DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Sam McQuagg unloaded his Dodge Charger before the 1966 Firecracker 400, it included an inch-and-a-half metal strip across the trunk deck that attracted a lot of curious looks at Daytona International Speedway.
With one amazing bit of engineering, the rear spoiler was born. And so were the upsets at the sport’s marquee track.
Whether it’s an opportunity to win at stock car’s most-revered raceway, it’s wide and sweeping turns or the unpredictability of pack racing, Daytona has produced a lot of surprising winners.
Like McQuagg in 1966.
“We went down (to Daytona) with the Chrysler engineers the month before (the race), McQuagg said shortly before he died in 2009. “We were down there for two or three weeks in the month of June. The car wouldn’t run at all. You start down the backstretch at about 180 and it would start lifting. The back end started spinning the back wheels.
“The engineers came up with this little spoiler. It was an inch-and-half-tall across the back of the car and the car immediately picked up about 5 or 6 mph.”
His half-lap victory over Darel Dieringer was his only NASCAR victory in 62 career starts.
The spoiler creates downforce on the rear wheels to help with traction which leads to faster speeds. Spoilers now will be on every car in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
Others have their own upset stories at Daytona. Greg Sacks’ 1985 win still is regarded by most as the greatest upset in NASCAR history.
John Andretti, David Ragan and Jimmy Spencer also were unlikely winners at the summer race, while Derrike Cope, Ward Burton and Trevor Bayne were improbable winners at the Daytona 500.
Daytona is one of two speedways that require the use of a restrictor plate that reduces the amount of air and gasoline into the engine.
That results in the loss of nearly 25 mph of speed for safety reasons.
It also creates the phenomenon of pack racing. Since cars don’t have enough power to separate themselves, drivers get in long nose-to-tail lines called a draft to better escape wind resistance. The first car in line punches a hole in the air; the trailing cars ride along in a calm tunnel of air.
And since everyone has the same amount of power, the gap between elite teams and everyone else is narrowed.
That was never more apparent than Sacks’ win in 1985.
Sacks was a part-time driver in NASCAR, separating his time between racing and working at his parents’ wholesale produce company on Long Island, N.Y. Before he won at Daytona, Sacks was better known for being one of the best modified drivers in the Northeast. His parents’ business, Sacks and Sons, also was an important part of the movie “Splash” starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.
The race was supposed to be a research and development project under actual race conditions for DiGard Racing. Sacks was supposed to run a few laps, come to pit road for adjustments, then return for a few more laps. Team owners Bill Gardner and Mike DiProspero hoped to stockpile information about their car to help primary driver Bobby Allison in future races.
The team didn’t even have a real pit crew. One of the tire changers had never been to race before, crew chief Gary Nelson said. But as the race developed and Sacks worked his way up front, the team scoured pit road for experienced help to pit the car after the Gardner decided to see just how far Sacks could take their car.
He wound up taking it all the way to Victory Lane.
Like McQuagg, it was the only Sprint Cup win in Sacks’ career.
While McQuagg, Sacks, Andretti, Ragan and Spencer were surprise summer winners at Daytona, there also were some memorable second-place finishers. Rick Wilson, who only had five top-five finishes in 206 career races, lost in 1988 by less than 18 inches to Elliott in a photo finish.
Ragan had a chance to win the 2011 Daytona 500, but he was black-flagged for jumping the restart while leading late in the race. He came back five months later and won his first Sprint Cup race in the 400.
He since added a second victory in another shocking finish two months ago at the Talladega Superspeedway, a sister track to Daytona that also mandates restrictor plates. It came in the new Generation-6 race car that his team said has helped close the gap between the powerhouse teams and everyone else.
“The new Gen-6 car, everybody’s starting in the same playing field right now, and it’s a great equalizer,” Ragan’s crew chief, Jay Guy, said. “It’s a great car. It looks great. So far the results on the racetrack have been to me a little bit surprising, but NASCAR did a great job with the Gen-6 car, and we’ve made our cars a little bit better.
“We’re certainly not contending for wins on a weekly basis or even top 10s, but it’s enabled us to be a little bit better than what we were in years past.”
Another variable that creates confusion – and opens the doors for upstart teams – is the dramatic difference in conditions between the February and July races at Daytona. The 500 is run in cooler winter temperatures and in the daytime; the 400 is run in the summer and under the lights.
Tony Stewart has won the 400-mile race four times, but he’s never won the 500. Dale Earnhardt won the 400 three times and the 500 only once.
Ragan said the basic strategy remains the same for either race – being in the right place at the right time.
“There’s a lot of strategy to being around at the end of these speedway races,” Ragan said. “There are different strategies for different teams, different manufacturers, what your strong suits are and what your weaknesses are.
“All I can say is a lot of it is a gut decision. In my opinion, you can’t sit here on a Tuesday or even on a Thursday or Friday and have a plan and stick to it. You’ve got to make decisions as the flow of the race changes.”
McQuagg didn’t face such decisions. With the help of his new rear spoiler, he easily ran away from the field for what continues to be one of the biggest upsets in Daytona history.
“Not a lot of race cars drivers have done that, I feel like I’m in a very privilege few,” McQuagg said. “I still got my trophy and gave my checkered flag to my grandson and he has it on his wall with a lot of the signatures from the old race car drivers.
“It meant awful lot to win at Daytona. It’s the Taj Mahal of racetracks.”