On Feb. 19, the Daytona 500 will be, once again, the first non-exhibition, points-paying race of the NASCAR Cup Series season. The 2023 season also marks the sanctioning body’s 75th year.
Suffice it to say the Daytona 500 is widely anticipated – as it is every season. It’s not only the first but also the most significant race of any year. As the cliché goes, it is the Super Bowl of NASCAR.
Most race fans have become so accustomed to the Daytona 500 being the first race of the season it’s likely they are not aware that, for several years, that was not the case.
For example, the first Daytona 500 was held in 1959. It was conducted on a 2.5-mile, high-banked track the likes of which had never been seen. It was the culmination of Bill France Sr.’s decade-long dream.
But it was not the first event of the year.
It was the third.
The fact is, 24 years passed until the Daytona 500 was, indeed, the first race of the season.
If France, the founder of NASCAR, had his way, the first Daytona 500 would have been held in 1955. That was the first target date for the end of construction.
But, as it often is with large, unfamiliar projects such as the building of a mammoth speedway, France ran into several roadblocks.
Politics, tight money markets, construction, referendum delays and even intrusion from the Civil Aeronautics Board – the speedway was located near the city airport, after all – postponed the grand opening by years.
But by 1958, all hurdles had been cleared. France presented to the world Daytona International Speedway. He did so with great delight if only to thumb his nose at his detractors, such as newspapers that called his track “a pipe dream” and “France’s Folly.”
France invited team owners, drivers and manufacturer representatives to tour the track in its final stages of construction.
They came away awestruck. Some even felt a tinge of fear. But they all agreed on one question: How were competitors going to tackle that monster?
They got their answer on Feb. 20, 1959.
Again, it was not the first race of the season.
The first was a 50-mile event on Nov. 9, 1958, at the 0.333-mile Champion Speedway in Fayetteville, NC.
Why the first race of 1959 was held in 1958 isn’t abundantly clear – at least to me. But it’s likely it has something to do with NASCAR’s bloated season schedules.
The sanctioning body staged races virtually everywhere, from small North Carolina towns like Weaverville and Hillsboro to Langhorne and New Oxford, Pa. to Lancaster and Eureka, Calif.
The 1957 season consisted of an exhausting 53 races while in 1958 there were 51 events. It was determined that the competition would end in October (sometimes later) and the new campaign would begin perhaps a month afterward.
Reckon it made sense at the time.
The second race of 1959 was the first Grand National event held at Daytona, a 100-mile qualifier won by Bob Welborn. It took a few years, but eventually qualifying races were not counted as official points events.
The first Daytona 500 then went down in NASCAR history as one of the best. It ended in a photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp.
Days later, Petty was declared the winner after France and other officials studied photographs taken by the late T. Taylor Warren.
Years afterward, the Daytona 500 held its February date but was never the first race of the season. That was held at the Charlotte Fairgrounds in November of the previous year, which was followed by events at such tracks as those in Columbia, S.C. or Jacksonville, Fla.
And of course, there were the qualifying races, counted until they were no longer recorded as Grand National events.
Riverside International Raceway moved into the mix in January 1963. The California road course was the fourth race of the season (behind three others held in 1962) but was the first of the calendar year and the first before the competition began at Daytona.
Riverside, which had become part of the Grand National circuit in 1958, remained a season’s first race for decades, even after the November nonsense was scrapped.
It survived the purge of 1972 when the schedule was cut dramatically with the advent of the Winston Cup circuit, formed by sponsorship dollars from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
It remained the season opener – which was something not universally popular. Many teams complained about the expense to go West and many drivers didn’t care to have anything to do with a road course.
By the end of the 1981 season, NASCAR had seen the light. Riverside had fallen into a state of mediocrity – and with encroaching residential and commercial entities, it was likely nothing would be done about it.
Starting in 1982, the road course would still stage two races per year (until its final season of 1988) but the first would be held in June.
And thus, the Daytona 500 was elevated to the lofty position of the season’s first race. It has been so in the 40 years since.
Now, there have been suggestions that NASCAR’s premier race should not be its inaugural points-paying event. That’s certainly not how it is in other professional sports.
If it is indeed stock car racing’s Super Bowl should it not be the season finale, as it is in the NFL?
Certainly, that is a matter of opinion.
But the opinion here is, don’t expect the Daytona 500 to be anything less than the first race of every season.
Any other ideas? They’re just not happening.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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