News & Media


Bayne helps NASCAR remember its past amid sea, sand

February 18, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Bayne helps NASCAR remember its past amid sea, sand
PONCE INLET, Fla. -- Bayne helps NASCAR remember its past amid the sea and sand in Daytona

The exterior sheet metal is a reproduction, but the frame underneath is the real thing, right down to the sand and the salt stains Russ Truelove still has to spray off from time to time. Friday morning it was parked outside a restaurant along Atlantic Avenue, with the pounding blue surf in the background. But six decades ago this red Mercury zipped along the low-tide shoreline at triple-digit speeds, playing its part in a unique, perilous, but glorious annual ritual that over time gave birth to the Daytona 500.

Once in a lifetime


Trevor Bayne had a blast as he drove his No. 21 on the old Beach and Road Course in Daytona Beach to kick off Speedweeks.

There was no Daytona 500 back then, in that decade from 1949 until 1958. There was no Daytona International Speedway, there were hardly any paved tracks anywhere. But there was a wide, flat beach, and a two-lane road that ran parallel to it, and plenty of drivers willing to test their mettle on what would become one of the most unusual layouts in American motorsports. The Beach and Road Course was two miles up the shore, two miles back down the narrow strip of asphalt, and two tight turns comprised of loose, tire-snaring sand.

"When you got going about 100 miles an hour, the windshield wipers would float, and they wouldn't have any contact," remembered Truelove, 87, who competed three times on the course. "Aerodynamically, they lifted. Some of the fellows who were more acquainted with running down here, they had all kinds of contraptions to hold the windshield wipers down. The biggest problem coming down the beach was the flying sand on the windshield. You couldn't get it clear."

All those memories came flooding back Friday, when NASCAR gathered at the site of the primitive beach and road course to remember those daredevil days, as well as link them to the present. Toward that end, Truelove's Mercury -- it bore No. 226, because Curtis Turner had already taken the No. 26 -- was joined by another vehicle, this one a bit more modern, and featuring a little more horsepower. Defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne rolled out onto the beach in a show car version of his No. 21, and traversed a portion of the old race track before wheeling his red and white Ford all the way back to the big speedway, flying a green flag and shocking onlookers along the way.

"This is probably the coolest thing I've gotten to do outside of actually racing on other tracks," said the 20-year-old Bayne. "As a race-car driver, you watch races of the beaches, and I wish we could come back here and get the groove all rutted up and try to miss the potholes. But this is an unbelievable feeling, being on the beach where it all started. This is history right here. I almost want to bottle up the sand and take it with me, because this is where it started for Daytona. This is where it started for NASCAR, and I'm just glad to be a part of it."

Those races on the beach bare little resemblance to the events Bayne competes in today. Competing in lap belts, open-face motorcycle helmets and not much else in the way of safety devices, drivers hammered down the beach at 130 mph. At low tide, the land left behind by the receding ocean left a surface that was smoother and faster than the asphalt on the other side of the dune line. Cars would occasionally dip their right-side tires into the water, splashing vehicles behind them. It all sounds terribly heroic and romantic, and to a certain degree is was, with one large exception -- the drivers often couldn't see a dang thing.

"If you weren't leading the race, your windshield got sandblasted, and that was the biggest problem," said Marvin Panch, who raced three times on the beach. "We had tear-offs, and we'd tear them off, but that wouldn't last very long, either. Some of us would cut a little round hole in the windshield, and we'd peek out through there. As a matter of fact, Johnny Beauchamp had some people on the dunes, a family. He'd come out, and when he'd see them out the side of the window, he'd start getting ready to go into the turn. Well, they moved down on him, and he ended up down [the beach] someplace."

The vision issues could be so severe, it wasn't uncommon for drivers to race with their heads sticking out of the side windows. "The flying sand, the salt water getting in the windshield -- you couldn't see," said Johnny Allen, who competed three times on the beach course. "You had to stick your head out."

