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IN THE BEGINNING...IT WAS THE AGE BEFORE COMPUTER SIMULATIONS and seven-post shaker rigs; before spoilers and terms such as aerodynamic tinkering; and before Daytona International Speedway was even a glint in Bill France Sr.'s eye. For heaven's sake, it was even the age before fire suits—driver Fonty Flock occasionally wore Bermuda shorts behind the wheel. Conceived on the beach and raced in the sand, NASCAR marked its first dozen years with colorful, hard-charging characters and stock cars that were really and truly stock. Drivers often raced in the cars they drove to the track, and much of the money they won was plowed into getting their ride ready for the next week's event. Things don't get much more grassroots than that. � And there was no better place for it all to start than in Daytona Beach. Drivers attempting to set land-speed records had been going there for more than four decades, putting their machines to the test on what was to become Daytona's beach-road course. Between 1904 and 1935, 15 world marks were set on the course's hard-packed sand. There weren't any paved tracks on the Grand National circuit until Darlington opened for racing in 1950. In '56, the season Buck Baker won the first of his two consecutive points titles, NASCAR sanctioned 13 races on paved tracks. That number would grow to more than 20 by the start of the next decade, and it wouldn't be long before the circuit had brushed the sand off its tires for good.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 7, 1955
OVER THE BROAD, FLAT, dazzling expanse of Daytona Beach a giant cloud of sand mushroomed into the blue Florida sky. Perched on sand dunes, on grandstands, on the tops of thousands of parked cars, 28,000 spectators strained eyes and ears as the low rumble of 10,000 horsepower pushing 48 of America's newest and fastest production automobiles swelled to a roar on the backstretch. In double rows, their brightwork masked in heavy tape, windows closed to the brine-filled ocean breeze, the massed cars swept across the starting line near Daytona's tricky south turn and were off on the 160-mile Grand National, the climactic event of a week of speed organized by NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
It was 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27, 1955. For eight days, since Sunday morning of the week just ended, Daytona's sands had been churned by the wheels of speeding cars. Day by day they had moved up to the starting line, engines roaring as the green flag dipped, tires biting, sliding, biting again as each car gathered speed, whined up through gears and disappeared, a lonely speck against the immense backdrop of the sea. Records had fallen, favorites had been dethroned, and death took one driver in a flaming crash in those eight days when speed and more speed was all that Daytona thought of. There were moments of disaster and near-disaster, for Daytona is a tricky 4.1-mile course: After the stretch of iron-solid sand comes the north turn, sharp and sliding, into the asphalt-paved switchback; then the south turn, narrow and dangerous, twisting back to the sea and the straightaway again.
There were surprises: Bob Said, a ferociously determined 22-year-old racing enthusiast from Connecticut, sprang the first on Monday. On that day of the sports cars, he barreled a Grand Prix Formula I Ferrari down Daytona's timed mile at 174.334 mph, turned and sped back again at 166.743 mph for a two-way average of 170.538 mph. Said's performance was as unexpected as it was sensational—it was the first time he had ever driven anything as powerful as the Ferrari, which prompted Phil Walters, heretofore considered a sure winner in Briggs Cunningham's D-Type Jaguar (164.135-mph average), to give him a friendly warning just before the record run. "This is a lot of automobile," said Walters. "Don't push too hard." When Said got through pushing, he was the fastest driver at Daytona in NASCAR's six-year history of beach racing and the second-fastest driver ever to race there in any car other than freaks or mammoths built specially for the job.
FASTER AND FASTER
THERE WERE rivalries, personal and otherwise. Warren Koechling, an Eastern Airlines pilot, and Brewster Shaw, a Daytona Beach Chrysler dealer, pushed each other through successive runs in the big new Chrysler 300s until Koechling won out with a final two-way average of 127.580 mph, which shattered the previous record by more than 10 mph. The Ford Thunderbird driven by Joe Ferguson settled for good the argument of whether this new American sports car could top 120 mph—Ferguson clocked 124.633, fastest in his class. The Thunderbird also copped the stock U.S. sports car acceleration run (one mile from a standing start) with 84.66 mph; Bill Frick's 4.9 Ferrari won in its class with 96.102. Louise Bird took the Ladies' Flying Mile on Wednesday in a Jaguar XK-120 at 123.882 mph after Lucie Archbold, with a one-way run of 125.043 mph already behind her, developed ignition trouble in her Mercedes 300SL and slowed to 105.913 on her second try.
There was death, too, under a serene blue sky on Saturday afternoon when Al Briggs, driving a '39 Ford in the modified 125-mile race, was caught by a following car after a tangle with Jim Thompson in another Ford and hurled down the dunes in flames. Thompson escaped with broken bones, but Briggs died in the hospital that night.
But for all that went before, no one was taking bets on the outcome of the big race on Sunday afternoon as the packed field swept off the asphalt and into the south turn. And it was as well that no one did, for the 160-mile Grand National sprang the biggest surprise of all and, for the second year running, ended in a sad anticlimax 24 hours after the last car crossed the finish line.
It was a one-minute, 14-second runaway for Glenn (Fireball) Roberts in a 1955 Century Buick. By the time the race was half over, Roberts was nearly a minute ahead of his nearest rivals, Tim Flock and Lee Petty, both in Chrysler 300s, and Jim Paschal in an Olds 88. For 35 laps these three held their positions while Roberts pulled steadily away. Then Paschal ran out of gas; Ray Duhigg moved up to fourth place in his Olds, and five laps later they crossed the finish line in that order.