By Cathy Elliott
ON NASCAR: The Track That Changes Lives: Daytona Delivers Drama, Emotion

On the eve of the 53rd running of the Daytona 500, Cathy Elliott reminds us why the Daytona International Speedway holds a special place in the hearts and minds of race fans. 

I was listening to the ‘Tradin’ Paint’ program on SIRIUS XM 128 – the NASCAR channel – the other day when I was struck by one comment in particular.

The show’s hosts, Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers, were singing the praises of Daytona International Speedway. Myers had just traveled from Charlotte to Daytona the day before, and was describing the experience of driving through the infield access tunnel. He said the hairs on the back of his neck literally stood on end as he entered, and he encouraged listeners who have never visited the legendary track to make every effort to do so.

“This place will change your life,” he said.

Really? There are many experiences that change our lives – graduation, marriage, parenthood and so forth – but can a mere racetrack really make that much of an impact?

It seemed an overly dramatic thing to say. Even for a guy nicknamed Chocolate, that comment was going kind of heavy on the candy-coating.

Well, you know how your mind wanders in the car. I was on I-95 and therefore had an abundance of both miles and minutes, and although I enjoyed listening to the rest of the show and getting the guests’ and callers’ insights on the Daytona 500, that remark kept going round and round in my head.

Can a speedway change a life? Can it change anything at all?

More than 60 years have passed since Bill France Sr. assembled a group of race promoters, drivers and officials at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. – where the France family had fortuitously settled when their car broke down on the way to Miami – to discuss a standardized set of rules and guidelines for stock car racing, and to form a unified sanctioning body to enforce them fairly. A few weeks’ worth of discussions later, an agreement was reached, and NASCAR was born.

“Big Bill” lived up to his nickname not only by his physical presence, but with his professional vision. So it was only natural that when he set about the task of constructing a racetrack in Daytona, his plan was simple – build it bigger. The 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway was a monolith, rising up in the middle of this relatively small beach town like Oz’s Emerald City. The first Daytona 500 in 1959 was also the track’s first photo finish; three days passed before the winner (Lee Petty) was officially announced.

In 1979, television decided it had no choice but to take stock car racing seriously, and broadcast an entire live race, start to finish, for the first time – the Daytona 500. That race, of course, has become most famous for the last-lap fist fight that erupted between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, while Richard Petty cruised to the win.

Time races on. Millions of fans have passed through the gates of DIS in the past 53 years. Like me, they may have felt like Alice did when she fell down the rabbit hole, as if they have temporarily landed in a magical world where anything can – and usually does – happen. Like Mr. Myers, they may have felt that excited prickle on the backs of their necks.

Our individual experiences are different, but we have one thing in common. We all remember.

We remember the first restrictor-plate race ever run, when Bobby Allison beat his son Davey to the start/finish line. We remember another father, Ned Jarrett, calling the action from the broadcast booth as his son Dale won the race. We remember Darrell Waltrip doing the same for his brother Michael. We remember the final win of Richard Petty’s storied career, and we remember Dale Earnhardt’s long-awaited Daytona 500 victory.

Together we have cheered, and we have groaned. We have laughed.

And together we have cried – in February 2001, when Earnhardt lost his life, and again this year, when his son earned the pole position for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500, only to lose it after a crash during a Wednesday afternoon practice session sent him to the back of the field.

The creation of NASCAR introduced the new kid in town and changed the face of professional sports in America. The first race ever run at Daytona International Speedway changed the public perception of NASCAR from gritty and rural to big, glamorous and, perhaps best of all, controversial.

You think word-of-mouth advertising is effective? Try the fist-in-mouth version. That action-packed 1979 Daytona 500 focused America’s attention on central Florida, and exponentially changed its interest level in the sport of NASCAR.

Over the years, what was once a disparate group of people from all walks of life has been changed into a family. In large part, we have Daytona to thank for that.

My snap judgment about Mr. Myers was wrong. Has Daytona changed us? You bet it has. That isn’t overly dramatic … it’s just the Chocolate-covered truth.