Since its inaugural year in 1959, millions of fans have attended the DAYTONA 500, enjoying the fabulous finishes, magical moments and legendary drivers that have transformed Bill France Sr.’s big dream into the Great American Race.
However, only a select few can say that they’ve been on hand for nearly every DAYTONA 500 since its inception. We tracked down a few fans that are about to celebrate their 50th consecutive DAYTONA 500 to share their stories of how it all began and what keeps them coming back year after year.
First up is New Hampshire-native Russell Jones, who attended his first DAYTONA 500 in 1968.
Daytona International Speedway: How did the tradition of coming to the DAYTONA 500 get started? When was your first DAYTONA 500?
Russell Jones: My first trip to Daytona International Speedway actually wasn’t for the DAYTONA 500. My uncle took me to the July race in 1967. We just drove down; didn’t even have tickets so we bought tickets there. From that race, I was hooked.
My father was a big race fan, so I talked him into going to DAYTONA 500 in 1968. When we first started going, we used to just walk up to the ticket building, but it wasn’t long before my dad just started ordering the tickets long before raceday.
Growing up in New England, I was always around the small, short tracks in the northeast. I always loved racing, but had never had my jaw dropped by a race track. That changed when we sat down near Turn 1 and I looked out and saw how massive Daytona International Speedway was.
DIS: How have things changed over the years? What are some of the biggest differences you notice from your first 500 to your more recent 500s?
RJ: For, I’m guessing 25 years, we had tickets in Oldfield Tower. Up near the top, right at the end of the grandstands. Over the years, I’ve sat pretty much everywhere, but we settled in Oldfield Tower. I loved the seats because you got to really experience the sights and sounds of the cars coming off of Turn 4.
Oldfield Tower isn’t there anymore, but DAYTONA Rising has just been awesome. The seats are comfortable, have plenty of leg room, are covered under the seating area in case of rain and you can take escalators right to your seats.
I followed the project online on your webcams and when I first went and saw the place after it was finished and opened, I just couldn’t believe it. There’s plenty of room in the seats, and you don’t have to stand up each time somebody wants to walk in front of you. There’s also little details like the cup holders and there are so many places to eat, so many restaurants, and the place is spotless. Everybody is friendly. There’s just no comparison now with what it used to be. The escalators are great!
That’s just a tremendous project. It’s phenomenal, what’s been done.
DIS: Who do you normally attend the races with? Have you sat in one spot over the years and tried out several vantage points?
RJ: For a number of years, it was my father, myself and my son, but after my father passed away, my brother and a friend started coming with my son I. Now it’s myself, my brother and two friends. For 24 years my brother used to fly from Hawaii to my home in New Hampshire, stay with me for a week and then we’d fly to Florida together for Speedweeks.
When I first started going we used to sit down ten or fifteen rows up from the fence in the wooden grandstands. By the end of the day you’d be covered in dirt and rubber. We just kept moving up over the years and like I said, we finally settled on Oldfield Tower.
I think the seats off of Turn Four are great. I’ve spent a lot of years down in Turn One, seating between the start/finish line and Turn One. I’ve sat a few times at the start/finish line, not up high but down low. I really like the Turn Four. I like the action off of Turn Four, so now it’s Level 3 section 308 row 15.
You can see the whole track, you can watch the cars coming through three and four. You can actually see them wiggling – so you know who’s loose and you know who’s tight.
DIS: What does your “race day” look like? Where are you tailgating? When do you go inside the stadium? What are you eating and drink? Take us with you through a race day.
RJ: For several years in the early 2000’s, I had four HOT passes for the entire week, which made the experience great. On race day, we would get to the track early and park outside Turn 4. We’d be inside the track or buying souvenirs until race time. Now, because my brother lives so close, we arrive at the track, have breakfast at the Hilton and walk around the track do some shopping. Then we bring stuff back to the car before walking around the vendor displays. Then, it’s into the track for lunch of hot dogs or a burger with Coke and beer. We always make sure we’re in our seats in time for the DAYTONA 500 Pre-Race Show.
DIS: What are some of your favorite/most memorable DAYTONA 500 moments? Do you have a favorite DAYTONA 500 and why?
RJ: The ones that immediately come to my mind are Yarborough’s win in 1968 (my first race), Dale Earnhardt Sr. winning in 1988, all three of Dale Jarrett’s wins and both of Michael Waltrip’s wins. In my mind, the best one was Earnhardt’s win in 1998. Everyone was cheering for him and all of the other drivers were so happy for him. The place went nuts.
DIS: What would you say to someone that has never been, but is considering coming?
Go! It’s an experience of a lifetime. I’d tell them if they go once, they’ll go forever. Once you go once, you’re hooked. I’d tell them to get here in enough time to get out into the infield and the fan experience in the infield. That’s definitely the way to go. Once you go to DAYTONA, everything else is boring.
DIS: How long do you plan on going? Is it something you hope to pass down to your family?
RJ: As long as I can. I’m moving to the Daytona area as soon as I sell my lake house in New Hampshire. 2017 will be my 50th DAYTONA 500, but I didn’t start really paying attention to it until we hit 35 years in a row and then my wife, my brother mentioned it to me. That’s when I started counting. God willing, I can be there another twenty years.
It's never too late to start a DAYTONA 500 tradition of your very own. Join us for the race that means more than any other – at the place that's unlike anything else. Guarantee your seats for the 2017 DAYTONA 500 before they sell out. For tickets and more information, visit DAYTONA500.com or call 1-800-PITSHOP.