by Robert Ferringo - 02/17/2006
The Daytona 500 is an annual orgy of speed and violence that has earned the moniker of "The Great American Race". I mean, what is more American than a beach party for over a quarter of a million people, with everyone drunk on cheap beer and energy, lustily cheering a few dozen velocity-wielding adrenaline junkies that attempt to defy death?
This year's Daytona 500 will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. A field of about 43 drivers will each attempt to etch their name in racing history, without engraving their faces into the thick concrete barriers that surround the track.
Take any common American - from alcohol-abusing farmers in Nebraska to Oprah worshipping housewives in Maine to car thieves in New Mexico - and ask them if they've ever heard of the Daytona 500. Most assuredly you'll see at least a hint of recognition, if not a glimmer in the eye of your new friend at the thought of battle between time and tempo.
But how did the Daytona 500 build itself up to mythical status in our culture? Like so many of our traditions, it was through time and tall tale. And as is the nature of oral history, things assume a certain larger significance the further they get from when they actually occurred.
Below I've listed, in chronological order, nine moments that have help define the Daytona 500:
On the third day…he gets a victory (1959)
In the very first Daytona 500, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were battling down the homestretch, with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly playing into the mix. All three of them crossed the finish line at nearly the same time, with Beauchamp pronounced the winner and given the full Victory Lane Treatment.
Three days later, after news footage surfaced which showed the Petty had actually won the race, the decision was reversed and Petty was given the $250,000 prize money along with the Harley J. Earl Trophy. The Daytona 500 was less than a week old, and already it had survived its first controversy.
Days of Thunder (1963)
I'm not making this up, and apparently neither was the writer of "Days of Thunder":
Just 10 days before the 5th annual Daytona 500, ace driver Marvin Panch was seriously injured when his Maserati burst into flames during a test run. From his hospital bed, Panch asked the owners to put his friend, journeyman racer Tiny Lund, into his famed No. 21 Ford.
The owners decided to gamble, and did give Lund a shot. Lund and his pit crew also felt like rolling the dice when it came to pit strategy during the race. He stopped fewer times than anyone else, and used only one set of tires for the entire three-hour race. Fortune favored the bold, and Lund dedicated the win to his injured friend.
I think I can…I think I can… (1976)
It was The King against The Silver Fox. It was Mercury against Dodge. It was South Carolina versus North Carolina. It was Richard Petty and David Pearson locking up in an epic.
Petty was leading on the last lap when Pearson passed him down the back stretch. Out of turn four, Petty tried to draft and slingshot past Pearson. He didn't quite make it.
The two touched and both crashed on the infield grass just a tantalizing distance short of the finish line. Petty's car wouldn't restart, but somehow Pearson's never stopped running. Pearson's car was able to putt its way across the finish line to earn the checkered flag.
The Fight (1979)
Most worshipers in this Cult of Speed consider this most significant in the history of The 500.
On the last lap, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were dominating the rest of the field when the two bumped fenders and crashed in turn three. Their demise precipitated a wild scramble to the finish and opened the door for Richard Petty to win his sixth checkered flag at Daytona.
The crash was intriguing, but what made this moment so memorable was the confrontation that ensued afterwards. Donnie and Cale went after one another in the pits and had to be restrained by their crews. Things had cooled off a bit, and then Bobby Allison made his way over and started running his mouth. Yarborough proceeded to crush Bobby in the face with his helmet, while the television announcer famously exclaimed - "The tempers are overflowing!"
This fight, in front of a live television audience, created a buzz and sparked an interest in the general public that helped put NASCAR on the map.
Father's Day on Valentine's Day (1988)
Remember what a big deal it was to play your dad in a game of one-on-one out in the driveway? And how intense it got as you got to the point where you could almost beat him? Well, imagine acting out the Oedipal scenario at 170 miles per hour.
Bobby Allison, at 50-years-old and in the twilight of his career, was desperately clinging to the lead late in the race. His closest challenger was young racer on the verge of super stardom: his 25-year-old son Davey.
Davey consistently harassed his old man over the final few laps of Daytona's first-ever restrictor plate race, but he couldn't find a place to pass. Dad held on by two car lengths, and the on-board cameras caught father and son waving to one another - sharing the moment - almost instantly after passing the finish line.
Dale gets his due (1998)
After two decades of almosts, near misses, and bad luck, The Intimidator finally won at Daytona in his 21st try. The signature moment from this race was Dale's drive up pit row afterwards with everyone involved in racing - rival drivers, pit crews, and even media members - flooding out to congratulate him. Fat men in dive bars across the country were crying into their Pabst and blowing their noses into their jean jackets.
The Devil gets his due (2001)
Dale Earnhardt's misfortune at DIS was both legendary and surreal, and the Daytona 500 was clearly his nemesis. However, after Dale had won the 500 in 1998 it seemed as if he had conquered the demons. As fate would have it, the demons would have their revenge just three short years later.
Even though he had one of the best cars on the track, Earnhardt backed off in the last lap to let his son and the man he considered a brother, Michael Waltrip, battle to see who would win their first-ever 500. While trying to hold back the rest of the field, Earnhardt got bumped by Sterling Marlin and crashed suddenly. He suffered massive head injuries and died very soon after.
What I'll never forget about this day was the complete and total shock that washed over me when I heard the news. There had to be a mistake. There was jut no way that Dale Earnhardt had died. However, when I called my stepfather - who is as big a No. 3 fan as you'll find anywhere in the world - and he was sobbing uncontrollably. That's when I knew it was real.
Not Intimidated (2004)
A reoccurring theme of the Daytona 500 is clearly families sharing in the agony and ecstasy of this great event. Whether it was the Allison's, the Petty's, the Waltrip's or the Earnhardt's, there' is a sense of kinship and custom that you don't necessarily feel in all sports.
No moment encapsulates that fusion of tradition and lineage better than the 2004 race. On the same track that took the life of his famous father just three short years before, Dale Jr. conquered Daytona International Speedway to win "The Great American Race". Some say that the other drivers couldn't get out of his way fast enough, suggesting that they let him win. I say, it doesn't matter. History will remember the day that the son avenged the death of the father.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his Insider Page here.