Before the Daytona 500 was held at the Nascar International Speedway, the beaches of Daytona were home to auto racing. With its humble beginnings, it's remarkable how auto racing went from causal competitions on the beach to a billion-dollar industry.
In Daytona Beach, FL, the luxurious Ormond Hotel drew wealthy northerners with its lavish decor and elegant designs. Cars were scarce in the early 1900s, and only the wealthy could afford them—the same wealthy people who would vacation at the Ormond hotel.
Daytona’s beaches are made of hard sand, and it wasn’t uncommon at the time to drive your car directly next to the ocean to enjoy the view. Sometime in the year 1903, a few men staying there decided to take cars onto the beach and race them.
Two of those wealthy men were Ransom Olds and Alexander Winston. Both men owned motor car companies and saw the potential in racing on the beach. Ransom Olds had his company Oldsmobile, create cars tailored to racing on the beach. Alexander Winton did the same. Soon the wealthy were racing cars designed to perform and the sport of racing in Daytona began to take shape.
The wealthy ultimately turned it into a sport that was almost exclusively theirs. Until Ford created the mass assembly line, car prices dropped drastically overnight in the year 1913. With the middle class now being able to afford cars, the racing game was fair play, and every man could try his hand at racing.
The beach at Daytona was roughly 500 feet wide and 26 miles long. Almost the entire strip was utterly flat. This allowed for great racing, but something else began to catch the attention of the wealthy: Speed Trials.
Speed trials were a way of seeing how fast one’s car could go, which created severe competition for car manufacturers and their drivers. Speed trials became more popular than racing itself. The first car to pass 200 miles per hour in a speed trial happened to be racing on the shores of Daytona.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s when Big Bill France, a racer and promoter, had the idea to create a road track. This led to the shift from sand to asphalt racing roads. The transition was bumpy, but Big Bill was determined. He made a track using part beach and part asphalt and called it the Daytona Beach Road Course.
Bill France promoted his races all around the world and began bringing in foreign racers, creating friendly competitions between the countries. These friendly rivalries continued until the Pearl Harbor attack, which caused a pause on racing in general. Racing wouldn’t resume again until 1946.
France’s success provided him with financial backers who shared his vision. On February 21, 1948, with France at the helm, NASCAR was officially founded. They held their first event at the Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina. It was a smashing success and led to multiple new speedways being created, including the Daytona International Speedway in 1959
Lee Petty was the winner of NASCAR’s new season opener, The Daytona 500, on Feb 22, 1959. The success of NASCAR continued to grow, and each year larger and larger crowds gathered in Daytona to attend the events. IN 1979 the first-ever start to finish television coverage of a race happened at the Daytona 500. This expanded the audience of NASCAR, allowing for millions of new views.
Big Bill France stepped down, and his son Bill France Jr. was appointed president of NASCAR 1973. While he was president, he turned the once pastime for the wealthy into a billion-dollar industry.
Every year tens of thousands of people attend the Daytona 500. In many ways, the speedway has transformed the entire city. Today it is known internationally for bringing tourism and financial wealth to the town and surrounding areas.