It’s quite rare to find a person whose is so tightly woven into the tapestry of a culture that a life’s work has made her foundational to the story of an American icon. For Daytona International Speedway that person is undoubtedly Juanita “Lightnin’” Epton.
As the newly reimagined Daytona International Speedway is christened in early 2016, it will be witnessed through a no more unique lens than the eyes of DAYTONA’s longest-tenured and most devoted member. When the green flag drops, the 95-year-old will find herself in the unique position of being one of the very few to remember and have been part of the inaugural DAYTONA 500.
She described the scene surrounding the first race, “It was just so exciting. Some were dressed in their Sunday best, others in blue jeans, but regardless it was a sight to see and a happy day for all involved.” The tickets to that first race, $8, $10, and $15, were happily paid by each of the 40,000 fans in attendance.
Lightnin’s journey to Daytona Beach began over 700 miles northwest in Grenada, Mississippi -- population of 3,402 in 1920.
It’s in her hometown that she met her future husband Joe Epton. Joe, originally from South Carolina, took a job with J.A. Jones Construction Company, which was contracted by the government to build defense projects across the country; Joe’s first being Camp McCain in Grenada. At the same time, Lightnin’ worked two jobs, one of which was a job in the town’s Sheriff’s Office. An initial attempt at matchmaking was made by a deputy sheriff telling her, “I’ve got somebody that I’d like for you to meet. He’s nice and young and I think you two would hit it off.” Ever an independent, career-committed woman, Lightnin’ passed on the offer until, finally, fate intervened. They eventually met on the skating rink, hitting it off right away as two extroverted Southerners with a shared zeal for life.
They were married at a pastor’s house in Greenville, South Carolina and as the years passed, Joe was able to build a career in motorsports. He struck up a friendship with the legendary driver/promoter Joe Littlejohn who staged races in Spartanburg, South Carolina and was soon working for Littlejohn in a variety of positions, including chief scorer. Epton met Big Bill France, who was in need of someone who understood racing and could handle scoring efforts for his racing circuit. He became NASCAR’s chief timer and scorer in 1947, which took him all over the country and to more NASCAR races than nearly anyone else.
When Big Bill conceived the idea of a massive new racetrack in Daytona Beach, he brought the young couple along in 1958, a full year before Daytona International Speedway opened. While Joe put his carpenter background to use building some of the original ticket booths at DIS, Lightnin’ went right to work in the new offices with Big Bill’s wife, Ann France, in a building once located across the street from the Speedway.
Prior to the track being built, the land, to put it delicately, was vacant bog. She describes the scene as a swampland, so full of wildlife that the track workers used to lay giant rattlesnakes atop the hoods of their Jeeps. Watching the dirt piled many feet high on what would become DAYTONA’s famous high banks made her think, “This is like a miracle rising out of a swamp.”
Over the years, Lightnin’ has certainly kept a watchful eye on the impact the track has had on the city. “It used to be a small town in which end-to-end travel took a leisurely 15 minutes. Now it’s between a small town and city. This place has certainly exploded with people and life over the past few decades.”
Lightnin’ is one of the very few that can speak with firsthand knowledge and direct account of working with the France family from the very genesis of NASCAR. “The France’s have done a wonderful job and they deserve everything we have. Bill Jr. used to build signage. He’d go out in the woods and put signs on the telephone poles and take a frames to the service stations. I cannot say anything but what a wonderful group of people they are and how hard they worked for what they got,” she stated with a definitive tone.
She described an environment of hard work and respect, with a focus on family values and close-knit relationships. “Mr. France used to say that we were one family. He called those of us in the ticket office “Annie’s Army” because we stuck together.”
“I never will forget one time Bill Jr. was trying to decide on something and asked me my opinion, which aligned with that of Anne and he said, ‘You’re just like mama. If mama said anything you’d back her up.’”
She's seen a lot change in her 57 years with DAYTONA, she’s seen a lot has change. “When we used to sell tickets, we had a big ledger. Every ticket we sold, we wrote the name, address, and the seat information. We had a schematic of the grandstand and used a big piece of cardboard and marked off each seat as we sold a ticket. Sometimes we got in a little trouble if a ticket forgot to get marked off. I did all of that.” Now, much, if not all of those duties can be handled over computer systems. “Mrs. France, when we first started talking about computers, said to me, ‘I know we have progress and I don’t mind progress, but one thing I want you to remember is to never lose contact with people. Our people are our top priority and we don’t want them to become a number.’ I think we’ve truly kept it to that. They are important individuals to us. I think it’s a major key to the success here.’
Not surprisingly, throughout the years, her favorite part of the job is the people.
”People come to my window and ask if they can have their picture taken with me or ask if they can shake my hand and I never turn them down. Those are the kind of people, the ones who care enough about this sport, that we want coming back. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t remember. When you lose the ability to realize how important people and relationships are, you lose everything.”
Despite going on 95 years old, full of vim and vigor, she lives alone and drives herself to and from work every single day.
“The other day, I walked out to start my vacation that I’m supposed to have for six weeks – she decided to work for two weeks of her vacation -- and I was crying as I walked out the door. I missed the people I was going to work with and the customers I wasn’t going to be able to help. I look forward to each day. Each day is a new experience. I’m living my life so fully and enjoying every moment I can. I have been so blessed to work with good people and meet good people.”
Interestingly enough, the DIS veteran has never seen a race at the legendary track.
“I always felt like it was my duty to be here,” she said. “When the big races come to Daytona, I have a job to do. I’m a fan of the sport, but if I want to sit down and enjoy a race, I’ll go to another track.” Despite this she’d tell people that have never been here that, “They’ll have the greatest experience they’ve ever had, meet the nicest people, and see a racetrack that is truly one-of-a-kind.”
As the $400 million renovation project, known as DAYTONA Rising, wraps up Lightnin’ remains excited for what the future holds.
“Daytona should be very proud of DAYTONA Rising because there isn’t anywhere in the world that is going to be like this.”
While the perpetually-smiling motorsports matriarch is quick to point the finger at others as being the “best thing” about Daytona, it’s clear to see, even in a short time in her presence, that she is what continues to make DIS a special place.
The warmth and kindness that has emanated from her ticket window for upwards of five decades has manifested the spirit of a racetrack built with a familial emphasis, which continues to create memories for generations of fans.
“Bill Sr. told me years ago that as long as I wanted to work I could –and I’ve taken him up on that offer. “
We’re sure glad you did, Lightnin’.
Source: NBC Sports