When Jack Hege attended the very first Daytona 500 in 1959, his ticket cost $8. Today, it costs significantly more. But that hasn’t stopped Hege, 83, from attending the Great American Race. He’s traveled to Daytona every February for the race and he will be there Sunday.
“For the longest time it was $6 on Friday and $6 on Saturday and $8 on Sunday,” he said. “I still have most of the tickets and most of the programs.”
Hege purchases his tickets every year from the same salesperson – Juanita “Lightning” Epton – and drives to the race from his home in Lexington, North Carolina. Although, it has been a while since he has driven himself.
He said he has never been inside a race car, but has been a fixture at NASCAR’s biggest race. You will always find him in this general area – “Sections A, B,C, D or E and not less than 20th row.”
There were times when his streak was in jeopardy but somehow he has made each race. One year, when it looked particularly dicey, he turned down a ticket because the invitation meant he would have to fly down the night before the race. He prefers to stay on the road and drove by himself for the first 40 years of the race.
“I used to drive all night back home after the race,” he said. It’s 545 miles. I’ve made it nine hours, but it usually take 10 ½. I would get a couple hours of sleep and go to work the next morning.”
Hege says that his favorite race was still the first one, on the beach. And he particularly remembers the Thunderbirds flying over before the start of the race.
“The Thunderbirds came over with a boom, they broke the sound barrier,” he said. “That's the only time I’ve ever seen a plane do that. At that time there were very few houses near the track.”
He’s seen every great moment and the tragic ones too.
Ask him about the spectacular crash, bang finish between Richard Petty and David Pearson in 1976.
“It happened right in front of me,” he said. “My seats are right in front of the entrance to pit road. When Petty hit the wall it tore part of the fence down.”
Mention Dale Earnhardt and Hege begins to get nostalgic. He saw Dale finally win Daytona, but also saw the tragic end to his life at the speedway.
“Earnhardt, as long as he was living, was my favorite driver,” said Hege. “I really cared a lot for Dale. He came from a poor family and worked his way up. I don’t think his son well every be the equal of senior. Earnhardt made more race fans than anyone out there, including Richard Petty.”
Whatever history continues to be made at Daytona, Jack Hege will be there to see it.