|The very first Firecracker 250 at Daytona.|
Credit: Racing One/Getty Images
From 1959 the July race from Daytona International Speedway has provided a spectacle on the track to coincide with the spectacular fireworks displays in the sky to celebrate the birth of our great nation.
Fireball Roberts won the inaugural Firecracker 250 with a commanding performance leading 84 of 100 laps. Being a Daytona Beach native endeared him to the gathered crowd who witnessed his overwhelming 57 second first place time over nearest competitor Joe Weatherly.
The race became annually popular and by 1963 expanded to a full 400 miles (160 laps). The Firecracker 400 was born. Interestingly, Roberts won the final Firecracker 250 in 1962 and the inaugural Firecracker 400 the following year. Winning back-to-back events was a feat not accomplished until Roberts. He would, sadly, not be able to defend his title the following year as he died on July 2, 1964.
David Pearson had a great string of back-to-back-to-back wins at the race that added to his already impressive resume in the mid-1970s. Richard Petty put a stop to a “fourpeat” for Pearson when, after nearly two decades of trying Petty finally captured a win at the July event.
The 1980s ushered in an era of big name sponsors in NASCAR. The Firecracker 400 was renamed the Pepsi Firecracker 400 in 1985 and, within four years, the Firecracker moniker was dropped.
For the first 28 years the race was always held on July 4th, regardless of the day of week the date fell. But conventional wisdom dictated that the first Saturday of July that is closest to July 4th would be the annual running of the event.
In 2008 Pepsi was dethroned by Coca Cola as the sponsor of the July Daytona race. The Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca Cola will be run this Saturday night, July 7th.
As I think back to all of the races I’ve watched from Daytona this time of year, the ones that stick out are numerous and varied.
Richard Petty’s 200th win in 1984 when President Reagan gave the command to start the race, was neat and impressionable as I was not a NASCAR fan at the time, but a fan of Reagan’s and records like Petty’s.
In addition to wins by my driver, Dale Earnhardt, in 1990 and 1993, the win by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2001 will always rank up at the very top of my list of remembering the 400.
I had yet to walk away from NASCAR Cup racing in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death. I watched, zombie-like, week in and week out, still reeling from the events that took place on February 18, 2001. I remembered vividly how well Earnhardt ran in Daytona, winning everything run there over his career.
His race team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) ran well at restrictor plate races, with Mikey Waltrip winning the season opener on that fateful February day that started the season.
But watching Earnhardt’s son return to the scene of the tragedy and run extraordinarily well was emotional on so many levels. Watching him win the race, celebrate on the roof of his car, and share the victory with teammate Waltrip left me weeping with a mix of bittersweet, jubilant, and overwhelming tears.
The following year Waltrip took top honors, solidifying the knowledge that Earnhardt built a great race team.
Time marches on and the memories of yesteryear are still fresh. The landscape has changed dramatically and healing has come a long way.
|Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images|
I still hold up three fingers silently on the third lap.
And I still feel an emotional connection to the Coke Zero (Firecracker) 400 that is yet another reason why I love NASCAR.
Chief 187™ is a writer, columnist, and blogger as well as creator of the widely popular Chief 187™Chatter. Her column “Why I Love NASCAR” and other articles are featured on Skirts and Scuffs. She can be reached via Twitter by following @Chief187s. To find out more please visit http://Chief187.com.