News & Media


After more than 50 years, a return to Daytona

February 25, 2011, Andrew Giangola, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Only Canadian to race in the 500, Foley has place in history to those early years

To those in the throbbing campgrounds near the Turn 1 tunnel at Daytona International Speedway, the man exiting the gleaming silver motorcoach appeared to be an ordinary fan.

Maybe he and his gorgeous blond wife were a little too well dressed for the infield, as if they were attending a polo match rather than The Great American Race. But aside from that, he could have been any wealthy fan with a Jones for racing.

Eva and Dick Foley, prior to the Daytona 500. (Getty Images)

That is, until Eva, who is from Poland, looks like Loni Anderson, sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor and displays the energy of all three Gabor sisters, cracks out a leather bound portfolio to show off a collection of startling photos and press clippings.

"This is Richard racing Curtis Turner!" she proudly announces. "Look, here's the entry list of the first Daytona 500. Richard was the only Canadian. This is Richard racing in the Daytona 500 in 1960, when there was a big crash."

Indeed, the well-preserved newspaper clipping from the Feb. 13, 1960 Daytona Beach News Journal recounts a 37-car wreck that put eight drivers in the hospital. One car was fished from Lake Lloyd in the middle of the 2.5-mile speedway.

Running with drivers including Junior Johnson, Tim Flock and Jack Smith, Dick Foley was in the middle of the chain reaction referred to in the Turner biography Full Throttle as "the most spectacular accident in the history of auto racing."

His white No. 61 Chevy took to the air, landed hard, then skidded across the grass as 17 cars flipped and rolled. Foley emerged without a scratch, finishing in 10th place, ahead of Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker and Richard Petty.

You meet Dick Foley today, 78 years old and looking two decades younger, tan and fit, checkered blazer, perfectly creased slacks, buttery loafers, holding the hand of perhaps the only woman at the race track wearing a silk scarf around her neck, and you can visualize his hot rod slicing through the smoke and flames as if it were rolling off the dealer's lot for the first time.

The soft-spoken man has a certain cool, understated style off the track, but he isn't sure he had one on the track.

"I don't know that I had particular way of driving. I will say I never had too many accidents -- only two. I was very lucky. I didn't look at racing the way other fellas did ... so competitively. I just tried to turn the track as fast as I could. I only raced against myself and the stopwatch. I wasn't intimidated by who was there, even though these were pretty intimidating guys, like Curtis Turner. He was a rough boy who could really push his weight around."

In the inaugural Daytona 500, Foley raced a car built by Marshall Teague, who had tragically died while attempting to set a world speed record at the track two weeks before the race. Teague had been ejected 150 feet from the car. Foley wasn't spooked; he joined 58 other drivers in the 500-mile race.

Before Big Bill France moved the racing inland to his audacious speedway, bigger, faster and scarier than any race track any driver had ever seen, Foley also ran on the less ominous Daytona Beach course, competing in 1957 and '58.

France, who sold tickets from the trunk of his car, would put up signs reading "BEWARE OF SNAKES" to discourage fans from sneaking in without paying, Foley recalls.

There were no spotters or radio communications helping the drivers. They'd use their windshield wipers to clear off the salt and spraying surf. "The course would develop some big ruts. Racing on the beach was like driving on snow," Foley said.

Foley retired from competitive driving in 1962. But he never got too far away from racing. He made a good living in the pollution control business, focusing on Montreal Harbor, and purchased a 5/8-mile paved track, Riverside Speedway, in St. Croix, Quebec.

He was content to tend to his races in Canada. But, ask any older driver, anyone who has run wide-open around this monster track, and they'll tell you Daytona always beckons. For Dick, it had been more than 50 years. It was time.

" The sport has come so far. If Bill France Sr. could see this today, how they developed it, he'd be amazed. But in another sense, he may have envisioned it all along."

--DICK FOLEY

A few days before NASCAR's season opener, Foley turned laps in a Richard Petty Driving Experience car, topping out at 141 mph. It would have been more, but that was as fast as the instructors would let him go. Ironically, the fast lap was Foley's speed when qualifying for the inaugural Daytona 500.

"These cars handle so well, and the pavement is so smooth. It was the first time since 1965 I went more than 70 mph," Foley said.

In a few hours, nearly 200,000 fans would fill his friend Bill France's newly repaved track, watching drivers approach 200 mph.

"A lot has changed," Foley said, scanning the filling grandstands. "You could stand at one end and see the other end of the track. Over there, at the lake, Tommy Irwin's car went in and he had to swim out. Another driver wore a life preserver in the car. He couldn't swim and was afraid to drown if he went in the water. The sport has come so far. If Bill France Sr. could see this today, how they developed it, he'd be amazed. But in another sense, he may have envisioned it all along."

Eva overheard the name Bill France and promptly produced a black-and-white photo, showing a natty Dick Foley standing on the banked asphalt with NASCAR's patriarch.

"Look, this is Richard! So young! So handsome!"

The couple met in 2006 after Dick's wife had passed away. She had fought cancer four times. When the valiant battle ended, Dick was despondent. There was little reason to go on. Then Eva bounced into his life; his biggest fan, not even born when Foley raced.

Dick Foley, who briefly saw no good in this world, smiles a lot these days.

Eva placed the prized photo back into her bag of racing memories. She grabbed her husband's arm, and in elegant heels carefully walked through the infield grass toward a shining silver motorcoach, grasping the arm of the man who makes her heart race.

Andrew Giangola is author of the book, "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans." Click here to purchase.