Names changes are tough for everyone. Companies merge and change names; products get overhauled and change names; even streets change names (and confuse drivers for a while!).
And now, a historic NASCAR race has changed names…and will even change the date on which it has typically run for the past sixty years.
So here’s the story behind Daytona’s Firecracker 400 – now called the Coke Zero Sugar 400 – and why some think a great tradition in racing is sadly being lost.
History and evolution of the Firecracker 400
NASCAR has a history of patriotism. It’s one of the many really neat things about the sport. The Firecracker 400 was a big part of this show of patriotism. From 1959 through 1987, the race was run on the Fourth of July in Daytona Beach, Florida. When the race first began, it started in the late morning to avoid the worst heat of the day and allow fans and drivers time to get over to the beach for a little sun and fireworks display. Pre-race festivities included a Miss Dixie pageant, where twenty contestants marched around to showcase their bathing suits.
The inaugural race was actually a 250-mile rather than a 400-mile race. With almost 13,000 spectators watching, the first race was won by “Fireball” Roberts in dominating fashion, leading 84 of 100 laps. He would repeat that victory just a few years later in 1962…as the crowds began to grow. The next year, the race was expanded to 400 miles.
Did you know…. That NASCAR’s pre-race routine regularly includes a giant American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner with a military honor guard presenting the colors and a military flyover?
By 1984, the Firecracker 400 was drawing an attendance of over 80,000+. And in that year, our president, President Ronald Reagan, actually attended the race and witnessed Richard Petty’s 200th and final victory. It was a significant day in NASCAR history, because Reagan was the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race. As a result, NASCAR received national exposure at a time that it was still considered a regional sport.
The first name change for the July Fourth race came right after that when it was renamed the Pepsi Firecracker 400. By 1989, “firecracker” was dropped completely and the year before, a change was made to run the race near the Fourth of July…just not necessarily on it. Specifically, it was moved to the Saturday before or after the Fourth – and occasionally, it still ran on the Fourth, when the Saturday and the Fourth were the same day.
Regular NASCAR journalist, Mike Bianchi shared in a recent article his feelings about the Firecracker 400:
“It used to be called the Firecracker 400, which, as I’ve written many times over the years, was the most perfectly named event in sports. It evoked memories of the Fourth of July in old Florida; of hot days and cold watermelon at the beach; of Dad lighting the Roman Candles and Mom in a red-white-and-blue apron serving her homemade apple pie. And the real beauty of the name was that it had a double meaning because drivers such as Pearson and Petty and Yarborough and Earnhardt truly were firecrackers who scraped and rubbed and turned their kaleidoscopic cars into a full-scale fireworks display.”
Enter Coke Zero Sugar 400
How does a race name change from one company to that of its largest competitor? In 2008, ISC and The Coca-Cola Company made a multi-year deal that made Coca-Cola the exclusive beverage supplier of ISC’s tracks, which included Daytona. As a result, Coca-Cola was granted the title sponsorship rights for the race. The race was renamed the Coke Zero 400 until the Coca-Cola changed its product to include “sugar” in the name. The race has been known as the Coke Zero Sugar 400 since 2018.
Feelings about the changes
If Bianchi and other NASCAR journalists seem a bit sad and nostalgic about the name change…it’s because they are.
They also have mixed feelings because starting in 2020, the race will be moved away from the July Fourth. Next year, the race will be run in August. It will be the final race of the NASCAR “regular season” before the NASCAR playoffs begin. It will still be held at night. Will this move help the race improve its mojo?
In recent years, attendance has dropped from its heyday high. Some think this summertime tradition in Daytona lost its identity and the crowd’s enthusiasm for it many years ago. So perhaps a change is good? We’ll all have to wait and see.
In the meantime, you can catch a recap of this year’s race which ended up being postponed and run later than originally scheduled due to rain. Youngster Justin Haley got the win. Enjoy the highlights!