The Daytona 500 is regarded as the most important and prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar, carrying by far the largest purse. Championship points awarded are equal to that of any other Sprint Cup race. It is also the series' first race of the year; this phenomenon is virtually unique in sports, which tend to have championships or other major events at the end of the season rather than the start. Since 1995, U.S. television ratings for the Daytona 500 have been the highest for any auto race of the year, surpassing the traditional leader, the Indianapolis 500 which in turn greatly surpasses the Daytona 500 in in-track attendance and international viewing. The 2006 Daytona 500 attracted the sixth largest average live global TV audience of any sporting event that year with 20 million viewers.
The event serves as the final event of Speedweeks and is sometimes referred to as "The Great American Race" or the "Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing." It is held the second or third Sunday in February, and since 1971, has been loosely associated with both Valentine's Day and the Presidents Day weekend.
The winner of the Daytona 500 is presented with the Harley J. Earl Trophy in Victory Lane, and the winning car is displayed, in race-winning condition, for one year at Daytona 500 Experience, a museum and gallery adjacent to Daytona International Speedway.
Daytona International Speedway is the home of "The Great American Race" -- the Daytona 500. The Daytona 500 is the biggest, richest and most prestigious race in America and annually kicks off the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Although the Daytona 500 garners most of the attention, the enormous 480-acre motorsports complex boasts the most diverse schedule of racing on the globe -- earning it the title of "World Center of Racing."
In addition to nine major weekends of racing activity, featuring everything from NASCAR to the Rolex Sports Car Series to the American Motorcyclist Association and the World Karting Association, the Speedway is also booked for more than two solid months each year for testing and development of various race vehicles.
Motorized meandering aside, rarely a week goes by that the Speedway grounds are not used for events that include civic and social gatherings, car shows, athletic games, photo "shoots," production vehicle testing and police motorcycle training.
"The Speedway is a venue that is known throughout the world as a top-line race track -- a place where everyone in motorsports wants to claim a victory," said Speedway President Joie Chitwood III. "However, we're also committed to being versatile enough and responsive enough to provide a site where community activities can successfully be held."
Daytona is indeed the site of a diverse mix of activities. Go-karts, which look deceptively similar to the machines that can be driven by families on holiday, compete for five days in December. Among the racing stars that have competed in go-karts at the Speedway include Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Scott Pruett, Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray.
After a jam-packed month of race car testing in January, Speedweeks arrives. Its diversity includes sports car drivers in the Grand American Rolex 24 At Daytona and stock car drivers competing in five different series.
This amazing variety is only table-dressing for the medley of personalities and machines that invade Daytona for Daytona 200 Week in March. Each year, racers and fans from around the world converge on the Speedway for the best in road racing, supercross and dirt track competition.
A diverse group of events are held through the balance of the year, including two other major professional weekends, as well as Sports Car Club of America amateur sports car races; antique and classic car shows held in the spring and fall by the Daytona Beach Racing and Recreational Facilities District; the Police Motorcycle Skills Championship; various charity and community athletic events such as walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons and dinners; receptions; and picnics.
On February 22, 1959, Daytona International Speedway hosted the first Daytona 500. The posted awards for the "500-Mile International Sweepstakes" totaled $67,760. A field of 59 cars took the green flag for the start of the 200-lap race. A crowd of 41,000 was on hand to witness the beginning of another chapter in the history of racing in Daytona.
The finish of the race also went into the history books. The finish was too close to call, but Johnny Beauchamp went to Victory Lane and savored the celebration although the results were posted as "unofficial."
Sixty-one hours later, Lee Petty was the winner in what appeared to be a dead heat between Petty and Beauchamp - with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly making it a three-wide finish at the checkered flag. A clip of newsreel footage proved that Petty was the winner by a few feet.
"The Great American Race," which traditionally hosts a sell out crowd, has the biggest total payout in prize money for any motorsports event in the United States, surpassing the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. The 2007 Daytona 500 posted awards exceed more than $18 million with race winner Kevin Harvick pocketing more than $1.5 million.
The perks of winning the Daytona 500 are more than just collecting the largest payout in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or hoisting the prestigious Harley J. Earl trophy. Winning stock car racing's greatest prize also brings fame and fortune.
“It's the ultimate race,” said three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon following his 2005 Daytona 500 victory. “There’s just no better place to win at than Daytona. You know the sport’s getting more competitive. It’s getting bigger and it’s just one of those races if you pick one, this is the one you want to win.”
In addition, the Daytona 500 winning car rests inside Daytona 500 Experience, “The Official Attraction of NASCAR,” for a year for race fans to view and the winning driver has his hand prints, right foot and autograph immortalized in cement at the Daytona 500 Champion’s Walk Of Fame.