by Dan Smith
With all of the race fans in town for the big summer race at the speedway, I am reminded of my own last trip to the big track. Like a lot of us who live here, I don't often make it to the big show, but in 2011 I was gifted a pair of tickets to the 500. My wife Lana and I went to the speedway on an exceptionally warm February morning to join the 150,000 others for a day of racing.
Our seats were good ones, in the DePalma grandstands on the front straightaway just before the start finish line. The fans that hold those kinds of tickets usually renew them year in and year out and they are seldom available.
As we took our seats we began to make friends with the people around us. We found out that there were folks from South Carolina, Alabama, Texas and even California, and they were all regulars. Each of us told who we would be cheering for and some talked of which make of car they wanted to win. Once we were all settled in and familiar with each other, I stood up and offered a challenge. I had brought along one of the Motorsports Locator Maps that my racing history club had produced some years back. Those maps are a first class production from the Motor Racing Heritage Association and contain history and photos of the evolution of racing beginning at Ormond Beach and later moving to Daytona Beach. The map portion shows the sites that were significant to racing in Volusia County. It is a very collectable piece and a souvenir that any fan would cherish. My challenge was if anyone within earshot could tell me who DePalma was they would get the map. These folks sit in the seats that bear this man's name each year and yet no one could answer the question. None could even hazard a guess.
Not a clue.
Now I know that I am a bit self-absorbed about racing history, but this amazed me. Not one of them had bothered to look up the name and I suppose no one had a smart phone that day.
Now let's talk about all of the names and pictures on the front of the speedway grandstands. Coming off the fourth turn and into the home stretch you first see the Oldfield seats. Of course everyone has heard of Barney and if I had been in those seats, I would not have offered a prize for the answer. As famous as Barney was, few know that his finest hour came at Ormond Beach when he set the world land speed record at 131 mph in 1910. Next is the DePalma seats. Ralph DePalmawas an Italian-American driver who also set the speed record on the beach in 1919 at 149 mph.
You may be seeing a trend now. It seems that Big Bill France had a real sense of history and named many of the grandstands for men who achieved fame long before NASCAR was born.
Sure, there is the Richard Petty Tower and the Dale Earnhardt tower. Those names are known to all. A couple more racers from the modern era are also honored. Fireball Roberts is still well known by fans, perhaps more for the catchy name than his great accomplishments behind the wheel. Joe Weatherly is another who won at every type of racing.
What about Ray Keech? Nope? I'd wager very few sitting in the Keech Grandstands near the end of the front straightaway would know that he set the land speed mark of 207 mph in 1928 on our beach.
The Frank Lockhart stands are at the beginning of the first turn. Young frank was a top driver who crashed his Stutz and perished on the beach also in 1928. That only leaves Sir Henry Segrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell, the two British rivals who together helped Daytona Beach survive the Great Depression. Both were knighted for their accomplishments on the beach. Their names survive here on streets and buildings.
Hopefully that helps a little with history at the track. The next time you go to the races, maybe you can win a map.
I hope all of you racing history fans are coming to see me today at the Sunshine Mall in South Daytona. I will be there selling bricks from the original Ormond Garage with the proceeds going to build a replica of that venerable structure. I will be at the great Living Legends Museum Friday July 6, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Come meet the legendary drivers and help my group preserve a bit of motor racing history.