Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: The history behind the Coke Zero 400

1959 Daytona July Fireball Roberts
The first Firecracker 250 won by Fireball Roberts.
Credit: RacingOne/Getty Images
This weekend teams return to the historic track of Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400, a race rich in NASCAR history. Racing on the 4th of July weekend – that is as American as ice cream and apple pie!

Originally the Firecracker 250, the race in Daytona, was intended to be an Indy Car event. After a crash ridden race in April prompted the race to be cancelled, Bill France seized the opportunity to fill the void, running a NASCAR race instead.

The Firecracker was a second major race for Daytona, but would not deter from its spotlight as the home of the legendary Daytona 500, so the Firecracker was originally set up as a 250 mile race (100 laps). The very first Firecracker 250 was run on July 1, 1959 and Glenn “Fireball” Roberts claimed the pole award. Roberts went on to lead 84 of the 100 laps and won the inaugural Firecracker 250.

In 1963 the Firecracker expanded, adding an extra 60 laps becoming the Firecracker 400. The winners of the Firecracker 400 read like a who's who of NASCAR history: Roberts, Petty, Allison, Yarborough and Pearson to name a few.

History was made at the 400 on July 4, 1984, when current President Ronald Reagan became the first sitting U.S. President to attend a NASCAR race. President Reagan gave the command to start the race by phone while still aboard Air Force One. Upon landing at Daytona, the President proceeded to the track, and viewed the race with Bill France Jr. The 1984 Firecracker 400 also is significant is terms of NASCAR history since it was the race at which Richard Petty achieved his unparalleled 200th career win. “The King” and President Reagan were interviewed together following the race, and the President joined Richard Petty and his family in Victory Lane.

PepsiCo became the title sponsor for the Firecracker 400, changing the name of the race simply to the Pepsi 400.

The 1987 race season brought about some changes to the way racing was held – restrictor plates! This was done after a massive wreck at Talladega where Bobby Allison was nearly killed after cutting how a tire and going airborne. At the time, his speed was in excess of 200 mph and the damage that was done to the catch fence that collected him was remarkable, over 100 yard had been torn down from the impact. As a result, NASCAR then mandated restrictor plates at the superspeedways – Talladega and Daytona. The change would slow the cars down several miles per hour.

After running the race on the 4th for years, times changed and beginning in 1988 and the race was moved to the Saturday closest to the 4th of July. Now we enjoy the 400 as a night race, a change brought about in 1997 due to the sweltering summer heat. The first night race was to be held in July 1998 but did not go as planned due to wildfires in the area, forcing the race to be postponed to October.

Memories from the 400:
  • 1974 – A tie in NASCAR? Let me explain – A fierce battle erupted between Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty. Allison suffered a broken intake valve in the closing laps leaving Pearson, Petty, Baker, and Yarborough alone to battle for the win. It appeared to be a battle between Pearson and Petty with Baker and Yarborough behind. Petty was in the draft of Pearson, waiting for the last moment to storm past with no chance of Pearson gaining. Wise to this plan, Pearson took the white flag, jammed onto his brakes, forcing a surprised Petty to swerve right and take the lead.  Petty got a seven car-length lead but Pearson managed to catch the draft. Pearson took the win and an angry Petty confronted Pearson after the race. In the meantime – Baker and Yarborough raced hard for third place, ending in a tie, the first in NASCAR history.
  • 1990 – The legend Dale Earnhardt won his first Cup race at Daytona after winning there in IROC, Busch and the 125s prior to the Daytona 500. A 20+ car crash eliminated a large portion of the field early and Earnhardt sailed to the win after dominating the race.
  • 2001 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first race since the passing of his father. He and DEI teammate Michael Waltrip finished 1,2 reverse of their Daytona 500 positions.
  • 2001 Daytona July Dale Earnhardt Jr
    Dale Jr. and Waltrip in 2001
    Credit: Racing One/Getty Images
  • 2009 – Furor amongst teammates..the last lap is always hard racing, everyone wants to better their position, if only by one spot. Headed into the tri-oval, Kyle Busch was hooked head-on sending him into the wall by none other than teammate Tony Stewart. Busch's car was then hit by Kasey Kahne , sending the rear of the car into the air. After crossing the start/finish line, Busch suffered a third hit from another teammate, Joey Logano. Thankfully, Busch walked away from the car uninjured but to this day says that Stewart intentionally wrecked him.
In 2008, Coke Zero took over naming rights to the race and this is the modern day race we now enjoy every 4th of July weekend. Race fans everywhere plan their picnics around the race. Be honest, you know you do!


NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also strives to provide exclusive interviews for the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews click here. Feel free to contact Amanda via Twitter.

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