DAYTONA: HOW DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA BECAME THE ‘WORLD CENTER OF RACING’
The east coast of Florida offers resort areas both timeless and tacky, from the secluded estates of the wealthy to aging public boardwalks whose underbellies house the homeless at night.
Daytona Beach, 130 miles south of the Georgia line and twice that far from the glitz of Miami at the southern tip of the peninsula, could be just another stop on the beach highway, another refuge for snowbirds escaping places like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Instead, thanks to a series of events and a cast of characters only a novelist could conjure, Daytona Beach has an international imprint. It is one of a handful of towns that legitimately can boast of being a motorsports capital of the first order.
Although that claim now is centered at the giant Daytona International Speedway complex four miles from the ocean, DIS has been Daytona Beach’s crown jewel only since 1959. That’s six decades, yes, but the area’s racing history runs longer and deeper, even if the sands are the same.
It started at the turn of the 20th century, north of Daytona at Ormond Beach, where members of the upper class of the day left the misery of northern winters to lounge on the Florida beachfront. They brought their cars, relatively new playthings of the age, and it was only natural that some form of competition would arise, what with the hard-packed beach waiting only yards away like a temptress. It was a clarion call for fast cars.
Bill France Sr. on Nov. 9, 1957 announced plans for a 2.5-mile speedway in Daytona Beach. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGE
Men like William Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet, all with money to burn, gathered at the Hotel Ormond and began the area’s rush to speed. Historians say the first organized competition occurred in 1903.
When Vanderbilt, internationally famous and a target for paparazzi, ran 92 miles per hour — shockingly fast then — on the beach in 1904, the world suddenly knew much more about Florida’s east coast and its promise.
All this leads to a giant of a man named William H.G. France, later known as Bill Sr. and Big Bill. The 6-foot-6 France, with his strong personality creating an even bigger presence, arrived in Daytona Beach in 1934, another escapee from points north. A mechanic and sometimes racer, he had tired of working on cars in the cold Washington, D.C., winters and drove south in search of warmth and opportunity.
He found both—and a beach France later described as the prettiest he had ever seen. Soon, Daytona Beach was home.
Bill France Sr. oversees the construction at DIS. PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES
France had raced near Washington, and it was natural he was drawn to the speed racers on the beach. The speed runs that had been so popular in the early years of the century were fading away, victims of increasing population and building on the beachfront. It was no longer wise to run vehicles at speeds flirting with 300 miles per hour only yards from permanent structures — not to mention people.
So the speed runs evolved into “real” racing—car against car, driver against driver, on a course that used both the hard-packed sand and the pavement of the (roughly) parallel Highway A1A. The first few races there lost money, however, and the concept was on the ropes until France stepped in and made it work. “He was the guy who saw the future,” said former NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim, a Daytona Beach resident.
France organized racing on the combined beach/road course until that, too, became impossible because of development. Soon, he was drawing plans for a giant racetrack a few miles from the beach, an audacious idea that succeeded because of France’s persistence, money he was able to coax from men of substantial wealth and Volusia County’s willingness to give France access to its land — and, not incidentally, its earth moving equipment.
Sixty years after its completion, Daytona International Speedway has assumed the title of the World Center of Racing.PHOTO BY LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC
The speedway, which opened in 1959, changed the face of racing in America forever and became a contender for attention that always had been centered on the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Thousands came to see the spectacle. Thousands still do, these days at a speedway shiny and new after an extensive renovation.
As important as the track has become — this year it hosts the 60th Daytona 500—it was only a part of France’s big plan. He saw the promise — and potential financial windfall—of stock car racing, and Daytona Beach became home to his aspirations.
This brings another structure — the Streamline Hotel (which, unlike the Hotel Ormond, survives) — into the story. In December 1947, France summoned other promoters, drivers, mechanics and various hangers-on to organizational meetings at the Streamline. His goal was to end the willy-nilly nature of grassroots stock car racing and put much of it under an organizational umbrella with universal rules and regulations and the ability to guarantee payouts to successful teams and drivers.
