Wednesday, February 12, 2003
France introduces racing world to tri-oval
By BUDDY SHACKLETTE
DAYTONA BEACH — The 1940s brought about the formation of the sanctioning body we know today as NASCAR.
But it was Bill France Sr. who changed stock car racing as we know it. In the late 1950s, his dream of a one-of-a-kind superspeedway facility became a reality when Daytona International Speedway was built.
France, the late founder of NASCAR, had always toyed with the idea of such a track, but it was a trip to the Indianapolis 500 -- and the ever-growing popularity of auto racing -- that prompted the racing promoter to forge ahead with his dream.
In the early 1950s, France was in the garage area at Indianapolis when the American Automobile Association requested he turn in his credential. Apparently, France was considered an intruder because of his association with NASCAR. This made him all the more determined to build his own track.
As early as 1950, NASCAR-sanctioned Speed Weeks events were run on the beach and the road track, but the development of the South Peninsula area began to conflict with the event as early as 1952.
‘I pointed out to the city of Daytona Beach as early as 1949 that hotel development along the beach was steadily moving south, and one day there would be no room for racing,’ France once told writer Brock Yates. ‘I suggested they should be looking toward the construction of a permanent speedway.’
In 1953, West Palm Beach offered France facilities if he would officially move the speed trials and races to South Florida, but he declined, hoping to turn his idea of building a superspeedway on the Daytona Beach mainland into a reality.
Milwaukee Braves owner Lou Perini looked into the possibility of financing a proposed $1.675 million speedway but decided he had his fingers in too many pies.
The Daytona Beach city commissioners and Volusia County council members created a racing and recreational authority that would ultimately become the Speedway District Commission. The authority was to sell $3 million in bonds to finance the construction of the racetrack. After leases and options on a large piece of swampy land near the airport were obtained, the bottom fell out of the bond market and there was an economic downturn.
In November 1957, the Speedway District Commission and the chamber of commerce abandoned the operation and agreed to lease the site to a corporation headed by France, which would eventually become International Speedway Corporation. France anted up the $25,000 deposit, figuring the cost to build the track would be $750,000 -- it was to end up costing nearly $3 million.
With the help of Pepsi-Cola president Donald Kendall and General Motors auto designer Harley Earl -- and by selling 300,000 shares of stock to the local public -- construction of the Speedway began in April 1958.
ISC took out a $1 million life insurance policy, the first of its kind, on France, who was 47 at the time, to ensure the Speedway would be completed.
‘The potential of racing, as a major industry here, is still in its infancy,’ France said to The News-Journal´s Benny Kahn in 1957. ‘I believe in the Halifax area and the future of racing, and am staking all that I own on this faith.’
Perini had funded the initial research for the building of the racetrack, but France used the assistance of engineer Charles H. Moneypenny, who had consulted on construction of other high-profile tracks, to bring his vision to life.
The plan was to build a 2.5-mile tri-oval where the straightaways would be 50 feet wide and there would be a 20-foot safety cushion around the bottom of the track. The 31-degree high banks would be constructed to enable stock cars to run -- and pass -- at higher speeds. There also would be a 3,000-foot-long concrete safety wall on the north side and 2,700-foot-long walls on the turns.
‘I know of no textbook on the subject of how to build a racetrack,’ Moneypenny told The News-Journal´s Bob Desiderio. ‘When I began research on this track back in 1953, the first thing I learned was that most tracks are laid out strictly by guesswork.’
The million cubic yards of dirt needed to construct the steep turns was taken from where the 44-acre Lake Lloyd now sits. A lighting system was installed for around-the-clock work, and an 8 1/2-inch layer of lime rock -- 22 tons trucked in from Ocala -- was used for the track´s binding base.
France continued running Speed Weeks events but decided that 1958 would be the last year that they would be run on the beach due to crowded conditions of the expanding South Peninsula area.
‘There were only three avenues left open,’ France told Kahn. ‘The first was the ideal $2.9 million project, the second was to build a lesser speedway as best we could and the third was to move away from Daytona Beach. I never wanted to carry out that third alternative.’
All of the track´s stock was sold by December 1958, and advance ticket sales for the first Speed Weeks reached $60,000 a month later.
Practice runs started Feb. 6, 1959, and on Feb. 22 nearly 42,000 fans watched a 59-car field take to the tri-oval in the inaugural Daytona 500. As luck would have it, that first Daytona 500 finished with drama, as it took three days to declare Lee Petty the first official winner of the Super Bowl of auto racing.
The first year´s rent for the 374-acre property was $4,750, and Speed Weeks brought in $750,000.
‘It´s simply tremendous,’ former Indy 500 winner Johnnie Parsons said of the Speedway. ‘No factor has been overlooked to make it the fastest and safest speedway in the world.’
Nearly a half-century later, the Speedway pays just $10,000 in rent based on the 75-year lease it agreed to in 1957 -- though it uses its own people to work various city-run programs for 90 days throughout the year -- and pays about $1.7 million in property taxes to the county. The world-famous superspeedway has expanded to seat 168,000 spectators, and Speed Weeks´ economic impact on Central Florida tops $250 million -- more than the Super Bowl brings to its host city.