No NASCAR crash course would be truly immersive at Daytona without a drive on the original NASCAR track – this pristine stretch of flawless Atlantic beach.
First off, an intro.
Why would driving on sand at speeds topping 140-mph have ever seemed like a good idea?
When you put yourself in the driver’s seat 65 years ago, running high-powered and highly dangerous racecars on Daytona Beach actually seems really reasonable.
Daytona Beach has three qualities that make it extremely desirable for high-speed runs: it is smooth, flat and nearly endless. Those same criteria are exactly what the Bugatti Veyron La Finale requires for its Vmax runs today. Paved tracks with the trifecta of smooth, flat and endless are still in short supply worldwide.
But they did almost not exist whatsoever in 1949 (excluding heavily-guarded military installations…)
Daytona is also extremely hard-packed sand, with a high tide that comes right up to the concrete barriers and the hotels of the strip. This creates a smooth surface — twice daily. You also have relative safety merits: rollovers and impacts are less severe on a soft (relative to concrete) sand base, and it also serves as a helpful fire-extinguisher.
If car becomes a ball of flames, simply ditch into the water!
All this logic is out the window though as we pay our entry fee to take the new 2015 Toyota Camry XSE V6 onto this hallowed ground for a drive. It feels totally alien to drive on sand. Even this hard-packed stuff has about as much grip as fresh powdery snow. Places where drifts have formed are deep with marshmallow-fluff. You coast over it smoothly and feel the car sink slightly. A non-event at 20-mph, but a major launch ramp at 6X those speeds.
We traced the original NASCAR route – which ran up the beach a few miles, then out onto the road to come back to the sand. This long shape became an oval in driver’s minds.
They especially knew the challenges of surviving a Daytona Beach race – let alone winning it.
It only took ten years of Daytona Beach running of the NASCAR race for Daytona International Speedway to be dreampt, built and open to 140,000 fans for the 1959 Daytona 500.
So, in closing: Beach driving is highly perilous to car and man, but it is also fun.
Serious fun. Which must explain this reporter’s creepy grin!