Daytona 500

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Daytona 500

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: February
Where Celebrated: Daytona Beach, Florida
Symbols and Customs: Daytona Speedway
Related Holidays: Indianapolis 500


Automobile racing in the United States began at the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when few of the nation's roads were paved and it was difficult for drivers to build up any speed. But there was a twenty-mile stretch of hard, flat sand between Ormond and Daytona Beach, a popular winter playground for the rich and famous-among them Ransom Olds and Alexander Winton, America's two most successful automobile manufacturers. Olds came up with the idea of running one of his cars (the precursor of the modern-day Oldsmobile) against one of Winton's right on the beach, and the first race was held in April of 1902. The two drivers were clocked at fifty-seven miles per hour, crossing the finish line in a tie.

The following year there were three competitors and 3,000 spectators, and what was known as the Speed Carnival became a regular event. From 1910 until 1936, drivers raced the world's most powerful cars on Daytona Beach, trying to break the land speed record. Among them was Sir Malcolm Campbell, a British race car driver who wanted to be the first to drive a car 300 miles per hour. The car he brought to the beach in 1935 was twenty-seven feet long and had an engine that had originally been designed for aircraft. Campbell discovered that minor bumps in the sand that posed no problem at fifty or sixty mph were a major problem at higher speeds, and he was forced to settle for a top speed of 276 mph.

In 1936 the first DAYTONA SPEEDWAY opened. It went down an old black-top highway for a mile and a half, made a turn in the sand and came back up the beach to another tight turn-around 3.2 miles in all. Because it was during the Depression and most Americans didn't have much money, the decision was made to let people race the same cars they used for everyday transportation, mostly Fords and Chevrolets, known as "stock cars." Stock car racing initially attracted bootleggers, who were already skilled at adapting regular cars to make them fast enough to haul illegal liquor.

After the slump during World War II (1939-45), stock car racing surged in popularity. A larger, improved speedway opened at Daytona in 1959, and the first 500-mile race for late-model stock cars was held in February of that year. The winner was Lee Petty, whose son, Richard, went on to win seven Daytona 500s-more than anyone else. The best-known woman to race at Daytona was Janet Guthrie, who finished twelfth in 1977.

Racing Flags

GREEN: track clear; proceed at speed; beginning of race and any restarts

YELLOW (CAUTION): track not clear; slow down; hold position behind pace car

RED: track unsafe; go to designated area and stop

WHITE: one lap remaining

CHECKERED: race has been won

BLACK: enter pits immediately for consultation

BLACK WITH WHITE CROSS: for cars refusing to acknowledge black flag

BLUE WITH YELLOW STRIPE: watch mirrors; faster car approaching from behind

YELLOW WITH RED VERTICAL STRIPES: debris or slippery conditions; used on road courses by corner workers Today, the Daytona 500 is the final race of the sixteen-day event known as Speedweeks and the richest of the four biggest NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) races, which include the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500. More than 150,000 spectators gather at the speedway, while tiny television cameras built into the racers' helmets enable millions of television viewers to watch the race from the driver's seat.


Daytona Speedway

The Daytona International Speedway is a 2.5-mile oval, and racers must complete 200 laps (500 miles). It was the creation of William (Bill) France, a mechanic and racing enthusiast who moved to Daytona Beach in 1934, the heyday of beach racing. France founded NASCAR in 1948 and talked city officials into building a 3.2mile oval track-half on the sand and half on the beach road next to it. But the cars got bogged down in the sand and created deep ruts in the turns. Although France managed to iron out most of these problems, he eventually persuaded the city to build the huge "tri-oval" track, capable of holding more than 100,000 people, that opened in 1959 and is still used today. France, who died in 1992, is widely known as the father of stock car racing.

Today, the Daytona Speedway hosts eight weeks of racing events, starting with the Sunbank 24, a twenty-four-hour endurance race similar to the French race known as Le Mans.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Neely, William. Daytona, U.S.A. Tucson: AXTEX Corp., 1979.


Daytona International Speedway

National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 is the richest of the four biggest NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) Sprint Cup races (formerly the Winston Cup). It's the final event of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., which lasts more than two weeks. The speedway is a 2.5-mile oval, and racers must complete 200 laps. The all-time champion of the Daytona 500 is Richard Petty, who won seven times (1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, and 1981).
The Daytona Speedway, which has a seating capacity of 102,900, has been operating since 1959, but stock-car racing at Daytona dates back to 1936, and car racing has been going on here since the early days of cars. Between 1902 and 1935, 13 automobile speed records were set on the beach by racing greats Barney Oldfield, Sir Henry Segrave, and Sir Malcolm Campbell, who broke existing records five times.
The speedway was the creation of William H. G. (Bill) France, a mechanic and racer who moved to Daytona Beach in 1934 in the heyday of beach racing. He gave up driving to organize and promote races and in 1947 founded NASCAR. He had the idea of building the Daytona track in 1953, but financial and political problems delayed its opening until 1959. When he died in 1992, he was known as the father of stock-car racing.
Today the Speedway presents eight weeks of racing events. Speedweeks starts with a 24-hour endurance race; this race and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (France) are the only two 24-hour races for prototype sports cars in the world.
The stock-car racing world lost one of its legends on February 18, 2001, when seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, Sr., 49, died from head injuries sustained in a crash during the final lap of the Daytona. His son, Dale, Jr., was in one of two cars ahead of him when he slammed into the wall at about 180 miles per hour in an attempt to overtake Sterling Martin, who was in third place at the time. Michael Waltrip won this particularly dramatic race, which had seen the lead change 49 times and in which an 18-car crash that caused one injury also occurred. Earnhardt characteristically took dangerous risks on the track, earning him such nicknames as "Ironhead" and "Intimidator." Earnhardt's death raised yet more questions about NASCAR race safety; during the 2000 season three drivers died in car wrecks from similar injuries: Adam Petty, grandson of racing star Richard Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper.
The "crown jewels" of the NASCAR circuit are the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500.
Daytona International Speedway
1801 W. International Speedway Blvd.
Daytona Beach, FL 32114
National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing
1801 W. International Speedway Blvd.
Daytona Beach, FL 32115
386-253-0611; fax: 386-681-4041
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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