When they first started calling it “Speedweeks” it really was two weeks of constant speed. Even before they started racing trucks, there were always some kind of cars on the track: Sportsmen, ARCA, what’s now called Nationwide and even the Cup cars were always on the track, practicing, tweaking, looking for more speed. Traditionally the Speedweeks started with the 24 hours and ended after the Daytona 500.
With a nod to the cost, and even the toll on families (NASCAR crews have the highest divorce rates of any group in sports) NASCAR has brought the numbers down, spread things out and concentrated their sport over a few days. Practice for the 24 hours is limited to a few days before the annual race in January. It’s been moved up a few weeks to take it out of the normal Speedweeks calendar and give it its own identity. And when the rest of the stock car racing world used to descend on Daytona the day after the 24 hours ended, now it’s much more sporadic. Even testing in early January has been cut down to a limited schedule, saving teams tires, fuel, travel and sometimes even engines.
All of that change has made for more guesswork on the track, for the limited time cars are allowed to be out there practicing, and more time in wind tunnels and in front of computers looking for speed through aerodynamics and horsepower.
A lot of the changes have been made to accommodate television from the big contract signed at the turn of the century with NBC and FOX to the development of NASCAR’s interest in the SpeedChannel and now FS1. If you’re wondering why the “best day in racing” as the qualifying races at Daytona are often called isn’t over, it’s because for the first time ever, those races have been moved to nighttime.
Long-time fans will remember the qualifiers being 100 miles each with drivers going all out for the “transfer” spots trying to get into the 500. If you remember before that, just about everybody who brought a car had a chance in the race, particularly before 1959 when part of the race was literally on Daytona Beach. From 100 miles to 125, the Gatorade Twin 125’s were a big attraction for many locals, taking the day off, getting to the track early, seeing two competitive races and going home. Looking for a little more action and information about how the cars would handle, the race was increased to 150 miles a few years ago and in 2014 now staged in the evening.
Daytona could only do this after installing the largest lighting project in the world in order to run the summer race at night and a chance to grab more ratings during the February sweeps month was too tempting to pass up. Remember when the Daytona 500 was postponed to a Monday night a few years ago? The ratings were so big, many people feared that it would soon move from Sunday afternoon to a night race for television.
So far, they’ve fought off that temptation but it could be in the not-so-distant-future.
They’ll start at 7 tonight and try to be done by 10 o’clock to accommodate FOX local TV stations on the east coast who run a 10 o’clock news.
No matter when though, it remains the most fun day in racing.