On February 17th, more than 100,000 people will race into the Daytona International Speedway to experience the 61st Daytona 500 race, marking the beginning of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The nation’s fastest will turn furious for 200 laps at speeds of nearly 200 mph, finishing the 500-mile race in less than 3 hours—talk about flooring it. But that’s enough numbers, let’s talk about the history of and the most memorable moments of “The Great American Race.”
FIRST PLACE, FIRST RACE
In 1959, Lee Petty won the first-ever Daytona 500 in his ’59 Oldsmobile, but not without controversy. The race began at the stroke of noon on February 22, as fans cheered the drivers on and employees counted laps by hand. By the time Petty and Johnny Beauchamp approached the finish line, the lead was nearly impossible to distinguish. As the checkered flag flew, Beauchamp was declared the winner—but not for long. Just 61 hours later, the ruling took a sharp U-Turn as a result of protesting newsmen, Lee Petty himself and a famous photo finish.
THE 1974 DAYTONA 450
The year is 1974: The Great Gatsby has just hit theaters, Barbra Streisand tops the charts and America’s gas reserves are dwindling. In an effort to stand in solidarity with the American citizens, NASCAR shortened the Daytona 500’s distance—and gas usage—by 10 percent, giving way to the first (and only) Daytona 450. What the event lacked in length, it made up for in drama. During the 45 laps, the race’s lead changed 59 times among 15 drivers, setting a record that held until 2011. In the end, Richard Petty, son of the aforementioned Lee Petty, reigned victorious.
GO, GO, GUTHRIE
Up until 1977, the NASCAR industry was driven primarily by male racers, but that all changed when a woman named Janet Guthrie took the driver’s seat. Guthrie had 13 years of experience building and maintaining her own race cars on road-racing circuits before scoring her big break. After being invited to test drive a car for the Indianapolis 500 in 1976, Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup, the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the first woman and Top Rookie at the Daytona 500.
THE KING WINS SEVEN
Seven different cars. Seven different Daytona 500 wins. One driver. Richard “The King” Petty is statistically the most accomplished driver in history. In 1981, Petty drove his Buick Regal to victory and claimed his final Daytona 500 win. After his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, Petty has since served as a spokesman for several big brands, opened a summer camp and even learned a new trick or two.
In February of 2011, Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 just hours after his 20th birthday. The rookie, surprised by his own win, made his first mistake after the checkered flag waved, missing the entrance into Victory Lane. To make this ride even wilder, the race shattered the 1974 “Daytona 450” record with 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and broke yet another record by dishing out 16 cautions.
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