshine and the roar of an engine break the long cold spell of winter, and to have the brightly colored, vastly sponsored cars illuminate the grayness of the off season.
Now the drivers are younger, faster, more technologically advanced, but lack the ability to feel what Petty and Earnhardt could through their hands, their instincts, and their hearts. NASCAR, and racing as a whole, has changed, both for better and for worse, but one thing has not changed—every February fans across the globe still turn ever excited, ever hopeful, and ever grateful eyes to the high banks of the Daytona Motor Speedway as she kicks open the door to a new season of racing.