What exactly is Daytona 500 and NASCAR all about, anyways? As a born-raised-and-currently-residing So Cal girl, I have very little knowledge of the sport outside of a small Will Ferrell movie from a few years back. Daytona 500 doesn’t seem to be as popular a sport out on the west coast as, say, football, yet it has over 75 million fans that glue themselves onto the couch for 200 laps of high speed, a higher possibility of crashes, and that whirring sound illustrative of just how fast these guys are going. For those who aren’t familiar with the sport, it might be easy to discount it as a bunch of guys (and some gals) driving around a loop for a few hours, but that would grossly underestimate all that’s involved: its origins, its history, and some of the tenser moments that had an impact even outside the sport. Here, we break down the basics about NASCAR for those who aren’t familiar with the sport or are just curious about it.
Many people have no clue that the beginnings of NASCAR dawned during Prohibition. Bootleggers needed vehicles customized to fit their, ahem, occupations, so cars were modified to 1) prevent sagging in the rear of the car (a giveaway to law enforcement of potential illegal booze in transit) and 2) bolt with a high-horsepower engine should the fuzz be on their tail. They found fun racing against each other, competing for the title of the fastest bootlegger around. As the popularity of the racing grew (and the ban on booze long since lifted), so the technology and mechanics involved as well as the amount of finesse and control required to handle the neo-mechanical beast. Unto them (and us) NASCAR was born.
That’s the nutshell version, of course. Besides its interesting history, NASCAR also appealed to the average fella: because these cars were kept in their factory conditions so as to not attract the popo, they appeared as the common car that any uninvolved person would drive. Viewers and fans could easily identify with drivers because they would essentially be racing in cars just like theirs (well, aside from the engine and other modifications to the frame, for example). Those who had an interest in the sport grew loyal, and the people who raced were unsung heroes, idols for the underdogs, and though its history in illegal bootlegging caused a bit of turbulence in establishing the sport, it failed to thwart it ultimately.
Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt are among the names you might be familiar with. Junior Johnson was among one of the first NASCAR drivers and was himself a bootlegger (though he had spent only a year in prison despite years of moonshine running), and went on to become one of the most popular drivers ever, having been immortalized in the film The Last American Hero, and even became a NASCAR team owner himself. Richard Petty, AKA “The King”, is thought to be one of the most talented and well-respected of all drivers ever, with an amount of career wins rivaled only by Dale Earnhardt, another figure you’ve undoubtedly heard of. Earnhardt’s name traveled well outside the sport when he crashed on the very last lap of Daytona 500 in 2001 and died later from blunt force trauma to the head.
Today, NASCAR has grown into a worldwide, multi-million dollar franchise, and it still continues to make history. Just this past weekend, Danica Patrick became the first woman EVER to win the pole position (i.e., the best spot to start in Daytona 500), and this weekend on February 24th, Daytona 500 will tear up the banked track at 1pm. A total of 500 miles, 200 laps, with speeds anywhere from 140 to 177 mph, and mere feet, even inches, separating each of 43 cars from the next. Some might watch it to root for Patrick, some might be interested in the amount of physics and aerodynamics, and some might just be curious about it. Who knows what motor history you might miss if you don’t tune in…