Monday, July 2, 2012

Why I Love NASCAR: The Firecracker 400 by Chief 187™

The very first Firecracker 250 at Daytona.
Credit: Racing One/Getty Images
There is so much happening this week; Independence Day on Wednesday and racing at Daytona for the second time this season for the Coke Zero 400. As much as barbeques and fireworks define the former, the latter does as well.

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 watch the 400 mile race from Daytona and, with no disrespect to the all-important corporate sponsor, call it the Firecracker 400.

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


  1. The Firecracker 400 was the first race I attended (1971) and I knew from the moment that I emerged from the tunnel and into the infield that I would be a NASCAR fan for life. I have gone to nearly all of the 400's since then, but I still get that amazing feeling every time I go.

  2. We traveled to many of those Daytona races and I worked in the Pits and Patti would keep laps for the Team. The year they moved the Credentials Trailer from the front tunnel entrance to the rear of the Track we had to drive through the whole infield to get to the Pit & Garage area. As we drove along looking at the drunks,goings on and mayhem I said to Patti, there isn't enough money to lock me in here at night with these people. About anything you can imagine people doing, they were doing it right there in the infield. In retrospect it was pretty funny but at the time I was pretty shocked!

  3. Great article about the history of the Firecraker 400, Candice. I would add Smoke's victories in 2005 (his first points win at Daytona along with a fence climb) and his win in 2009 (when he turned Kyle into the fence after he attempted to block) as great races but I am biased!

  4. mmassie, elkton, kyJuly 3, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    With respect to every driver that has ever raced at Daytona, nothing will ever compare to Earnhardt finally getting his victory in the 500 & Jr's win after Dale's death. We all ached for Jr as he struggled to go on without his Dad & for him to get that victory there & celebrate with Mikey... it began the healing we all needed. For me, Nascar lost a large part of its excitement when we lost Dale but I'm still a fan & will continue to cheer for Jr.