Last of the Beach Boys: racing on the Daytona sand

Sixty years ago the most famous stretch of sand in motor sport closed for racing, to be replaced by the asphalt of the Daytona Speedway. Samarth Kanal tracked down one of the few surviving beach racers

Racing on Daytona Beach

Revs Institute

Hershel McGriff can recall how much his ’53 Oldsmobile cost when he picked it up from the factory in Lansing, Michigan: $1800. He can remember how much he was paid for finishing third at Darlington in 1951 ($1500) and how much he should have been paid because he actually finished fourth ($1210).

But McGriff, at 91 years old, is possibly the only living driver who can recall racing on Daytona Beach as well as the fast and vast banks of Daytona International Speedway, which took over hosting the races in 1959.

Ask about the difference in speed between sand and concrete and he laughs: “That’s like me racing you across the state; with you on a bicycle and me in a Lamborghini.” No prizes for guessing which one is faster.

McGriff began his stock car career in the 1950s. Here he is pictured at the wheel of the Oldsmobile that he won the 1950 Mexican Road Race in with his co-driver Ray Elliott.
McGriff began his stock car career in the 1950s. Here he is pictured at the wheel of the Oldsmobile that he won the 1950 Mexican Road Race in with his co-driver Ray Elliott.

Daytona Beach racing has worked its way into folklore, and its legacy laid the foundations for the formation of NASCAR, now one of the world’s biggest sporting enterprises. Originally used as a site for land-speed record attempts, Daytona Beach first hosted a circuit race in 1936, when local motorcycle race promoter, Norwegian-born Sig Haugdahl was tasked with designing a 3.2-mile oval course taking in a drag along the sand and the adjacent A1A two-lane coastal road. That first event was largely a disaster. Despite thousands of spectators and a $5,000 prize purse put up by the city, the sandy turns rutted so badly the race had to be stopped after 75 of the 78 laps. The event was a financial drain, not helped by many of those spectators arriving at the beach early to avoid the ticket charge.

McGriff made history last year, starting a NASCAR race at the age of 90
McGriff made history last year, starting a NASCAR race at the age of 90

It was only when future NASCAR founder and regular stock car racer William (Bill) France Sr stepped in to help Haugdahl for 1937 that the event finally made some progress. After further financial losses, Haugdahl stepped back, leaving France in sole charge for 1938, when he organised two much more successful open-invite events, which finally turned a substantial profit.

It marked the first organisational success for France, who revolutionised American racing during a time of swindling, banditry and smuggling. Moonshine running was still rife, and many early race promoters carved unscrupulous reputations for themselves by promising to pay drivers, only to disappear from their own events early, taking all of the cash with them.

One reason that France was so popular, especially compared to other racing promoters around the country, was that he guaranteed a prize purse; other promoters would sometimes find excuses not to pay the drivers. France guaranteed the purses, and even in the early days he had a $4000 purse – he paid $1000 for a win, $750 for second and $500 for third.

With entries flooding in, Daytona Beach often played host to large packs of powerful cars, all going door to door in front of big crowds. One report from Sports Illustrated captured the atmosphere during a race in 1955. It read: “A giant cloud of sand mushroomed into the blue Florida sky like dust from an exploding bomb. Perched on sand dunes, on grandstands, on the tops of thousands of parked cars, 28,000 spectators strained eyes and ears as the low rumble of 10,000 horsepower pushing 48 of America’s newest and fastest production automobiles swelled to a roar on the backstretch. In double rows, their brightwork masked in heavy tape, windows closed to the brine-filled ocean breeze, the massed cars swept across the starting line”

“Moonshine running was rife and many promoters stole cash”

McGriff’s story really begins in May 1950, when he caught the eye of France when he won the inaugural Carrera Panamerica alongside Ray Elliott. That’s Mexico’s equivalent to the Targa Florio, and McGriff beat the likes of Formula 1 drivers Piero Taruffi and Felice Bonetto to win it.

As a result of meeting France, McGriff began his NASCAR career that same year, when he was invited to compete at Darlington. It was a one-race cameo, but in 1954 he managed to find the funds to compete in the full season – all 24 races. His first race of the season? Daytona Beach.

“Thousands of spectators flocked to this small town to enjoy sun, sea and sand… but holiday could quickly turn to horror,” says McGriff.

“The cars could easily run over those people on the backstretch. They’d go on over the sand dune banks [where people were watching]. I don’t know how they controlled that many people – they charged a couple of bucks to get in, but people would still sneak in from here and there.

“The front stretch was a narrow two-lane asphalt road, where the start/finish line was. The hard part was that, when you came off the sand onto the blacktop, it would dig up the sand so badly – around two-three feet deep. You’d really have to be careful not to get stuck or roll over.”

The track by the shore was referred to as ‘hard sand’. The transition to asphalt was tricky
The track by the shore was referred to as ‘hard sand’. The transition to asphalt was tricky

The danger was clear from the early days. Korean war veteran-turned-racer Dick Kaufman was the first NASCAR fatality on the Beach, succumbing to head injuries sustained after crashing in 1954. His car was reported to have rolled multiple times having hit one of those three-foot-deep ruts.

