'Lightnin'' Epton sold tickets to the inaugural Daytona 500 in 199.
Tears welled up in the eyes of Juanita Epton when she entered the Bill France Room of the Daytona International Speedway Ticket and Tours Building. Surrounded by many of her longtime friends and coworkers, the 97-year-old was surprised with a celebration of her 60 years of service at the “World Center of Racing” ticket office.
Epton, affectionally nicknamed “Lightnin',” started from the inception Speedway in 1958 and sold tickets to the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Remembering that day, she has vivid memories of fans getting out of their cars rushing to the grandstands. “It wasn’t a sellout, but it was sure a success,” she said.
The Ormond Beach resident was escorted to the reception by Chip Wile, DIS track president, and Jim France, International Speedway Corp. chairman and son of NASCAR founder William “Bill” France. Epton, whose late husband Joe was NASCAR’s first chief scorer, met France Sr. in 1947 at the fairgrounds in Spartanburg S.C. Her family moved to Florida when the DIS was being built. Caring for her two children, Epton worked part-time in the past before going full-time at the Speedway working alongside Anne B. France, Bill’s wife.
She remains at the same post today with no plans of leaving anytime soon. So dedicated to her job, it wasn’t until this past February that she watched a portion of a race, the 60th-annual Daytona 500 from a suite.
“The best part of my job is being able to wake up in the morning and know I have a good, secure place to go to work and be with people who are congenial. It makes my day go fast. I love it,” she said.
Josh Harris, senior director of ticketing and guest services, doesn’t believe retirement is in her vocabulary. Whether it’s filing, organizing, counting inventory or performing another function, Epton remains an important part of the office. However, for Harris, the tenured employee’s way with people that makes her an institution.
“I know for a fact there are people who ask for her when they want to order tickets,” he said. “…She is the Richard Petty, the Dale Earnhardt, any racing legend you can name, and she is right up there with them in our mind. She is a sweet lady. She takes a vested interest in everyone on our team. It’s nice to have someone who truly cares about you and been here for every bit part of NASCAR’s history.”
Chris Lovings, director of ticketing, feels Epton helps connect generations and tradition for many families of race enthusiasts.
“I think the coolest thing is you see people who come to the races, and she sold them their first ticket,” he said.
“Now they’re bringing their kids and grandkids back to meet her and have that same interaction when they first came out here.”
Joining employees and fans are the drivers themselves who have become admirers. Names like Rutledge Wood, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano have stopped in to meet Epton. During “Speedweeks” it’s also not uncommon for Michael Waltrip to bring her flowers.
Images from some of these instances were part of a slideshow to recognize Epton at the reception. She cut a cake made in her honor, overwhelmed by the love from those who work with her on a regular basis.
Wile initially told her he had some pictures he wanted to show her. Epton insists she had no idea about the surprise before she opened the door to the room.
“If I did I would have run the other way,” she joked.