Official Site Of NASCAR

Lightnin’ Epton, longtime fixture of Daytona’s ticket office, dies at age 103

Tom Pennington | Getty Images

Juanita “Lightnin’ ” Epton, whose tireless knack for selling tickets with a personal touch made her the longest-tenured employee at Daytona International Speedway, has died. She was 103 years old.

Epton was at the ticket window for the first Daytona 500 in 1959, hired a year earlier by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. while the circuit was still under construction. The speedway’s ticket office was named in her honor in 2022, when she was still on the job.

“The France family has meant so much to me over the years,” Epton said at the ticket office’s dedication ceremony. “I remember Bill Sr. told me years ago that as long as I wanted to work, I could — and I’ve taken him up on that offer.”

Epton’s longevity, sharp memory and homespun way of connecting with ticket-buyers made her a fan favorite. Some of the Speedway’s regular customers often asked for her by name. When they came calling, she could typically recall where their grandstand seats were located without looking at her ledger.

“Lightnin’ Epton and her husband Joe were part of my mom and dad Bill and Anne France’s team from the early days of NASCAR,” Jim France, NASCAR’s CEO and chairman, said in a statement. “They were scoring races, selling tickets, and did every other job that needed to be done. The Eptons worked from the Carolinas, coming to Daytona Beach to help with races on the beach, and ultimately moving to Florida for the opening of Daytona International Speedway. She worked alongside our family from the very first Daytona 500 through this year’s 66th running of the race, bringing an incredible passion for the track to the ticket office every day. Lightnin’ was beloved by our staff, fans, and drivers alike. Our family will miss Lightnin’ tremendously and our thoughts are with her family and friends as we celebrate her life.”

Courtesy of Daytona International Speedway

Juanita Epton grew up in Grenada, Mississippi. When a junior college offered her a basketball scholarship, she declined, opting to stay closer to home. She found employment in her hometown’s sheriff’s office, selling car registration and license tags. Her uncanny method of memorizing license numbers and their corresponding customers would serve her well in her later career.

She married Joe Epton, a NASCAR official who became the sanctioning body’s first head of timing and scoring. He is credited with giving his wife her electrifying nickname, which was not specifically attributed to her ticket-selling proficiency.

“He always said he never knew when or where I might strike,” Lightnin’ said in a 2008 interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “I am full of mischief.”

Her marriage meant a move to Daytona Beach and her first big assignment in a role that would become her life’s work. Grandstand capacity for the new speedway was roughly 10,000 reserved seats for the first Daytona 500, and Epton recalled counting the freshly printed tickets — which ranged in price from $6 to $10 — on the kitchen floor of the France family home on the eve of the race.

“We wrote out each customer’s name by hand in order to create our first mailing list,” Epton said in 1998. She added that speedway architect Joel Sayers provided her with a large picture of the grandstands mounted on cardboard to keep track of sales. “We’d mark each seat off in pen as we sold it. Of course, back then we didn’t have over 140,000 seats.”

Epton’s career spanned all seven generations of Cup Series stock cars and more than 150 points-paying races for NASCAR’s top division at the 2.5-mile track. Her tenure spanned not just the speedway’s history but vast changes in American history.

During the Vietnam War, Epton helped coordinate a special plan with a soldier buying a ticket from overseas. He intended to surprise his parents by showing up suddenly and sitting down next to them at the Daytona 500.

During the height of the civil-rights movement, Epton had a system for fending off customers who demanded tickets in an all-white seating section, even though the speedway never had segregated grandstands.

“Sir, did I ask you your race when you called to order tickets?” Epton recalled saying.

“No, ma’am,” was the reply.

“Well now,” Epton would say, “how would I know who you’ll be sitting next to?”

While she was a reliable presence at the speedway since its birth, Epton rarely saw any of the on-track action in person. Her first live glimpse of the Daytona 500 came in 2007, when her colleagues coaxed her to watch several laps from the grandstands. In 1988, she had observed some of the Thursday qualifying races from a newly built section of seats — primarily so she could better explain the view to ticket buyers.

“When I come to work, they expect me to be doing my job, and I couldn’t do it sitting in the grandstands watching,” Epton told the Sentinel. “As much as I’d like to see the race, my place is here. I love what I do. It’s why I’m still doing it. Whenever I leave, it will be with the satisfaction that I did my job as well as I could.”

Epton reluctantly confessed to having two favorite drivers in Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin, both of whom would become Daytona 500 champions. The two competitors regularly marked Epton’s milestone birthdays by sending her flowers or gifts.

Epton celebrated her 100th birthday in the summer of 2020, just a few months after the pandemic’s outbreak. Well-wishers kept socially distant during her celebration, driving past her home in a long parade that included NASCAR chairman Jim France, Daytona’s official pace car and Daytona Beach mayor Derrick Henry. Asked by local reporters how it felt to reach the 100-year milestone, Epton cracked: “No different. I’m striving for two.”

Just two years later, the track unveiled the newly dedicated Lightnin’ Epton Ticket Office, with track president Frank Kelleher and members of the France family alongside her for the ceremony.

“We’ve come a long way, and I’ve seen a lot,” Epton said in 2008. “This place is like my family. I’ve always followed one rule: Treat people like you would like to be treated. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we had mistreated our first customers. I know they will always like racing, but they don’t have to come back if we don’t treat them with respect.”