Before Daytona Beach’s coast was filled with hotels, resorts and beach-front condos, it was home to the Daytona Beach and Road Course. In the 1930’s, a man raced this course and fell in love with speed racing. But the more he got involved in the sport the more he realized how broken it was. With the inspiration to make a difference, Bill French went on to build the Daytona International Speedway and found NASCAR. His story is one of how a single man can be driven to make a change and, without planning it, impact the world in so many ways.
Bill France Sr & Racing
Bill France Sr – also known as Big Bill – is the father of NASCAR. He was born in 1909 and began racing as a kid. His family moved to Daytona in 1935 and his interest in the sport grew.
In 1936 he raced his first stock car race at the Daytona Beach and Road Course. He was expected to do 78 laps of the small track in order to win a $5,000 purse. The route was a 3.2 mile (5.1K) loop. It started at Highway A1A at 4511 South Atlantic Avenue and ran 2 miles south before connecting to Beach Street and looping back to A1A. This course saw 15 land speed records being broken and set, including a peak-speed reach of 211 mph.
Like many young men at the time, there was a lot of awe and spectacle paired with the whole experience. It wasn’t until he got more involved in the racing scene that he realized the system wasn’t as organized as you would think.
The Issues with the Daytona Beach and Road Course
There were a number of reasons that the Daytona Beach and Road Course simply wasn’t working.
There was no formal organization of the event. Anyone who bought a ticket for the races was disappointed to arrive at an open-air event where half the people didn’t pay to be there. As the years passed, the races became more and more popular meaning that the crowds only got bigger.
The course was made up of city stress right next to the beach. They would get covered in sand during the races. This posed a big safety issue for racers, causing cars to slip and slide, stall on turns, get stuck in the debris and sometimes even crash. The city itself would lose tens of thousands of dollars each race. Noone was really “in charge” to mandate uniform rules about the sport.
The Urbanization of Daytona After the War
After World War II, urbanization efforts changed the landscape of the Daytona Coast. Speed limits in the city and stricter regulations began putting a damper on the race track. Big Bill was actually once issued a $25 ticket while out testing his cars within city limits. It’s said that he was driving at 74mph.
The Deep Pockets and Sneaky Hands of Promoters
Aside from urbanization and the growing tension between the city, spectators and the race, there was another big issue that became a passion point for Bill. Most of the profits from any race would go home in the wrong pockets. Promoters or scouters would take the money for themselves before drivers or crews were paid. The overall system seemed to be broken.
Changing the Structure of Racing
Bill began having conversations with drivers, mechanics and car owners about introducing rules and regulations to the race. It needed organization to work out insurance and guarantee drivers a purse upon winning.
He decided he needed to create a raceway specifically for speed racing. He had a vision of a space for cars to go faster than ever while giving spectators an experience they couldn’t even dream of.
The Daytona International Speedway
As soon as Bill knew what he wanted to do, he connected with a Daytona Beach engineer – Charles Moneypenny – to discuss the plans and get his expertise on designing the fastest speedway in the world.
Charles Moneypenny (left) with Joe Epton, NASCAR’s chief timer and scorer for over 40 years. Image borrowed from the NY Times.
Today, Moneypenny is often considered the under-appreciated name behind modern speedways. Moneypenny, after being approached by Bill and hearing his plans, travelled to the Ford Proving Grounds to get engineering help from Ford directly on how to construct high-speed racing tracks with banked corners.
Ford had built banked corners already as a way to test their cars. Moneypenny took these plans and this concept from the car company straight to the raceway. The most complex part of this engineering was the transition from the straight and flat pavement into a banked and raised corner. Not to mention, Big Bill’s vision was to have it be wide enough to allow for two – no THREE – cars side by side during these turns.
Thanks to the engineering masterpiece created by Moneypenny, speed racing was able to transform into what we watch today.