Even now, Bayne said sand gets onto the windshields of cars over at the big track. "I could go Ace Ventura-style, hanging my head out the window, I guess, and try to drive," he joked. "But I think the thing that would be craziest about racing here is ... having two totally different corners. Not just holding your head out to see past the sand, but you're coming into the north turn on sand, and you're going into the south turn on pavement, so how hard would that be setting up the car? Our crew chiefs think they have to scratch their heads now, I can't imagine back then."

"This is an unbelievable feeling, being on the beach where it all started. This is history right here. I almost want to bottle up the sand and take it with me, because this is where it started for Daytona."

--TREVOR BAYNE

While the Daytona shores have always been a haven for fast cars -- the flying mile where early speed demons like Malcolm Campbell hit 300 mph is up the coast in Ormond Beach -- the beach races were a spectacle. Cars would strike sea birds. Fans would get their legs cut up by palmetto bushes, or clamber through dunes infested with rattlesnakes. Drivers would battle three abreast on the asphalt side, sometimes with two wheels in the dirt. The sand in the tight turns was loose, and drivers had to hit it at almost full speed to avoid getting stuck. If they approached a turn wrong and struck a rut, their car could go flying. Truelove was once involved in an accident like that, and it sent him to the hospital.

"If you didn't come in there wide open, you got bogged down in it," said Allen, who remembers being stuck in the sand for 10 minutes once after breaking a tie rod in the middle of a turn. "You had to go in hard. Otherwise you'd get stuck, and you'd hit a rut trying to get in, and it would send you out of there."

With little in the way of crowd control, spectators jammed the course, often edging as close as they could to the speeding cars. Once the windshield wiper motor in Glen Wood's car caught fire, sparking a blaze under the dashboard. Some unknown good Samaritan emerged from the dunes with a fire extinguisher, put out the blaze, and Wood got right back in the car and back in the race. Event promoters were often concerned about the palmettos and sea oats catching fire. Drivers were concerned about something much worse.

"You had to be careful getting too close to where the people were," Truelove said. "They kept going out and out and out, especially photographers. Thank God nobody got into the crowd. Especially in 1953, we started coupes, 134 in the same race. People were standing right there. It's unheard of as far as safety is concerned."

Added Allen: "Those were the brave ones, the spectators. Yeah, that was kind of scary. You just focus and don't worry about it, and hope nobody tries to jump across the track."

Issues like that eventually led Bill France Sr. to hire architect Charles Moneypenny to design a modern racing facility on what was then Volusia Avenue, and is now International Speedway Boulevard. Friday, Bayne bridged the physical and historical gap between the Beach and Road Course and the current speedway in his No. 21 Ford, gunning the vehicle's engine as onlookers waved and pumped their fists. Unlike much of Daytona Beach, vehicles aren't allowed on the sand anymore in much of Ponce Inlet, which is home to sea turtle nests and federally protected as a sensitive environmental area. For one day, though, NASCAR was allowed to celebrate its past, and Bayne evoked salty memories of races past.

"It really brings us back to exactly where this sport came from," series chairman Brian France said.

Led by an escort of police motorcycles, Bayne's No. 21 car roared down the beach road, over the causeway spanning the Halifax River, and down toward the speedway, where he delivered the ceremonial green flag to kick off Speedweeks. He even pulled off a spinout, digging some doughnuts at the intersection of International Speedway Boulevard and NASCAR Drive. "The funniest part was when people weren't looking," he said after climbing out. "They'd be walking their dog, and I'd rev it up to 7,000 RPM and scare them out of their skin."

OK, so maybe that didn't happen back in the days of the beach races. But in the Wood Brothers shop that fields Bayne's race car, there's a photo of team patriarch Glen Wood leading the field on the Beach and Road Course, his vehicle flying through one of those sandy turns. From Glen Wood to Trevor Bayne, from the beachfront to Daytona International Speedway, all in the span of one morning. Perhaps the past and present aren't that far apart, after all.