These days, the 23 miles of expansive shoreline in Daytona Beach provides families from all over the world with ample space for bike riding, footraces, cartwheeling and so much more. But for many years, the hard-packed sand served a different purpose.
Soon after the automobile was invented, the first timed trials were held on Ormond Beach, earning its title as the “Birthplace of Speed.” The course later expanded all the way to Ponce Inlet. The seeds of NASCAR sprouted from the sandy shores of Daytona Beach, engraining the destination as a household name associated with sunshine and high speeds.
The sport’s history goes back as far as Prohibition days, invariably intertwining a bootlegger narrative into any story about the start of stock car racing. As the stories go, runners — or, people who delivered illegal moonshine up and down the Eastern Seaboard — altered their cars in order to outrun and outmaneuver law enforcement officers. Informal races began to take place in the area, to prove who could best evade the law by being the fastest. Built upon the reputation of those runners and the bragging rights that they won as first prize, the nation’s largest spectator sport emerged.
In the early parts of the 20th century, more and more drivers came to prove their prowess in Daytona Beach. Various reports name British daredevil Sir Henry Segrave as the first to reach over 200 miles per hour on land, a record he set here in 1927 and again in 1929, when he pushed his famous car, “Golden Arrow,” to 231 miles per hour. And then there’s “Mad” Marion MacDonald, who was rumored to eat hamburgers while racing and keep an open pocketknife within reach in order to cut himself free if he was wrecking.
The first “official” race on Daytona Beach took place in 1936, and it had to be called at 75 laps. The track ran due south for two miles on A1A, which runs parallel to the ocean. Drivers then accessed the beach at the South Turn, went two miles on the hard-packed beach surface, and turned away from the beach at the North Turn (now the location of a delicious restaurant where you can get a bite to eat and read up on racing history). But there are a few key players who fostered the sport from that first race into the international franchise that it is today.
While “Big Bill” France Sr. didn’t invent stock car racing, he spearheaded the effort to organize it. Prompted by the popularity of the beach and road races in the area, and wanting to put an end to sponsors who would skip out before paying drivers, Big Bill met with around 35 men at the art-deco style Streamline Hotel to discuss structure on a national scale. There, rules were established and the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was officially founded in 1947. Two months later, the first official NASCAR race was held on the beach.
The France family led efforts to construct the “World Center of Racing,” Daytona International Speedway and the first-ever Daytona 500 took place there in 1959. After 61 excruciating hours of review, Lee Petty was named the inaugural winner — the race was just THAT close. Since then, hundreds more dramatic finishes have kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Industry icons like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and so many others have all kicked up dust right here, where it all began.
In 2013, the famed speedway broke ground to begin a project called “DAYTONA Rising” — a $400 million renovation that reimagined and reinvigorated the American icon into the world’s first motorsports stadium. The stadium now features more comfortable seating, upgraded amenities and other modern improvements, but the exciting atmosphere and adrenaline rushes remain exactly the same as they did on the sands of Daytona Beach over nine decades ago.
You and your family can come walk in the footsteps of racing heroes at Daytona International Speedway — and you can even get behind the wheel yourself. Start planning your adventure today!