First Trip To Daytona Speedway

Answers author and Motorcyclist contributor Jerry Smith reminisces on his first trip to Daytona, riding the fearsome banking and living to tell the tale.

First trip to Daytona
The thrilling 76-mile Novice event was also known as the “time to get a hot dog and a beer” race. The people in the stands are napping; today they’d be checking their phones.©Motorcyclist

In 1974 I was working at a machine shop/parts and accessories distributor in Marin County, California. One day a buddy and I drove over to the state capital to see the Sacramento Mile dirt-track, and while we were watching the heat races from the grandstands he turned to me and said, "We should go to Daytona next March. You can race your TZ250."

If he'd said, "We should grow wings and fly to the moon," I couldn't have been more surprised. I was at best a mid-pack club racer in the AFM, and despite the new Yamaha TZ250A I had just bought, I had no ambition to go pro, which is (technically) what I would have had to do to get a Novice-class roadrace license from the AMA and ride at Daytona.

Daytona racebike
I was lavishly sponsored by the numbers “5” and “9”. The other stickers were freebies, and paid out a modest contingency in the unlikely event I ever won a race.©Motorcyclist

Fortunately the term “pro” was used pretty loosely back then, especially as it applied to the lowest rank of Class C racers. After I passed a physical exam from my doctor and wrote a check to the AMA (the motorcycle one, not the medical one, although my doctor also asked for a check) I was a pro, too. Technically.

My buddy and I both worked for the same company, and our boss had some racing history himself, so he volunteered to come with us to Daytona. We thought that was a grand idea, especially since he was the only one of us with a van.

It was an off-white Ford Econoline with a bazillion miles on it––the odometer had been around so many times all the numbers on it were sun faded. The only unblemished body panel on it was the glove-box door. It had as much inside insulation as a lunchbox, and riding in it was like being stuffed into a garbage can full of wrenches and rolled down a hill. The only time it ever got fresh oil was when it used up enough of the old oil for the dipstick to come up dry. And even then all it got was a splash of Pep Boys Super Sludge 40W.

It was a long drive from Marin to Daytona, and time and money were short enough to rule out nightly stops along the way. So after we strapped my TZ into the van, along with a beater RD350 for me to ride in the Production race, we slid a 4x8 sheet of plywood––fresh from the lumber mill and still pungent with solvents and adhesives––on top of them to sleep on.

GP250 race bike at Daytona
If ever there was a racer uniquely configured by nature to tuck in behind the fairing of a tiny 250 GP bike, it wasn't me. It took a crowbar to lever me off the bike after the race.©Motorcyclist

“Sleep” turned out to be only an approximation of what went on in that squashed, coffin-like space. My most vivid memory of the trip is sweating like a hog all through the humid South while the smell of damp plywood nurtured a brutal headache that settled in right between my eyes and made me wish for the sweet release of death.

When we reached the Florida panhandle I started noticing something weird––campground after campground full of pickups and motorhomes with empty motorcycle trailers behind them. When we got to Daytona I found out where all the bikes were. It looked like every Harley in the western hemisphere was stuck in downtown traffic. We had booked rooms in a hotel on the main drag and after inching along with the slow-mo mudslide of poker-faced posers we got there, checked in, and washed off 52 hours of non-stop travel. For a more laid back vibe and fewer crowds, we were told condo rentals in New Smyrna Beach or Ormond Beach were great options.

Track safety
The attitude toward track safety was more casual back then. If you missed the hay bales, the vans in the infield stopped you.©Motorcyclist

For the life of me I can’t recall how we afforded it, but before we left home we had rented a garage in the Speedway pit area. When we got there I put the TZ on its stand, leaned the RD against the wall, lugged my toolbox out of the van, and plonked it on the greasy workbench. Hot damn. I was a pro racer, and I was at Day-freakin’-tona. Helluva feeling, that, for a 24-year-old kid who’d never been out of his home state before.

250cc production racer in 1974
Almost ridiculous in its simplicity, this was nevertheless the state-of-the-art 250cc production racer in 1974. Originally priced at around $1,495, the last good survivor I saw sold for $12,000.©Motorcyclist

The Speedway was a world of its own, its horizons defined by the top of the encircling bowl. During several days of practice I learned how to draft other riders, how to ride the banking, and just how tight my butt cheeks could grip the seat when I braked for the chicane on the back straight and discovered my front tire had gone flat.

I qualified for the 76-mile Novice main in the last row of the first wave. I finished about where I’d started. But I wasn't disappointed. I was a hobby racer, only technically a professional, and lacked the killer instinct of a true pro. In fact, I was happy, almost giddy. I had qualified, and finished. I hadn’t blown up my bike, or crashed, or made anyone else crash. I’d rubbed elbows with––well, lurked awestruck in the vicinity of––legendary riders like Roberts, Nixon, Duhamel, and Agostini. I’d ridden the fearsome banking and lived to tell the tale. It was time to go home.

Daytona banking
The huge, wide banking often felt like a very lonely place. Probably because everyone else was way ahead of me.©Motorcyclist

There was just one more thing to do. On the final day of the return trip, when we were sure we’d be sleeping in our own beds that night, we pulled off the highway and hauled that stinking sheet of plywood out of the van. Staggering under the weight of a wood product-induced migraine, I wanted to set it on fire, but I was a little bit afraid the chemicals and glue that still saturated it would blow me up if I touched a match to it. So we settled for leaving it in a ditch on the side of the road where the sun and rain would eventually reduce it to termite food. Then we drove on with windows down to purge the reek, and the rest of the way home I breathed deeply the intoxicating aroma of leftover Blendzall pre-mix, sweaty leathers, and the dregs of truck-stop coffee.