Danny Byrd can clearly remember what stood between him and a victory at Daytona International Speedway in February of 1964 — one pit stop.
Driving under the newly named Automobile Racing Club of America, Byrd believed he was going to win the 250-mile race on the oval, then only five years old.
“We ran the first 125 miles without putting any fuel in the car,” recalled Byrd, who is now 77 and lives in Sebring, Fla. “But in the second half of the race, the oil pressure started to flutter, and I was afraid the car was going to run out of oil.”
Byrd then made the choice to make the pit stop.
“I’m afraid that cost us the win,” Byrd said.
Subsequently, Byrd finished sixth and Nelson Stacy won the Daytona ARCA 250, the first race under the ARCA banner at the super speedway.
When ARCA opens its season on Saturday at Daytona with the Lucas Oil 200, it will mark the league’s 50th race under the ARCA banner, at what’s considered one of auto racing’s most celebrated venues.
“Daytona, it’s probably the best-liked track for all spectators, or at least one of them, anyways,” said Byrd, a Michigan native who won three track titles at Toledo Speedway. “It gets more written about it than any other race track I can think of, and it’s very special to anyone in racing.”
Both Byrd and Daytona played a role in the metamorphosis of ARCA. Prior to the 1964 race at Daytona, ARCA was known as the Midwest Association for Race Cars, confined and designated as a regional racing league by many inside the sport.
But a meeting between NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., and MARC founder John Marcum prior to the 1964 race at Daytona ultimately facilitated the organization’s rebranding, away from a regional racing circuit.
France saw it from a marketing standpoint: with the growth of stock-car racing, he could draw more drivers and spectators with more races at one of the country’s first super speedways. But would it work if it attracted a regional racing circuit?
“At the same time, Bill France said to John Marcum, ‘you need to quit being the MARC,’ ” said ARCA president Ron Drager, Marcum’s grandson. “ ‘If you’re going to run in a broad region, then you need to be ARCA.’
“It changed the whole way we did business.”
Part of that rebranding effort included running the first ARCA race in 1964 at the five-year-old speedway. Since 1964, ARCA has grown to include races at NASCAR speedways and super speedways in Kansas, Alabama, and Pennsylvania, as well as road courses, dirt tracks, and short courses.
This season, ARCA will have 21 races, including the Toledo ARCA 200 on May 19 at Toledo Speedway and the Michigan ARCA 200 on June 14 at Michigan International Speedway.
“Short-track racing is completely different from Daytona,” said Byrd, who now splits his time between Florida and Melvindale, Mich. “At Daytona, you’ve got so much room, and there’s no bumping and banging unless somebody makes a mistake.”
Ryan Newman won the 2001 Discount Auto Parts 200, and three years later, Kyle Busch won the Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 at Daytona. Bobby Gerhart is ARCA’s winningest driver (eight wins) at Daytona and is entered in Saturday’s race.
“Thousands of racers have raced in that ARCA Daytona race, and that was the pinnacle of their career,” Drager said. “ARCA gave them the chance to do that. For a guy like Kyle Busch or Kyle Petty, that was a step for them in their development. Or if it was a guy from an Iowa dirt track or even Toledo Speedway, that was maybe as far as they could go, but they accomplished that goal, that they got to drive at Daytona.”
Byrd estimates that he logged 112,000 miles of racing at Daytona, yet continued to race competitively, primarily driving at Toledo Speedway, Mount Clemens Race Track, and Flat Rock Speedway.
Prior to finishing sixth in 1964 at Daytona, he had only raced on short tracks on the MARC circuit. According to the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Lansing, which inducted Byrd in 2003, Byrd made five NASCAR starts in 1965 and won the 1972 Glass City 200 at Toledo Speedway.
But Byrd’s run at Daytona signified a shift for ARCA and a shift for him as a driver.
“It grew and grew and grew,” Byrd said. “It kept getting bigger after that, and it’s bigger now than it ever was.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.