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The History of NASCAR, Part 4
Charlie Young


His brainchild was Daytona International Speedway, a two and a half mile D-shaped oval with a bend in the frontstretch. He sweet-talked, twisted arms, and sold stock to build the state-of-the-art facility with very high banking and previously unknown speeds. The land it was built on was good-for-nothing swampland near the Daytona Beach Airport. As construction dragged on, costs passed the two million dollar mark, and France had to put up his house as collateral to get the extra money needed to complete it.

The first Daytona 500 was held on February 22nd, 1959. Surprisingly, there were no accidents, and on the final laps the race for the win was between Lee Petty, and Johnny Beauchamp. Petty won by about one and a half feet, but Beauchamp was declared the "unofficial" winner. France and others studied pictures and film for three days before calling Petty and notifying him of his victory. Petty wasn't surprised, he said he knew that he had won all along.

"Daytona was bigger and wider than anything we'd ever run on," said two-time champion Ned Jarrett, "and it just didn't feel like you were running that fast."

The success of Daytona caused many other paved tracks to pop up. In 1960, Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway), and Atlanta Motor Speedway were added. Dover Downs International Speedway, Michigan International, and Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66 mile world's fastest stock car facility, were all added in 1969.

The 1960's and ‘70's were turbulent years in NASCAR's history. In the mid-1960's Dodge and Plymouth factory backed teams boycotted over a rules dispute which involved the Hemi, Chrysler's highly powerful engine. Two cars, the Dodge Daytona and the Plymouth Superbirds, with their Hemi engines were dominating the tracks of the time. From the two and a half mile Daytona International Speedway to the half mile Martinsville Speedway, Chrysler had a hold on the competition. That's when NASCAR stepped in. They implemented a new rule stating that the Hemi could not be used in NASCAR competition. Chrysler teams were outraged, and they pulled out of NASCAR. Even Richard Petty left for a while to try drag racing. NASCAR gave in, stating that the Hemi could be used at tracks of one mile or less, and Chrysler returned. Finally, in 1970, NASCAR limited Dodge Daytonas and Superbirds to three hundred five cubic inch engines, effectively ending the racing history of these cars.

Tragedy, not only controversy, plagued NASCAR in the sixties. On the eighth lap of the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett, who were fighting for position, lost control of their cars. Fireball Roberts, who was close behind them could not avoid the accident, and he went spinning toward the outside wall, flipped through the air, and landed, rupturing his fuel tank. Gasoline spilled everywhere, and soon Roberts's car started on fire. Jarrett ran over to pull him from his burning car, but a few days later Roberts died of pneumonia and blood infection. From 1964 to 1965, four NASCAR drivers, including Roberts, died as a result of on-track incidents.

These tragic deaths prompted many safety concerns, and NASCAR was quick to respond by setting new rules for the safety of the drivers. Soon, a vast structure of bars inside the car, called roll bars, were standard devices to keep the driver from being crushed in a collision. Seat belts were improved greatly from the leather belts and rope used in the earliest days of NASCAR racing. Seat belts were a hard sell, though, as many drivers feared that they would trap them in a burning car. Seats themselves evolved from factory bench seats, to custom metal racing bucket seats. Special, more durable racing tires were being supplied to teams by Goodyear, Firestone, and Hoosier, tire companies that were competing for supremacy on the track. In 1965, Firestone developed a rubber bladder to go inside a gas tank that would contain the flammable gas even if the tank were ruptured. Drivers now had to wear fire retardant suits, instead of t-shirts and jeans or sometimes shorts. Helmets evolved from the leather football style helmets to the high-tech full face helmets of today. In 1970, restrictor plates, metal inserts mounted on top of the engine to restrict fuel flow, were used at Talladega and Daytona to reduce the speeds by ten miles per hour. Finally and most recently, NASCAR required roof flaps on the top of cars to prevent them from getting airborne in a high speed spin.

Also, in the ‘70's, a fuel shortage threatened to halt NASCAR racing around the country. Finally, to keep his dream alive, Bill France shortened all races by ten percent, and had a study done to prove that NASCAR racing used less fuel than most other sports. Stock car racing was saved once again.

The best thing that came out of the 1970's for NASCAR was the partnership with R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR). In 1971, RJR assumed sponsorship of the top division of NASCAR and marketed the newly named Winston Cup Series, named after RJR's "Winston" brand of cigarettes. This series had been previously known as the Grand National Series, and even earlier as Strictly Stock.

In 1972, after Bill France had nursed his baby to maturity, he handed over NASCAR to his son, Bill France, Jr.. This began the "Modern Era" of NASCAR. The years 1971 and 1972 were as different as night and day for NASCAR. In 1971 there were sometimes two or three races a week, with only a handful of major races thrown into the mix. However, when RJR went in with NASCAR to promote the Winston Cup Series they wanted to "build the series up," said France, Jr. The 1972 schedule was cut down to thirty-one events, all of 250 miles or more, and all on paved tracks. This changed the face of NASCAR entirely.

Next - Part 5

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