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Richard Petty was 21 and a racing novice when he first saw Daytona International Speedway. It was February of 1959, and he’d been racing stock cars for his family-owned team with scant distinction since mid-1958. His father, Lee, was already a two-time NASCAR champion when the Grand National tour signed in for the inaugural Daytona 500.
Even now, at 81, Richard grins at the memory of his introduction to the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
“We drove in through the tunnel over there,” — he jerked his thumb over his right shoulder, toward turn four — “and, I mean, it was just unbelievable,” Petty said Saturday as teams practiced for next weekend’s Daytona 500. “It wasn’t like anything any of us had ever seen. It looked so much bigger than it really was, because there wasn’t anything in the infield but one little building. There was one grandstand with maybe 25,000 seats.
“You couldn’t hardly see the other end, it seemed so far away. It was like you were looking all the way to Orlando. The lake (in the infield) was about twice the size it is now, and took up a lot of space. It was almost like looking across a desert… that’s how empty it looked. I thought to myself, ‘Man, what are we getting into here?’”
Today, DIS looks more like an amusement park than a desert. It remains at 2.5 miles and its turns — narrower than they seem on television or from ground level — are still banked a daunting 33 degrees.
“To us, they looked like a straight-up wall,” Petty said. “The only other big track anybody had seen was Darlington (S.C.), but its banking was nothing like this. And some of us had seen Indy, but it was flat. You couldn’t compare that to this place. We wondered if a car could even stay up on that banking.”
Now, the track boasts upwards of 100,000 seats in a “stadium-style setting” with enough VIP suites and concession/restaurant facilities to satisfy the most discerning patron. The infield that was so vacant 60 years ago is filled with spacious two-level garages, a multi-level “Daytona 500 Club,” extensive comfort facilities for infield campers, a trauma center and first-aid station, a media center, team meeting rooms and administrative offices.
“It’s happened gradually,” Petty said of the changes. “It didn’t go from dusk right to dark or from dawn to morning… it went a little at a time. We’d come back every February and see something else that had gone up. I think the biggest change was a few years ago when they added the new garages and the Fan Zone and all those activities areas for kids and families. No, there’s no way anybody in 1959 would have imagined what they were going to do. You have to see it to appreciate it.”
Next weekend marks Petty’s 60th consecutive Daytona 500 as a driver, owner or (his term) “spectator.” He raced in 32 of the first 34, missing in 1961 and 1965 after crashing his only available car in qualifying. “In one role or another, our team has been here for all of them,” he said. “Daddy was in the first 500 in ’59 (he won it, in fact) and I drove in the convertible race that year. Daytona has always been a special place for the Pettys.”
Some of the family’s most memorable moments have come here: the classic 1976 last-lap 500 finish with David Pearson; the utterly unexpected 1979 500 victory after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the last lap of NASCAR’s first major, televised event; Richard’s 200th victory over Yarborough in the 1984 Coca-Cola 400 with President Ronald Reagan on hand; his son, Kyle, winning the 1979 ARCA race; Richard’s spectacular frontstretch crash in 1988; the 1961 crash that effectively ended his father’s career as a three-time champion.
Richard’s resume here in long-distance Cup races is unmatched. He won seven Daytona 500s: 1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979 and 1981; he won three mid-summer Coca-Cola 400s: 1975, 1977 and 1984; he won two qualifying races in 1964 and another in 1977.
“When you win any of them, it’s a great deal,” he said. “I was fortunate that as Daytona was growing up and NASCAR was growing up, I was growing up, too. We all grew up together.”
Both, most would agree, have aged well.