By Drew Hardin
Photography Courtesy Petersen Publishing Company Archive
High Speeds at Low Tide
The 500-acre motorsports complex that is Daytona International Speedway opened 60 years ago, with NASCAR’s first Daytona 500 taking place on February 22, 1959. But the history of racing at Daytona Beach goes back much further, to the beginnings of the 20th century, when automotive and racing pioneers (including Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford) used the hard-packed sand between the Ormand and Daytona beaches to look for the extreme limits of performance. Land-speed records were set in Florida as a record-run venue in the ’30s, long before the discovery of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
It was in the mid-’30s that racing at Daytona branched out beyond the high-speed runs down the beach. A race course was laid out (roughly in the shape of a paperclip) that traveled south down Highway A1A, turned left onto the beach, ran north, then turned left again back onto the highway. The course initially totaled 3.2 mi. but grew to 4.2 mi. by the ’40s, essentially linking two two-mile straights with abrupt left-hand turns at either end. You can imagine how rutted those turns—in the sand—became over the course of a race.
Among those who raced in Daytona in the ’30s was Bill France Sr., who became involved with the promotion and operation of the track. In the years after World War II, the Daytona Beach Road Course was a key venue for France’s fledgling race sanctioning body, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing, which held its first race there in 1949.
The rapid growth in popularity of racing in Daytona, combined with the area’s post-war swell in population, made France realize as early as 1953 that a larger, dedicated race facility was needed. Contracts with the city were signed in 1954, and development of the track began in 1957.
That was the year Hot Rod’s Wally Parks and Ray Brock attended Daytona Speedweeks to enter a highly modified Plymouth Savoy named “Suddenly” in the two-way flying-mile competition. After winning the Experimental class and setting a record with an average speed of 159.893 mph, the guys hung around to cover the races and got this photo of Tim Flock sliding his Bill Stroppe-prepared Mercury convertible through the corner at the top of the course on his way to winning the 160-mi. Convertible race.
Yes, convertible. Open-top cars had their own class back then, and their speeds were right up there with their hardtop brothers in the Grand National class.
Flock came from a racing family, competing with his brothers Bob and Fonty. (Fonty would come in third in the Grand National race that year.) In the ’50s, Tim Flock earned the distinction of being the only driver to win in every NASCAR division on the beach: He had Grand National wins in 1955 and 1956, a Modified division win in 1956, and this Convertible division win in 1957. His 1955 Grand National win was part of a championship season that year, his second in NASCAR.