Maybe you’re looking to increase your local racing knowledge and or maybe use that knowledge to impress your friends (or maybe bore them to death).
Either way, here are five things you might not know (or might have forgotten!) about Daytona’s annual summer stock-car race, now known as Coke. Zero Sugar 400 and scheduled to take place Saturday night at the “World Speed Center.”
Most eyes are on Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney, but potential starters beware
All the buzz this week involves the impending Cup Series playoffs and which longshot might sneak in and which certified star will be left out (yes, even a recent champion — Truex — might be left on the back porch).
There have been 15 different winners in the first 25 races of the regular season, and if anyone does 16, and that driver is otherwise eligible (full-time cup series, top 30 season points) , he completes the field playoffs.
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There are several former Daytona winners currently sitting outside the playoffs who could wind up at Victory Lane with new postseason plans — Erik Jones and Aric Almirola come to mind. But the Daytona summer race has a history of drivers getting their first-already Victory in the Cup Series.
Do you need a list? There you go: AJ Foyt (1964), Sam McQuagg (1966), Greg Sacks (1985), Jimmy Spencer (1994), John Andrett (1997), Greg Biffle (2003), David Ragan (2011), Aric Almirola (2014) , Erik Jones (2018), Justin Haley (2019) and William Byron (2020).
Hmmm, you might be thinking. Who could make the playoffs and win that first Cup trophy on the same night? How about Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton or Ty Dillon? At Daytona, the unknown can become familiar in this leading group, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Corey Joy? Sure, he’s very capable in the big drafts, but to make the playoffs you need to be in the top 30 in points, and LaJoie is 31st and too far out of 30th to matter. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t relish the win, though.
From Firecracker to Pepsi and Coke (the Soda Cracker 400?)
With each passing year we hear less and less of the old school resisters who still call it the Firecracker 400, which was the name of the race from its beginnings in 1959 until 1984, when Pepsi increased its investments to Daytona and changed the name to Pepsi Firecracker 400.
There was a problem, however, as the Boys in Marketing soon discovered. Pepsi needed its promotional pop, but everyone was still calling the race by its old name. So four years later, in 1989, the Firecracker was discontinued and it was just the Pepsi 400.
Fun note: A long time ago, Daytona PR man Larry Balewski kept a jar of change in the main office for those four years. Every time an employee swiped and used the F-word (Firecracker, not the other), they had to contribute to the pot.
Nearly two decades later, and nearly five decades after contributing financially to the original construction of the mammoth track, Pepsi has been replaced by Coca Cola as the official soda of Daytona International Speedway, and summer racing has become known as Coke Zero 400 in 2008.
Four years ago, after many, many marketing inquiries and roundtables, the name of the soda was changed to Coke Zero Sugar, and consequently the name of the race was changed once again.
Daytona’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 was originally the Firecracker 250
OK, let’s go back to the beginning of the previous element.
In fact, for its first four runs, Daytona’s summer race was the Firecracker 250, a 100 lap that didn’t take much longer than an hour and a half.
Daytona Beach’s own racing hero, Fireball Roberts, won the first and fourth of those Firecracker 250s, and when he became the Firecracker 400 in 1963, he also won that one, the season after leaving Smokey Yunick. for Holman-Moody.
Originally Daytona was scheduled for IndyCar, not NASCAR in July
Here are some anecdotes that you can trot to impress your friends.
This original Firecracker 250 in 1959 was supposed to be an IndyCar race.
You heard me, the open-wheel, open-cockpit cars made famous in the Indianapolis 500.
One of the main reasons Big Bill France built their big track—perhaps their main reason—was to overtake Indianapolis as the fastest track. The 31-degree incline, compared to the relatively flat Indy, would allow for higher cornering speeds and would therefore rewrite the record books.
So, with his “baby,” the original Daytona 500 in February 1959, he planned an Indy-style July 4 race at the same track. To prepare for this and ensure that the cars and the new track were compatible, he scheduled a 40-lap (100-mile) IndyCar race in early April.
Most of the big names were entered – AJ Foyt, Rodger Ward, Tony Bettenhausen, Jim and Dick Rathman, etc. speeds.
Pole speed was 173 mph, down from 140 for the Daytona 500 six weeks earlier and 145 for the Indy 500 seven weeks later.
Near the lead and pushing hard on the final lap, “Little George” Amick, a veteran Pacific Northwest racer, lost control of his car on the backstretch, flipped 10 and died instantly .
His death came more than six weeks after Marshall Teague was killed at a solo show in Daytona in a modified Indy-style car.
Originally scared and now rightly scared by the combination of equipment, speed and handling issues, July’s plans were scrapped and Big Bill decided to make Daytona a twice-a-year stopover for his NASCAR series.
Morning to night, 4th of July to end of August: Coke Zero Sugar 400 has seen big changes
There have been three major “upheavals” in the Daytona summer race. Each was greeted with emotions ranging from dismay to outright anger.
First, starting in 1988, they moved the race from July 4 to the first Saturday in July. Still, it was still a late morning start, which often meant a mid-afternoon chill at the beach or hotel pool.
A decade later, however, bowing to a modern trend and taking a big step forward, Daytona installed lights around its 2.5-mile tri-oval. They didn’t do it just for aesthetics or to scare off burglars. No, they did it to add night races to the schedule.
The first big event would be the July 1998 race. As if the gods were to applaud, the area around Daytona Beach was beset by wildfires in June 1998, and things got so bad that the Speedway became a staging base for emergency teams.
It soon became apparent that the Pepsi 400 could not be driven in a way that was safe and/or comfortable for teams and fans.
The race was rescheduled for October, when it became the 11th of Jeff Gordon’s 13 wins that year.
The most recent change was the biggest: moving the race from early July, officially dubbed “4th of July weekend”, to late August, where it would become the last race of the regular season and officially establish the field the ensuing playoffs.
What it has lost in tradition, it has gained in drama. Not that a white-knuckler at Daytona needs much more of that.