The City of Daytona & Leasing the Land
The final plans included the banked corners by Moneypenny and bleachers that would give spectators a view like never before. The 2.5 mile (4K) tri-oval track was to feature a 180-acre in-field. The track itself was built to be configured into a sports car, motorcycle and even a dirt flat track for karting.
Bill France took the plans for the speedway to the Daytona Beach city commission for approval. The city leased him a 447-acre plot of land next to the Daytona Beach Municipal Airport. The agreed-upon fee was $10,000 a year for 50 years.
The agreement today has been renegotiated and now runs until 2054. In 2007, the payment was scheduled to go up to $20,000 a year until 2032. However after plans were announced to renovate the track with restaurants, movie theatres and even condos and office buildings, $500,000 a year until 2054 was agreed upon.
Construction for the Daytona International Speedway broke ground in 1957.
Construction of the Daytona International Speedway
In order to build the banks needed to achieve the true speedway Bill wanted, Moneypenny instructed construction workers to excavate dirt and soil to build up the corners to support the banks. In total, over 1 million square yards were dug up from the middle of the speedway to help build the track.
The hole was so deep that it began to fill up with water. Bill decided to keep the hole and turn it into a lake. It was stocked with fish and dubbed Lake Lloyd after an important community member of Daytona at the time – J Saxton Lloyd. Today, motorboat races and fishing derbies still take place in Lake Lloyd.
The Foundation of the Speedway
Cars can reach a speed of up to 200 mph on the Daytona International Speedway. Some go even faster. At such speeds, the quality of the pavement and actual speedway is very important.
The Daytona International Speedway actually has a base of lime mortar which isn’t traditionally used. Lime-based mortars are old school – traditionally used before portland cement became more common in the 1850s. A lime-based mortar was used mainly for conservation purposes. Limestone is more porous and is a softer material than traditional concrete. There is no solid explanation as to why they used lime mortar but there are a few possibilities.
The area that was dug up in the middle of the track to get material for the formation of banks had lime in it. Bill French was taking a big financial risk on this track and didn’t have a lot of money to spare. It’s possible that the use of a lime mortar was simply because it was there.
Limestone is a porous material that absorbs water. In housing construction, a lime-based mortar is sometimes used in masonry to pull water from bricks, helping them to last longer. It’s possible that this would help keep the track last longer and hold-up for long periods of time. After all, the speedway has only ever been paved four times.
3. A Softer Foundation
In racing, even a little bit of give can make a difference. The same way that running tracks are soft to help reduce injury of runners, a softer foundation – even if not noticeable to a person – could help keep cars running safely at high speeds. The other side to this is durability of the asphalt that covers the limestone base. If the base can give and move slightly, it can also help to prevent cracking within the pavement.
In total, 22 tons of lime mortar were played in the track before being topped with asphalt.
The Track Banks of Daytona Speedway
The banks at Daytona International Speedway all sit at 31° – steep enough to keep the cars from flying off the track when taking the turns at high speeds, but not too steep as to put too much pressure on the cars, the drivers or even the banks themselves.
The real struggle in construction was paving the banks. In order to keep the paving machines still and stable, Moneypenny devised a way to hook them up to bulldozers on the top of the incline. The dozers would drive slowly, pulling the paving machines along below to help keep the machines from slipping and sliding as they paved the bank.
This technique ended up being revolutionary and machine-assisted paving was used in many other speedway construction projects later on.
The Daytona 500 is one of the most popular races in all of NASCAR. It features about 40 cars doing 4 laps of the track with a grand total of over $23 million. The very first Daytona 500 took place on February 22 in 1959 – the first year that the track opened.
Above, the Daytona 500 today.
Below, the 1966 Daytona 500.
NASCAR Since Daytona
Since opening the Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR has grown to be a popular national sport. In fact, the only sport in the USA that has more viewers is football. In 2019 the Daytona 500 had over 9 million viewers.
What started off by the sandy shores of Daytona beach has since transformed into a national sport that is beloved by millions. Without the love of the sport by Bill French and the engineering genius of Charles Moneypenny, speed racing as we know it today would not exist.