Like veterans of the last world war, the old beach racers are dwindling to a precious few. There probably are a couple of dozen or so of these old-time daredevils left, and, as they fade away, so will one of the truly singular periods in NASCAR history.
Russ Truelove is one of the survivors. Now 85, he raced on the old Daytona beach-road course several times in the mid-1950s and lived – barely – to tell the tales. He repeats them every February during SpeedWeeks at Daytona International Speedway, the giant racing complex that replaced the beach-road course in 1959.
Truelove lives in Waterbury, Conn., but it’s easy to see that “home” for him is Daytona Beach, the racing town that pulled him south in 1955. His eyes sparkle under a web of white hair as he relives the wild days when stock car racing was an adventure and Daytona was one of its first frontiers.
Every February since 1993, when a reunion of former beach racers was organized, Truelove has traveled to the Daytona Beach area to walk the sands where he and hundreds of other drivers – men and women – raced hopped-up stock cars in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Races were held on the beach beginning in 1936, and the hugely popular events – tens of thousands attended – continued through 1958, not including a break during World War II.
Competitors raced north on the beachfront, turned left onto the paved surface of Highway A1A, then drove south to return to the beach. The course, now identified by historical markers at the north and south turns, was 4.2 miles long with an “infield” barely wide enough to contain some shrubs and sea oats.
In the 1950s, the race-course area on the southern end of Daytona’s long beach was virtually deserted, making the sort of racing activity Truelove and others enjoyed an easy event to schedule. Now, there are condominiums, beach houses and roadways. In fact, encroaching development in the late 1950s spelled the end of beach racing and was a factor in NASCAR founder Bill France’s decision to build a new superspeedway – Daytona International Speedway – a few miles west of the shoreline.
What’s left? The Racing’s North Turn restaurant, which served food then – drivers could buy box lunches – and still turns out a mean cheeseburger near the spot where racers turned left onto A1A. And the memories of drivers like Truelove, who knows all the stories – most of them true.
One that is stunningly true concerns Truelove’s rodeo-like ride in the 1956 race. He arrived in Daytona Beach with a 1956 Mercury, fine-tuned it in the pits near the course’s south turn and qualified fifth in a huge field of 77 (three years earlier, a whopping 136 cars had started the race, three abreast on the sand, waiting for the green flag to begin the chaos).
Truelove’s fun didn’t last long. Attempting to pass Jim Reed, one of NASCAR’s early short-track stars, as they approached the north turn, Truelove’s right front wheel caught in the softer sand near the surf, launching the car into a series of flips and creating one of the most spectacular wrecks in NASCAR history. Black and white photographs of the accident were vivid enough to make Life magazine, and people who previously had never heard of NASCAR suddenly were introduced to this relatively new motorsports sideshow.
Truelove wasn’t seriously injured, but he spent the night in a nearby hospital, his bell decidedly rung.
“The car was a family car,” he said. “I had to register it and get it insured so I could drive it down. My wife was here in the grandstand when I dumped it. She ended up over at the hospital with me. She said, ‘My God, how are we going to get home?’ ”
Truelove worked out a deal with a friend who had repossessed some vehicles in the area and drove one back to Connecticut.
“It was great just being around those guys,” Truelove said. “They were the stars. They knew what they were doing. A lot of the rest of us didn’t care where we finished. We were here to have fun.
“Before my first race, I was talking to driver Al Keller, and he told me that when the race started the sand would fly and that I wouldn’t be able to see. He told me to get a piece of cardboard and hang it over the windshield to block the sand. I said, ‘Al, if I put that there and somebody stops in front of me, I’m going to hit them.’ He said, ‘You’re going to hit them, anyway.’ ”
The sand and salt pockmarked windshields, and the encroaching tide caught more than a few vehicles when drivers wandered too close to the water.
“Coming down the beach heading into the north turn was an art, sort of like gliding an airplane,” said Johnson, who also experienced a major accident on the beach course. “You started a quarter-mile from the turn, and you came in off the water. You turned that thing sideways two-10ths of a mile before you got to the turn.
“You had to have a pretty good knack for what you were doing. Going down the asphalt the other way, it was just the opposite. You go down there, stop, and turn left. At about 30 to 35 miles per hour.”
Since sun, salt and sand made visibility less than ideal, drivers used the Ponce Inlet lighthouse as a visual cue to begin slowing down for the south turn.
The lighthouse is among the survivors.
There were two driver deaths – a ridiculously low number, considering the conditions – during the beach era. Films of the races show spectators standing only a few feet from the highway part of the race course.
Particularly brutal was a crash in a 1955 Modified race. Al Briggs was burned over 90 percent of his body when his Ford coupe slammed into sand dunes flanking the asphalt portion of the course and caught fire. He died that night.
Still, it is the good times that are remembered over a drink or two at the North Turn restaurant, where the back office once served as the payout window for NASCAR officials working the beach races.
Truelove, migrating south each winter despite his wife’s protests (“She says, ‘You going down there again to have those people slap you on the back?’ Yeah! I am! I like it!”), can talk for hours about all of it. And does. He’s a popular target for restaurant visitors drawn in by the area’s motorsports history and the old race cars out front.
“Going down to Daytona then was like saying you were going to Indianapolis,” Truelove said. “It was big time to go down and compete on the sand at Daytona. The NASCAR name was building up, and Bill France was elevating the quality of the racing. Once you came down here, you wanted to come back.”
And he does. Despite spinal problems that limit his range of motion, Truelove still drives a restored Mercury racer from the beach era, much to the delight of passing motorists startled by the sight.
“If I didn’t have this, what would I do?” he asked. “I’m not a young man any more. Yesterday is still important to me.
“I want to relive yesterday.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.