Sixty years ago – two years before the mammoth Daytona speedway opened and five years before the first internationally renowned sports car race was staged there – great sports car racing took over a venue of the area most current residents were unaware had a racing history: New Smyrna Beach Airport.
“Sports car racing on the New Smyrna Beach Airport course tomorrow and Sunday is a sure thing. There’s no unpredictable beach to worry about,” was the opening paragraph of a News- Newspaper of February 8, 1957.
Big Bill France’s NASCAR Speedweeks show, at the Daytona Beach beach and road course, was in its penultimate year on the sand. The motor racing carnival always ended with the 160-mile stock car race that was the precursor to today’s Daytona 500. The two weeks leading up to this event featured smaller races and “flying mile” races for a variety of car classes.
All of this, however, could be crippled by poor beach conditions. In 1957 there were problems with the beach portion of the race course as there had been no recent tide pushed far enough ashore to smooth the exposed racing surface at low tide. And that explains why the “safe thing” of NSB airport was important enough to lead the Feb. 8 editorial.
The NSB event, labeled as Volusia County’s first-ever sports car race, would be sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA, still active today) and “organized” by famous chef Paul Whiteman. American orchestra a few decades earlier. who had been dubbed “the king of jazz”. He was also a racing enthusiast who regularly attended Daytona Beach events and naturally made friends with France.
Whiteman lured sports car drivers to Daytona in the 1950s to run the “flying mile” straight-line races, but beach conditions were often harsh on the low-slung roadsters. In a Don Rayno biography of Whiteman, the bandleader explained how the New Smyrna race came about.
“In 1956, when the beach surface softened the first week of Speed Week, I had a hard time keeping the sports car drivers here and happy, because their flying mile races were scheduled for this week I then thought that if we just had one race we could not only attract more sports car drivers but also have something for them to do in case the range turns again bad for us.
A 2.4-mile, eight-turn course was laid out at the airport which still sits along US Highway 1, and around 100 drivers were drawn in for the SCCA races. Entries included former Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman, NASCAR stars Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and Paul Goldsmith, and lanky Texan who would later become legendary for building cars instead of racing them, Carroll Shelby .
The locals were understandably intrigued.
“I was 12 or 13 at the time,” says New Smyrna Beach native Jimmy Pearsall. “A group of us were at the airport every weekend, flying our model planes and trying to get a look at one of the bigger planes. On those race days, we couldn’t fly our planes but knowing our way around we could see the races without paying they were very exciting this flat track had the cars sliding and spinning.
“I don’t remember the specifics of the races, but I do remember a good rider who was a Texas cowboy with a funny name – Carroll Shelby.”
Qualifying practice took place in a number of car classifications on Saturday and finals on Sunday, culminating in the 40-lap main event, sponsored by Pure Oil. Something that seems rather obvious now didn’t become a problem until the cars started doing laps at the airport.
“You know, my main job was to generate interest in this race, which I did through many personal appearances before the race,” Whiteman says in Rayno’s biography. “But once it started, man, I got into safety really quickly.
“We attracted around 12,000 spectators, of which around 8,000 paid. It seemed like the whole crowd wanted to get out on the track. It sure made me nervous. I spent most of the race going from place to place, helping to hold the crowd down.
In that crowd was Gene Sheldon, a senior at NSB High School at the time.
“It was crowded and it was loud. It was a big deal for our little town,” says Sheldon, who recalls the scene but also remembers leaving early to beat the crowds.
“We were more into beach racing,” he says. “We would take our boat up the river, stop in the mangroves and cross the dunes and watch the races for free.”
The weekend of time trials and races involved multiple classes of cars and included a range of machinery similar to the variety seen in today’s sports car events at Daytona – Volkswagen, Renault, Volvo, Corvette, Thunderbird, Mercedes, Porsche, Lotus, Jaguar, Triumph, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.
Shelby, whose later legend was defined by his design of Mustangs, was the fastest qualifier, navigating the tight course averaging 85.12 mph in a Ferrari. Immediate top speeds were between 135 and 140.
Of the registered NASCAR racers, Turner made the biggest promotional hit with his late arrival and a modified Thunderbird. The colorful Virginian was a popular stock-car figure and, as a pilot of some fame (he was hardly a conventional aviator, as old stories attest), he was no stranger to airports.
“I’ve driven on airport circuits before, but not in sports car racing,” he told Bob Desiderio of the News-Journal. “It doesn’t seem to be much different, except, of course, those cars have more steam.”
Shelby, meanwhile, was unconcerned with Turner’s appearance.
“I’ve never been beaten by a Thunderbird,” he told Desiderio. Shelby, who would go on to win Le Mans in 1959, had won 40 of his 46 sports car starts in 1956, so he hadn’t lost to a car brand very often lately. Turner, it turned out, was not a competitive factor in the weekend’s events.
Shelby was not beaten by a Thunderbird or anything else in Sunday’s main event. Dressed in his signature jumpsuit, Shelby was alone in the lead turn. Marvin Panch finished second in a Thunderbird race he inherited when Ruttman pulled out due to racing politics (the sanctioning body USAC, which Ruttman made his living from, didn’t want his drivers racing on USAC, everything as NASCAR only let its drivers compete in NASCAR events at that time).
Well-known sportswriter Benny Kahn, who used these pages to chronicle Daytona’s rise to motorsport fame, described Shelby’s dominance as follows:
Shelby averaged 87.56 mph over the 40 laps, a formidable gait requiring breakneck speed on the straight sections of the 2.4-mile asphalt road course and shrewd driving skill to thread eight curves, two of which required a severe braking.
The 34-year-old champion estimated his top speed between 135 and 140mph but casually observed: “I can’t be precise as I haven’t looked at my tachometer.”
The SCCA brought the event back in 1958, but lacked the star power of 1957. The main event was won by Joe Sheppard – “The Tampa Hotshoe” – driving a Maserati. Up the road, next to another airport on the west side of Daytona Beach, Big Bill France quickly filled in the mud and turned this tattered area into his dream highway.
In 1959, sports car racing continued to build its local presence, but moved to Daytona International Speedway and used the twisty course Big Bill carved into the infield of his gigantic tri-oval. The SCCA held many events there in the early years, but in 1962 Big Bill brought the world from sports car racing to its stomping ground for the three-hour Daytona Continental, which ushered in an era of endurance sports car racing at Daytona that certainly lasted.