Twenty Years Ago, Daytona Beach Was a Fiery Place

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, July 6, 2018, 9:20 a.m.

By Monte Dutton

I never wrote about a Firecracker 400 that began at 10 a.m. When I signed up with the NASCAR media gypsies full-time in 1993, the race started at 11 a.m.

It was wonderful. Hot as a firecracker but wonderful. The race never moved to night, or, as we came to know it, thunderstorm standard time, until 1998, and then it was in October. It wasn’t supposed to be.

After I landed at the airport behind the race track that July, I picked up a rental car and drove to a Mexican restaurant. When I walked out and looked to the west, I thought I was about to witness the worst thunderstorm in history. Angry clouds of black, purple and crimson swirled angrily.

It wasn’t a thunderstorm. The orange groves were afire. That night law officers banged on my motel-room door and informed me that I needed to evacuate. I wound up rooming with a friend out on the beach. I was stranded in Daytona Beach, penned in by flames. The next day, I played a bizarre round of golf. It was 100 degrees, the air filled with smoke. I felt as if I were in some war-torn, tropical country where revolutionaries had reached the outskirts of the capital.

The morning paper listed a short-track race in New Smyrna Beach. A friend and I drove down to find the track empty and locked. I wrote about fire. I-95 was closed. I ended up driving up the coast to Jacksonville, where the way home was finally clear. The rental car wound up being turned in at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. I think it was a Ford Contour.

Daytona International Speedway’s first Cup night race didn’t go off until October 17. Jeff Gordon won it. I was there. I don’t remember anything about it other than I was there.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, the race cars were Monte Carlos, Tauruses and Grands Prix. Gordon was winning his third championship in four years. Johnny Benson Jr. drove for Jack Roush and Betty Crocker. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) Series. Tony Stewart was, too, occasionally. That year Austin Cindric, Noah Gragson and Kaz Grala were born.

I had not yet written my first NASCAR book. I had not yet picked up a guitar. Occasionally, driving home late at night from a track, I tried to play a harmonica. I didn’t know a chord from cordwood.

Bill Clinton was in the White House. Houston was in the National League.

Yet it doesn’t seem so long ago. Almost nothing does anymore.

 

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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