Stock car thunder no longer is heard along the Atlantic shore here a few miles from Daytona International Speedway, but the memories are strong.
The list of surviving drivers who raced on the old Daytona beach-road course, which closed in 1958, is made shorter by each passing year, and soon only the photographs, brief videos and historical markers will remain.
NASCAR and speedway officials reignited the idea for a few minutes Friday morning, however, as defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who was born three decades after racing on the beach ended, drove a No. 21 Wood Brothers Sprint Cup Ford model on the hard-packed sand as part of a SpeedWeeks promotion.
Among those in the small crowd enjoying the occasion was Russ Truelove, who scattered the sand for real in the 1950s. He is one of the most famous of the beach racers, in large part because, during a race on the old course in 1956, his spectacular crash resulted in a multi-photograph spread in Life magazine, then of the most respected and widely circulated publications in the country.
Truelove had driven south from his home in Waterbury, CT to drive a new street Mercury in the race. He painted numbers on the sides of the car and drove south.
In the race, he found trouble quickly. Trying to pass NASCAR short-track ace Jim Reed as they approached the course’s north turn (very close to the short strip Bayne drove on Friday), Truelove caught his left front tire in the softer sand of the outer beach, and the car flipped wildly into the air. After a series of rolls, Truelove climbed out OK, but vivid black-and-white photographs of the crash made Life magazine and gave still-infant NASCAR a major publicity boost.
Truelove, 91, still lives in the Northeast, but he travels to Daytona every February to relive the past for visiting fans along the old beach course.
The sound of Bayne’s Ford engine Friday was music to his ears.
“Racing here had a special ring to it,” Truelove said “Saying ‘Daytona’ was like saying Indianapolis for the open-wheel guys. It was great fun. It was a sensation of being able to go as fast as you wanted on the beach. The only thing that bothered us coming down the beach was that the photographers would want to get out closer to the cars and get a better picture. As the tide started coming in, you got closer and closer to the water.”
The course, which hosted NASCAR races before the giant Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, was formed by linking two miles of the two-lane Highway A1A and two miles of hard-packed beach sand. Drivers racing north on the beach made the hard left turn onto the asphalt highway, traveled south for two miles, then turned left again to return to the beach.
Among other hazards, sand sprayed the cars’ windshields, and some drivers carried mops to clean the glass as they drove.
“If you got behind somebody, the sand splattered your windshield,” Truelove said. “At over 100 miles per hour, your windshield wipers were useless. Guys took mops and all kinds of things into their cars.”
Bayne had things considerably easier Friday. He drove at casual speed along the sand as photographers recorded the scene. It was a placid morning, with the Atlantic surf creating a pleasant backdrop.
“As a race car driver, you watch races on the beaches, and I wish we could come back here and get the groove all rutted up and try to miss the potholes, but this is an unbelievable feeling – being on the beach where it all started,” Bayne said. “This is history right here. I almost want to bottle up the sand and take it with me because this is where it started for Daytona, this is where it started for NASCAR, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
In the 1950s, Glen Wood, founder of the Wood Brothers team, drove several races on the beach course, including a Sportsman event that had more than a touch of drama.
“He was going down that backstretch over there, which is the pavement, and it (the car) caught on fire,” said team co-owner Len Wood, Glen’s son. “He had a fire up on the dash, so he gets out and this gentleman comes out of the palmettos … and he had a fire extinguisher. This was in the late 50s, and he put the fire out.
“My dad climbed back in the car, got it going again and still won the race.”
Bayne later drove the modern version of the Wood Brothers car on surface streets to the speedway to complete the day’s promotional event.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.