Today in1997, 25-year-old Jeff Gordon claimed his first Daytona 500 victory, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the 200-lap, 500-mile National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) event. Gordon’s teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven finished the race second and third, respectively.
At the other end of the Daytona age is 50-year-old Bobby Allison, who on February 14, 1988, and became the oldest driver to win the Daytona 500.
The first-ever Daytona 500 was held on February 22, 1959, at the then brand-new Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. A crowd of more than 40,000 was on hand to witness the 59 cars that started the event. Lee Petty narrowly defeated Johnny Beauchamp to win the race.
Today in 1804, during the First Barbary War, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur leads a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson calls the “most daring act of the age.”
In October 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. To prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel.
After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force of 74 men, which included nine U.S. Marines, sailed into Tripoli harbor on a small two-mast ship. The Americans approached the USS Philadelphia without drawing fire from the Tripoli shore guns, boarded the ship, and attacked its Tripolitan crew, capturing or killing all but two. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.
Six months later, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the so-called “Battle of the Gunboats,” a naval battle that saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.
Today in1984, Bill Johnson became the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill skiing, a sport long dominated by European athletes. Johnson quickly became a national hero, though his fame was short-lived, and he never again competed in the Olympics. His newfound fame seemed to go to his head and his brash, cocky personality alienated many in the ski community. Johnson also lived a lavish partying lifestyle and stopped winning races. In 1988, he was left off the U.S. ski team for the Olympic Games in Calgary.
At age 40, Johnson attempted to stage a comeback and qualify for the U.S. ski team for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. In March 2001, he suffered a devastating crash at the U.S. Alpine Championships at Big Mountain Resort near Whitefish, Montana. The crash put him in a coma for several weeks and left him with brain damage.
Today in 1945 the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines was occupied by American troops, almost three years after the devastating and infamous Bataan Death March.
America avenged its defeat in the Philippines generally, and Bataan specifically, with the invasion of Leyte Island in October 1944. With the help of the U.S. Navy, which succeeded in destroying the Japanese fleet and left Japanese garrisons on the Philippine Islands without reinforcements, the Army defeated Japanese resistance. General MacArthur drew closer to Manila and the complete recapture of the Philippines.
Today in 1878 the Bland-Allison Act—which provided for a return to the minting of silver coins—became the law of the land.
Today, the value of American money is essentially secured by faith in the stability of the government, but during the 19th century, money was generally backed by actual deposits of silver and gold, the so-called “bimetallic standard.” The U.S. minted both gold and silver coins.
In 1873, Congress decided to follow the lead of many European nations and cease buying silver and minting silver coins, because silver was relatively scarce and to simplify the monetary system. This led to a financial panic. When the government stopped buying silver, prices naturally dropped, and many owners of primarily western silver mines were hurt. Likewise, farmers and others who carried substantial debt loads attacked the so-called “Crime of ’73.” They believed, somewhat simplistically, that it caused a tighter supply of money, which in turn made it more difficult for them to pay off their debts.
A nationwide drive to return to the bimetallic standard gripped the nation, and many Americans came to place a near mystical faith in the ability of silver to solve their economic difficulties. The leader of the fight favoring silver was Missouri Congressman Richard Bland (earning him the nickname “Silver Dick”).
The act did not provide for a return to the old policy of unlimited silver coinage, but it did require the U.S. Treasury to resume purchasing silver and minting silver dollars as legal tender. The act had little economic impact, and it failed to satisfy the more radical desires and dreams of the silver backers. The battle over the use of silver and gold continued to occupy Americans well into the 20th century.