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How the Daytona 500 Works

Daytona 500 History

The Daytona 500 was first run in 1959, but its roots can be traced all the way back to 1903. That was the year some hardy sorts decided that the level, hard-packed sands of Ormond Beach, Florida, would be a perfect place to see how fast a race car could run. From there, beach racing in the Daytona area became a hit.

Cars used to race on the beach in Daytona.
©Wieck Media
Before Daytona International Speedway was built, cars raced on the beach.

In 1934, a mechanic named "Big Bill" France migrated to Daytona from Washington D.C. The only thing France enjoyed more than working on cars was racing them. France, a true visionary, squinted across the shimmering sand and saw the future.

The sport of racing stock cars (which essentially were souped-up street cars) had a cult following; events were staged primarily at tiny tracks sprinkled throughout the rural Southeast. France would change that. In 1955, he announced plans to build the mammoth Daytona Beach Motor Speedway (it's now called Daytona International Speedway). Four years later, the first Daytona 500 was run.

France also founded NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) and began to bring order to what previously had been an untamed sport. Since France lived in Daytona and his big track also was located there, it made sense to have NASCAR headquartered in the Florida town, too.

Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR and built Daytona International Speedway.
©Ford Motorsports History via Wieck
Bill France Sr. [left] was the visionary who founded NASCAR
and masterminded the construction of Daytona International Speedway.

Daytona has proved to be an ideal site for the nerve center of NASCAR. The Daytona 500 opens the NASCAR season each February, a time of year when many other tracks around the country are paved in ice and snow. Daytona offers race fans a chance to escape the winter and soak up some sun, surf, and speed. Approximately 200,000 fans make the Daytona 500 an annual sellout.

Daytona International Speedway hosts a second NASCAR race each year during the Fourth of July weekend. But even though it's on the same track and has the same cars and drivers, it's not the same race. There are other horse races at Churchill Downs, but there's only one Kentucky Derby. The same logic applies to Daytona.

"For a race driver, when you drive through that tunnel and into the infield at Daytona, it's like you've entered the gates of heaven," says 1989 Daytona 500 winner Darrell Waltrip. "If you roll onto the track at Daytona and don't get goose bumps, buddy, you ain't a racer."

Indeed, Daytona International Speedway is unique. In the next section, we'll examine some of the features that give the track its distinct personality.

For more information on NASCAR and on cars in general, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • Ever wonder what makes a stock car go? Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out.
  • Driver safety is a huge concern in NASCAR. Learn what measures the series takes in this area by reading How NASCAR Safety Works.
  • Toyota introduced its Camry to NASCAR in 2007. To learn about the history of this popular car, read How the Toyota Camry Works.
  • Muscle cars embody the NASCAR philosophy of speed and power. Here are features on more than 100 classic muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.