When The July Daytona Race Was A Casual, Laid-Back Affair
The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, scheduled for this weekend, is one of the glitziest and most-anticipated races of any NASCAR Sprint Cup season. And why shouldn’t it be?
It is run during a major holiday weekend in one of Florida’s most recognized resort cities and on a speedway many consider NASCAR’s most famous.
It is conducted under the lights and night racing has long been vastly popular with NASCAR fans. It comes complete with speed, the intrigue of carburetor plate racing and there are plenty of fireworks – always a good thing for both night events and Independence Day.
Might seem hard to believe, but there was a time when the race, formerly known as the Firecracker 400, was anything but spectacular.
It was one of the most laid-back races in NASCAR. It wasn’t conducted with a lot of fanfare. DIS officials sure didn’t spend a lot of money marketing the event.
Racing under the lights? Hardly. Instead, the Firecracker 400, always held on July 4, got the green flag anywhere from 10 – 11 in the morning and by 3 p.m., fans and competitors alike were gone - back on the beach.
There was really no need for DIS to get overly involved in race promotion. People were already amassed in Daytona Beach for the holidays and it wasn’t difficult for the track to sell tickets to folks who wanted to smell gas and burning rubber along with salty sea air.
For years it was tradition for nearly everyone to take their summer holidays during the week of July 4. In fact, textile mills, factories and other businesses throughout the South deliberately shut down for a week or longer because their employees were off on vacation.
Beaches were extremely popular as family getaways. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina always did a bustling July 4 business (still does) as did other sand-and-sea sites in the Carolinas and Georgia.
It was, and is, the same for Daytona Beach. But along with an established reputation as a family resort, the city also benefitted from its reputation as the heart of stock car racing, along with the sport’s most famous speedway and race, the Daytona 500.
While it was all about racing and its fans every February Speedweeks in Daytona (no one cared about getting a suntan, after all), when it came to the July 4 holiday, folks could spice up their walks on the beach and dips in the pool with a couple of hours of NASCAR.
And they did. DIS didn’t pack ‘em in like it did for the Daytona 500, but that wasn’t necessary. The Firecracker 400 was perhaps more of a diversion than a singular event and thus never cost the track nearly as much money to produce.
That it was so casual made the race fun for fans and media alike.
In fact, it’s likely the media preferred the Firecracker 400 to any other race on the NASCAR schedule. It was so easy to cover.
Every team and competitor showed up at the track early in the morning and went perfunctorily through preparation, practice and qualifying. Unless there was some type of controversy, which did arise from time to time, it was all simply a matter of getting the work done as quickly and satisfactorily as possible – then get the hell away from the speedway.
There were a couple of reasons for all of this. First, it was hot as hell – the main reason why the race started so early in the morning. Second, drivers and team members didn’t want to stay at the track any longer than they had to. They wanted to get back to the beach, motels, pool and the families they had brought on vacation.
It got to the point where any team spotted working in the garage area around 1 p.m. or so was obviously having problems. Otherwise, the place was almost abandoned. Hardly anyone else was around.
Most of the media wasn’t, that’s for sure. We’d file the news as quickly as possible – didn’t have to do much since the space our newspapers allowed us was drastically reduced because of the holiday – and then get back to the beach as quickly as we could.
Oh, we didn’t shirk our responsibilities. We just met them in a different way. For example, if there was a team or two still laboring after 1 p.m. we had to make sure we knew what was up so it could be duly reported.
Therefore, we appointed one writer, usually a rookie, to stick around and give us a full report when he finally made it back to the motel.
As fast as we could get back to the comforts of the beach, drivers and crewmen, who were splashing in the water by the time we arrived, nearly always beat us there.
Perhaps the perfect example of all this was the Firecracker 400 of 1979.
It was a very fast race that took just over two hours to complete and thus allowed everyone – competitors, fans and media – to get back to the beach with plenty of sunlight remaining. As far as everyone was concerned, it couldn’t have been any better.
It had been a tumultuous year for Wood Brothers Racing. That February, with driver David Pearson, it had barely lost the Daytona 500 to Petty Enterprises in one of the most historic finishes in NASCAR history. The Woods fell short of winning the first race ever broadcast flag-to-flag by a national network.
In the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 at Darlington in April, a pit-road miscue, caused when Pearson drove away before a four-tire change had been completed, created a crash at the exit of the pits and ultimately ended the Pearson-Woods relationship.
The Woods hired Neil Bonnett, who had shown promise driving for Hoss Ellington and Kennie Childers, among others.
When the race began, Bonnett drove as if he knew he had big shoes to fill. He powered his way into the lead and kept his foot firmly planted on the throttle. If he knew anything about caution or finesse, he had forgotten it.
It reached the point where the Woods, concerned about the survival of their car, sent Bonnett a message via the pit chalkboard: “EZ.”
On the final laps Bonnett was leading Benny Parsons when the pair came up on a group of 10 cars. The daring Bonnett thought he spotted a hole just big enough to slice through, which he did to win the race by one second over Parsons.
Once his post-race interview was complete, Bonnett disappeared from the speedway. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where he had gone.
The media’s work done a couple hours later, it was time for most of us to get to poolside. It was just mid-afternoon.
When we arrived in our bathing suits, sure enough, there was Bonnett.
He was stretched out on a lounge chair, resplendent in his sunglasses and shorts. He had popped the top on a cold one.
He gave us a puzzled look.
“Where the hell have you guys been?” he asked.
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