This year's running of the Dayto-na 200 will mark a milestone. It will be the 50th anniversary of the race moving from the beach to Daytona International Speedway - with Roger Reiman riding a Har-ley-Davidson to victory using a special infield road course in 1961. Back then the AMA was not yet convinced motorcycles could handle the forces of the high banks and it would be three more years before the bikes hit the banking.
By the late 1950s America's grand motorcycle race, which started in 1937, was in trouble. The race, which originally ran very close to the center of Daytona Beach, had been moved farther south several times due to development. The postwar boom of the 1950s really put a strain on the race as hotels and houses sprouted up like dune grass along the beachfront miles south of town.
The race was almost abandoned a few times in the late '50s, only to be revived at the 11th hour by local business leaders as even then motorcyclists apparently brought a ton of money into town. Then a rash of fan and rider injuries, and even deaths due to spectators crossing the track, marked the beginning of the end. Crowd control was always an issue with the beach races and as the race drew ever-larger crowds the task became overwhelming for local officials.
When Bill France Sr. opened Daytona International Speedway in 1959 he wanted the 200 to move to the track. But that amounted to sacrilege to the old guard traditionalist in motorcycling's hierarchy. To them the Daytona 200 had always been and should always remain a beach race. The fans also loved watching the race at the beach and convincing them to move inland to sit in bleachers wasn't going to be an easy task.
"A lot of riders hated racing on the sand," three-time AMA Champion Joe Leonard recalls. "I'd say a little over half of them were in favor of moving over to the Speedway, but with the fans that was a different story. Nothing blocked the view and people could get right up next to the track with bikes zipping by on the beach and it was pretty spectacular for them."
Finally in 1961, Bill France Sr., as the strong-willed NASCAR boss often did, got his way and the race was moved to the Speedway. It should be noted that France didn't get everything he'd wished for from the AMA. At the time he wanted the 200 to be a combined FIM World Champi-onship/AMA race. It was a brilliant concept, but the AMA wasn't even yet affiliated with the FIM and the racing regulations were not compatible. So for a couple of years France held a separate FIM World Championship race at the Speedway a month before the 200. Those races were sparsely attended and eventually abandoned.
Roger Reiman was in his prime in 1961 and the 22-year-old factory Harley-Davidson rider from Kewanee, Illinois, led all but the first lap of the first Daytona 200 held at the Speedway in '61 (Peoria, Illinois rider Larry Williamson had the honor of leading the first lap of racing at the
EycleNews.com vol. 48 issue 4 march 8, 2011 70-71
Speedway). Reiman was due a win. After all, he'd led portions of the final beach race in 1960 before a fractured gas tank dropped him to 18th. By the end of the '61 race, Don Burnett on a Triumph (who won the race the next year) was the only rider on the same lap as Reiman. George Roeder was a distant third, three laps back.
The crowds stayed away that first year at the Speedway with attendance reported to be 7500. The Speedway wouldn't match the beach attendance until the early 1970s when the international stars like Giacomo Agostini began racing Daytona. But credit the AMA PR staff in the early 1960s because they were definitely on the ball: Reiman was flown to New York City after the race and appeared on the Today Show the next morning. It seemed that once committed to racing at the Speedway, the AMA was going to do what it could to keep Daytona the biggest and most prestigious motorcycle race in the country.
Now a half-century old, a lot of Daytona 200 history, in fact most, has taken place at the Speedway. The Speedway witnessed the last 200 victory by an American brand when the now legendary Cal Rayborn rode a Harley-Davidson KR750 to victory in 1969. It was a great goodbye to the KR model, which had raced on American tracks for nearly 20 years. Hard to believe in this time when a new model is totally obsolete in a year or two. That's also when the Milwaukee racer was still more reliable than the speedy, but troublesome Japanese two-strokes.
The year after Rayborn's win the first Japanese maker won the Daytona 200. It was Honda taking the 1970 race with its revolutionary four-cylinder CB750. Oh yeah, it was Dick Mann at the controls of the Honda.
The Grand Prix riders came in successive waves throughout the 1970s, bringing with them huge crowds for the first time to witness the 200 at the
Speedway. Just imagine if Valentino Rossi decided to race the Daytona 200. The equivalent of that happened when Ago came and raced the event in 1974 and '75; the best rider in the world racing our guys, Roberts, Romero, Nixon, Mann and Baker. It was incredible.
The Speedway saw the domination of the Yamaha two-stroke GP bikes almost through the entirety of the 1970s and into the '80s. So dominant was Yamaha in fact (a record 13 straight wins by the tuning fork, a record that will likely never be broken), that the Frances started looking at the Super-bike class as something that would offer a little more brand parity. In 1985 the Superbikes took over as did Freddie Spencer, who won all three major races that weekend (Superbike, F1 and 250 Grand Prix).
The Speedway was a source of frustration for Kenny Roberts for a time before he broke through to win in 1978 before ending his career with two more victories. Florida's own John Ashmead took the most unlikely win in the history of the race in 1989 on a years-old privateer Honda. A young Miguel Duhamel was a replacement rider in 1990 and was a blaze of speed, with the back end of his Honda squirming wildly as he braked later for the infield turns than anyone had before. DIS became a home away from home for Georgian Scott Russell, who seemed nearly unbeatable in the 1990s and earned the title "Mr. Daytona." Eddie Lawson retired from GP racing and then came back to race the 200 and his 1993 race with Russell was an epic moment for the 200. The sheer number of factory and factory-backed bikes in the field in the salad days of the mid-to-late 1990s was unmatched.
The beach course was once considered the classic Daytona 200, but the fact is the race was held on the beach a total of 19 times. And now we have 50 years of the race's history at Daytona International Speedway. cn
Was this article helpful?