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Knowing NASCAR - Daytona
By Bob Heiss

When you mention the great arenas and stadiums of the world in most cases you only have to say part of the name, or even just a nickname - "The Horseshoe", "Shea", "The Garden", or "The Big House".

In racing one only has to say "Daytona" and everything comes into focus. Two-and one half miles long, this world famous tri-oval just celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and it did so with the same style it has since it was built by a man named Bill France back in 1958, by hosting The Great American Race, the Daytona 500.

In the 40's and 50's there were a lot of small racing associations around the United States, particularly in the South. Many of these drivers were bootleggers, some were law enforcement who learned to drive from chasing the bootleggers, and some just wanted to go fast.

In the sleepy little seaside town of Daytona Beach, Florida organizers put together a car race, partly on a one and a half mile section of roadway that ran along the beach, then another mile and a half on the beach. Many aspiring drivers came to race the beach and to earn their fame and fortune. From 1936 until 1958 they raced the beach, milling or injuring many drivers in the process.

Fortunately in 1949 Bill France gathered a bunch of businessmen together in the Streamline Hotel, in Daytona Beach. Out of that meeting was born NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, and in 1958 Bill France began creating the largest and greatest stock car track ever built, Daytona Motor Speedway.

Over the years Daytona has hosted hundred of races, from motorcycle Championships, to The Rolex 24 Hours, to The Craftsman Truck Series, to the Busch (now Nationwide) Series, to the Pepsi 4oo (formerly the Firecracker 400) held every Fourth of July, but it is most famously known for the Granddaddy of Races, the Daytona 500.

The first race was held in February of 1959, and was won by a man from Randleman, North Carolina named Lee Petty. In the years to follow his son, Richard "The King" Petty, would win seven times. Cale Yarborough four times, Jeff Gordon three times, and multitude of one and two time winners, and "The Man", "The Intimidator", "The Man in Black", Dale Earnhardt, would win it just once in over 23 tries.

Earnhardt was said to have had the worst string of luck of any driver to hit the pavement there. He cut a tire, last lap. He ran out of gas, last lap, he hit just about everything but the outhouses near Turn #4, but when he finally got there, to Victory Lane, in 1998 it said by many to be one of the greatest wins ever run there.

Not because he won by any great amount of distance or time or speed, but because there was such an outpouring congratulations and adulation for this man from Kannapolis, North Carolina, made famous for his trademark sunglasses and bushy mustache, and for his cars. Wrapped in black and carrying the number "3".

Many great drivers have said that seeing that black Chevy two cars in front of you with two laps to go wasn't the scariest thing in racing. Seeing the black #3 in your rearview mirror on the last lap was the scariest thing anyone ever saw.

NASCAR checkered flag

But racers, drivers, and fans are sentimental, and when Ralph Dale Earnhardt won that race every crewman, every driver, every team support person was on the line at pit lane to shake his hand, each and every one of them.

In one of the most famous scenes in NASCAR history Earnhardt took that black #3 and raced into the huge grassy area in front of the main grandstands, and with his foot planted in the gas pedal he spun that car around, spinning the rear tires the whole time. In doing so he burned into the grass for all the world to see, the number "3".

Just outside the track sits a nine-foot statue of a man holding a replica of the winner's trophy for the 500. The man's left fist is held skyward triumphantly and the grin on his face is one of racings greatest smiles. But the man is no longer with us.

On February 18, 2001 in the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 Dale Earnhardt sat in third place. The leader was Michael Waltrip, driving a car owned by Dale Earhardt and his company, DEI. In second place was the red #8, driven by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also driving a car owned by his Dad, and DEI.

With less than a quarter of a lap to go for a DEI sweep, Dale Earnhardt's black #3 slammed into the outside wall in Turn #4. While Waltrip and others celebrated victory others knew that things had gotten real bad, real fast.

Dale Earnhardt was dead.

His passing, while tragic and a great loss to his family, his friends, his sport, and to racing, also helped his fellow drivers in the long run. Because of the fatal injuries he suffered NASCAR and contracted engineers developed head-and-neck safety devices, and helped in the development of the SAFER Barrier, and system that cushions the walls of a race track, absorbing a dispersing the energy of a crash. Since the death of Dale Earnhardt there has not been a crash fatality in any of NASCAR's three major racing series.

The past of NASCAR is filled with famous tracks like Darlington, Dover, Bristol and Martinsville. They were driven by famous names such as Waltrip, Petty, Johnson, Foyt, and Pearson.

Each month we'll look at the colorful history of these drivers, and the tracks they called home, here at Knowing NASCAR.

If you have any questions about NASCAR, its tracks, drivers, owners or history, e-mail them to me and we'll see what we can do to get your questions answered.

And remember, "Rubbin's racin'!"

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Bob Heiis, NASCAR fan

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