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From the sand to asphalt

2/13/2004

PONCE INLET, Fla. -- From where he stands, 72-year-old Webber Johnson can't smell the burning rubber. He can't hear the roaring engines. And he doesn't see any fans. There are no barbecues to smell, beers to drink or danger to worry about.

It is completely serene. The only sound is that of the Atlantic Ocean, its waves crashing together before crawling their way to the tip of his feet. Between tides, Johnson takes a deep breath, grabs his wife Marge's hands and remembers.

"They used to race here, you know," he says to a stranger. "Right over there."

Right over there is the reason Johnson is here. He and Marge, celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary, drove all the way from Louisville, Ky., to return to the exact spot where they spent their honeymoon.

The last time they stood here, Chryslers, Fords and Chevys rumbled by in excess of 100 miles per hour. Fans filled the beach, climbing on trees and standing on cars to watch their little-publicized auto racing heroes.

Before the superspeedways, corporate villages and big-money television deals, before NASCAR was the nation's largest spectator sport and Dale Jr. was a household name, this was the heart of the NASCAR world.

The beach/road racecourse was a narrow, 4.1-mile oval, determined more by rising tides than design. Two miles headed north on the hard-packed Daytona beaches and two miles headed south along a two-lane strip of Highway A1A.

From 1936 to 1958, 79 organized races -- 46 for automobiles and 33 for motorcycles -- were held on the famed beach/road course. It was those races -- and the outpouring of fan support for them -- that led to the eventual construction of the Daytona International Speedway, some 10 miles to the north.

Johnson was last here in 1957. Now, amidst a year in which NASCAR has been widely criticized for too much change -- a new presenting sponsor, new points system, new tires, new spoilers -- Johnson returned to the sandy white site of the former beach/road course, to be reminded of just how far the sport has come.

"All anybody wants to do is complain," Johnson said. "They're all so scared of change. But without it -- NASCAR wouldn't be where it is today. Marge and I'd still be watching them race up and down the beach."

You want change? How about drivers using their family car to race? How about one set of tires, one mechanic and no flame-retardant suit?

Today, the most important stretch of land in NASCAR history belongs to sea turtles. It's nothing more than a pristine white beach, complete with the same hard-packed sand, as well as luxury homes and towering, plush condominiums. There are no commemorative plaques, historical markers or significant statues.

A simple bar and grille, Racing's North Turn, tries to commemorate it all. It's a unique blend of old and new -- black and white beach race photos on one wall, neon lights for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rusty Wallace on another.

"People come in and they just wander," said Rhonda Glasnak, who along with her husband has owned the bar since 1998. "It takes them back in history. To a time when this place sold box lunches."

Inside Racing's North Turn, Russ Truelove is a celebrity of Jeff Gordon-like proportions. There's a sandwich named after him. Every bartender, every waitress -- they all know his name. And he can barely take a sip of coffee without somebody stopping by to ask for an autograph.

He's hard not to recognize -- what with his silver hair and shiny white satin jacket, complete with the word "Russ" stitched over his left chest in red thread. At 79 years old, Truelove suffers from spinal arthritis, a debilitating condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to walk upright. But his mind is as sharp as anyone's. And each February, he flies here from his home in Connecticut, returning to the spot where he used to race on the famed Daytona beaches.

Truelove raced on the beach four times, all of which in Grand National (now Nextel Cup) cars. At the time, except for a small handful of safety modifications, the cars were almost exact replicas of showroom versions.

"Every year it's emotional," he said. "To run in to some of the other drivers, to flash back. I think we tell each other the same stories every year, but nobody seems to care."

Truelove's biggest memory is from 1956, when he qualified fifth. The moment happened as he was pulling his Mercury into the north turn. "Just about 50 yards from here," Truelove said, pointing to the beach out of a barroom window.

Before Truelove hit the turn, a clump of sand got stuck in the wheel well and the car started to fishtail.

"Once that happened in those old cars, there was no catching up," he said.

But he tried to fight it. And lost. The car violently flipped over six times before coming to a rest. Truelove was rushed to the hospital, where he spent the night with nothing more than a "fuzzy head."

Truelove's flip, along with those of Junior Johnson and Ralph Moody, were later featured in a three-page Life Magazine photo spread. It was the first time NASCAR ever achieved such popularity.

"So my mistake turned out to give everyone else attention," Truelove said.

That's why when anyone asks Truelove what his best finish in Daytona ever was, he flatly tells them, "Upside down."

Only there was one problem. Don O'Reilly, NASCAR's media chief at the time, forgot to tell Life Magazine to include the word "NASCAR." Needless to say, NASCAR founder Bill France wasn't pleased.

"Bill opened it up and I remember Don telling Bill was furious. He said, 'Where the hell is NASCAR?' Truelove said. "That was the closest he ever got to getting fired."

After the crash, Truelove himself nearly got fired at home. That's because the car he had totaled was his own. With just 1,300 miles. A friend loaned him a car to drive back to Connecticut with his wife while the Mercury was towed.

"That was not a fun drive," Truelove said. "And we didn't stop once. The entire time, my wife is like, 'What the heck are we going to do now?'"

Working as a service manager at a Mercury dealership, Truelove eventually put the car back together. And salesmen would use it as a selling point.

"They'd tell them, 'Look, this car was down in Daytona, it flipped six times. See the sand? And the windshield didn't crack, the doors didn't open, the steering wheel didn't bend. This is a good car.' More times than not, it worked."

As a fan, Webber Johnson has his own memories. Like the fact that nothing more than a simple rope separated eager fans from speeding cars. Or the sand that used to kick up and get in everybody's eye. Or the race he attended in 1957, when Banjo Matthews was winning before missing the north turn and going straight up the beach. He eventually lost.

"It's nothing like it is today," Johnson said. "You would have cars on the south end that if they'd miss the turn, they'd go right over the edge. One crash would pile on top of another. Sand is flying around, cars are fishtailing. Engines are backfiring. It was chaos -- but boy was it fun to watch. The fans felt like part of the action."

Truelove remembered his first race on the beach, in which one of the more experienced drivers offered some advice. He told Truelove that at the beginning of the race, the sand was so blinding, he should cover his windshield in a piece of cardboard for the first straightaway. Just before the first turn, he should rip it off and throw it away.

"But I'm like, 'What if the gun in front of me stops?'" Truelove said. "'I won't even see him.' He goes, 'It won't matter -- with the sand, you're not going to see him anyway.'"

Before the checkered flag drops on Sunday's Daytona 500, Truelove will be back in Connecticut, watching the race from his couch. He's still a fan of the sport, but isn't much for its big-business, big-money ways.

"When I look out there today, I don't even recognize the sport I used to participate in," he said. "It's totally different."

Sitting in his Connecticut home not long ago, Truelove and his wife were having dinner when she popped the big question. She already knew her husband wanted to be cremated. What she didn't know is what wishes, if any, he had for his ashes.

So he told her. Fly to Daytona, rent a boat and pour his ashes in the ocean -- just a stone's throw from the old beach/road course.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because there were so many different times it could have ended out there," Truelove said. "So that's where I want to be forever."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.