Daytona International Speedway in 2012 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the track’s first road race, a three hour event won by Dan Gurney when he coasted across the finish line with a blown engine.
The first two road races were three hour events, the third and fourth were expanded to 2000 kilometer contests, and the now-traditional 24-hour race distance was first run in 1966. It was shortened to six hours in 1972, and cancelled completely in 1974 due to an oil embargo and the resulting fuel shortage. Consequently, this year marks the 44th time the circuit has hosted a 24 Hours race, and I believe I’ve photographed at least half of them.
Working for manufacturers, sponsors, agencies and a handful of editorial clients, I’ve photographed most of the major racing series – and tracks – in the world since the early ’70s. My photo archive contains images of the Indy 500 from the years AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears became four-time winners; the Daytona 500 when Richard Petty won his seventh 500, and Dale Earnhardt won for the only time in his career; Formula One in Sweden, when Jody Scheckter won the only race for the Tyrrell six-wheeler; and World of Outlaws races at Eldora Speedway when Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell were beginning their careers.
But the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance races are my three favorite events for photography. Without a doubt.
The sheer lengths of those three events offer a multiplicity of light that constantly changes in quality, color and intensity, and the variety of machinery on-track together is absolutely unmatched in other forms of racing. For pure, raw visual appeal, no other event offers the magnitude, range and diversity of jaw-dropping, emotional images that are routinely available at these three races.
Daytona’s uncertain winter weather adds to its visual diversity. Frequently, it’s pleasant, sunny and warm, and the photographs are of brightly-lit machines and beautiful sunsets. But on occasion, it can be cold, overcast and wet, with cars splashing through standing water or trailing rooster tails on the banking.
And there always are the night hours, splashed with streaks of light and glowing brake disks, mesmerizing and nearly hypnotic when watched from the vast grandstands that wrap around the Daytona tri-oval.
The combination of all these factors makes the 24 Hours of Daytona an experience that should be on the “bucket list” for all race fans.