Tragedy also struck in 1955 when three spectators were injured in an accident during a Modified Series race for powerful, reworked pre-war coupés. Regular driver Al Briggs was killed in the fiery crash. There were many grave dangers to be found on the beach.

“One of the keys was to know where the sand was hardest – where the waterline was – because you couldn’t go where the sand was too soft as it would slow you down,” McGriff explains. “That was kind of an art, to learn how to do that.

“The beach was a historic drive. Going through the corners in the sand, hitting blacktop, and then getting off the blacktop onto soft sand and then back onto the hard beach. There was no other way to describe it – it was a learning experience every lap but everybody caught on quickly, and we had some really good races.”

The final problem for McGriff during that ’54 debut was the mess that the seagulls made on his windscreen… of course there weren’t wipers or tear-offs on his Oldsmobile. He finished his first race in 12th place, while Lee Petty went on to win.

In fact, only the top three were on the lead lap at the flag.

He remembers a party atmosphere on race weekend. The roads of Daytona would be rammed by traffic jams on the way back, but nothing like the “fender-rubbing” that took place on the beach. Road rage? Sure, but nothing like the post-race pugilism seen at Daytona in later years – such as Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s famous fisticuffs at the end of the 1979 event. McGriff maintains that he never got into fistfights. It wasn’t an apt place to make enemies.

He and Petty would go on to score a few 1-2 finishes in ’54 as Petty secured the drivers’ championship and McGriff finished sixth.

“He knew how to drive pretty good because of his experience hauling booze, so drivers like Petty did pretty good on a Sunday at the dirt tracks,” explains McGriff. “There was probably more moonshine running going on than you’ve heard about.”

Spectator numbers were huge for events, even if safety was rather lacking
Spectator numbers were huge for events, even if safety was rather lacking

But the days of beach racing were numbered. The businessman France had outgrown the sands of Daytona, and something much, much bigger was on the horizon. McGriff was doing promotional work for France’s new series, and his position gave him a unique insight into France’s expanding empire.

“I remember him [Bill France Sr] picking me up and he’d spread blueprints all over the plane. He was studying them intently: they were the blueprints for Daytona Speedway. We flew right over the area where the track was going to be, but he’d not yet accumulated all the land.

From the archive

“Bill France Sr was looking way ahead. He was one of the greatest guys I ever met, and I learned a lot from him. He never said anything to you that wasn’t important; he didn’t beat around the bush – he just said it like it was and I appreciated all the time that I was able to spend with him, which, in those days, was more time than I spent with anybody else because of our connection that year when I helped him promote his races.”

With a young family, McGriff took a break from the world of NASCAR racing for over a decade, hanging up his helmet in 1954 and not returning until 1967. Racing was a financial burden for him.

In the meanwhile, France had built NASCAR’s third speedway after Darlington and Raleigh (now closed) for the sum of $2.9 million. The first race was run at the new Daytona Speedway on February 20, 1959, for open-roof cars.

More than 40,000 paying spectators attended the Daytona 500 two days later, which came down to Petty and Johnny Beauchamp and ended in a photo finish that required analysis of newsreel footage and stills over three days after the event had finished. Petty was the eventual winner.

The pack roars away for a convertible race as big crowds watch on.
The pack roars away for a convertible race as big crowds watch on.

McGriff returned to racing in 1967 at Riverside, and he first got a taste of NASCAR’s concrete jungle in 1973.

“When I first ran Daytona, it was so smooth. I qualified sixth at 185mph, which was really good in those days. That’s the biggest track I’ve ever driven, and it was full of spectators. But you’re definitely glued into the preparation, the rules and I had to focus so hard on the racing – you didn’t notice all of that,” he says.

“Petty knew how to drive good because of his booze hauling”

Yes, the beach was dangerous, but the speeds at Daytona broke fresh ground for many American racing drivers. That became clear even before the first race at the Speedway, when France invited drivers to break the world speed record on a closed racing circuit. The first driver to reach 180mph on Daytona would win $10,000, and bragging rights.

But when double NASCAR national champion Marshall Teague, nicknamed “King of the Beach” for his two wins at Daytona in 1951 and ‘52, attempted the record, he was not prepared for this new challenge at all.

The high banks of the oval got the best of his Sumar Special Indycar, which flipped over at 140mph. Teague was ejected – still in his seat – from the car nearly 500 metres from the spot where he had his accident as Daytona claimed its first casualty before a race had even started.

“There’s no comparison between the beach and the speedway,” reiterates McGriff.

Keen not to travel the length of the country to compete, Daytona veteran McGriff raced in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – a regional division that was formed in 1954 – until finally retiring in 2012.

But NASCAR had one final surprise for him: last year for his 90th birthday present Bill McAnally Racing gave him the chance to return, to complete a 100-lap K&N Pro race at Tucson.

“I didn’t do very good – I tagged along at the tail end – but it was a great weekend for me, a fantastic weekend and a big celebration with lots of friends from all over the country coming over to watch,” he says.

With that, he became the oldest driver ever to start a NASCAR-sanctioned race. McGriff finished 16th, but it was one hell of a party nonetheless.

Just like the old days, indeed, flat out on Daytona Beach.