The meetings were held in the Ebony Bar atop the Streamline. Why a bar? Better to ask why not. Most of the dozens in attendance enjoyed a good drink as much as a fast race car, and reports from the time indicate there were ladies of the night on the premises. No one who attended those meetings survives, but photos of the “smoke-filled room” show many gathered around a table, deliberations paused for a flash record of the moment. No surprise France is at the head of the table. He remained there for decades to come.
Before everybody left town, NASCAR — for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—had been named and organized, and France held its keys.
Located in a declining section of Daytona Beach, the Streamline saw a series of down years after the NASCAR meetings earned it a spot in history. Larger, nicer hotels on the beachfront beckoned, and the Streamline became an ugly afterthought. That has changed in recent years with a multimillion-dollar renovation of the property. Restored to its art deco beauty, the Streamline now welcomes guests for $129 a night, and its lobby, halls and rooftop bar celebrate its racing history with photographs and plaques. The bar offers a long-distance view of the speedway, a neat link to Daytona’s past and present.
Last December, Daytona Beach and NASCAR movers and shakers gathered at the Streamline to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first NASCAR meetings.
A line drawn from the Streamline to the speedway would cross the Halifax River, which runs parallel to the Atlantic and whose bridges offer a wide view of the hotels and condominium complexes that now dominate the beach where racers once tested their engines and the limits of their bravery.
Sadly, another Halifax landmark no longer on the river is Smokey Yunick’s garage, famously known—and advertised on Yunick’s sign — as the “Best Damn Garage in Town.”
Like Bill France Sr., Yunick was an escapee from the frozen North — in his case, New Jersey. Flying over the Daytona Beach area, he, like France, found it attractive and settled there, eventually opening a shop—on Beach Street—that became an international headquarters for automotive innovation.
Yunick, the car builder, and France, the race organizer, used to meet on the high ground of motorsports (where Yunick entered fast cars built on Beach Street), and the encounter often wasn’t pleasant. In fact, it became toxic. Yunick chafed at the restrictions France placed on what the master builder viewed as mechanical craftsmanship, and he and Bill France Jr., who succeeded his father as NASCAR president, also had memorable battles.
Yunick disparaged both in his multivolume, rather astonishing autobiography. He died of pneumonia in 2001. His family sold the shop property in 2004, Smokey having told family members repeatedly that “I don’t want no damn shrine.” The final building on the property became a sleepover spot for homeless people, and it burned in April 2011.
Trish Yunick, Smokey’s daughter, had claimed the last “Best Damn Garage in Town” sign earlier. She has it to this day, saying it isn’t likely to appear at what probably is its proper home, the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her dad, foe of the Frances (both Big Bill and his son were voted into the hall’s first class), hasn’t been welcomed there, either.
“I think Smokey wouldn’t expect anything different than how he has been received,” Trish Yunick said. “He knew the impact he made in the performance world, as well as in NASCAR. He would kind of giggle at the slight.”
France Jr., given credit for vastly expanding NASCAR’s reach, lived along the Halifax River in a multimillion-dollar house designed by his wife, Betty Jane. The house was one of the most spectacular on the riverfront, in large part because, as France once put it, “I gave Betty Jane an unlimited budget to build it, and she went over it.”
After the deaths of Bill Jr. and Betty Jane, family members sold the mansion, which was across and down the river from Yunick’s place. Bill France Sr. died in 1992, Alzheimer’s disease having clouded the brain of the great builder. Lung cancer claimed Bill Jr. in 2007.
The Frances are saluted in monuments on the grounds of Daytona International Speedway. Yunick has no such bronze memorial and likely would recoil at the thought. But he, in his own way and as a link to the first adventurous racers on Ormond’s shores, also played a leading role in making his adopted home a racing capital.
Drive the streets of their beach town, the one each of them changed forever. Stop at the Streamline or at Racing’s North Turn restaurant near the old beach course. Walk the sands of Ormond.
These spots still speak of Daytona, past and present, and of the place it was and is.