Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22, 1959 - Lee Wins 1st Daytona 500

February 22, 1959: After almost a decade of running on the Daytona Beach combination course of sand and Highway A1A, Lee Petty races his Oldsmobile to victory in the inaugural Daytona 500 raced on the brand spankin' new 2-1/2 mile Daytona International Speedway. It took a few days for NASCAR to make it official - but in the end, Petty was credited with the win.

The NASCAR Grand National regulars historically raced on a hodge-podge of tracks - many quarter-mile or half-mile in length - most of them dirt but with a few of them paved. Notable exceptions included Darlington 1.3 mile egg-shaped oval, Langhorne, Pennsylvania's one-mile dirt circle, and the fast runs down A1A. The drivers didn't have experience on long, fast tracks. They did know, however, about set-ups, pit stops, crude gas mileage calculations, and a few strengths and vulnerabilities of expected competition. This experience likely helped in projecting what may happen at Bill France, Sr.'s new speedway.

But some drivers were green as grass and likely had no idea what they were about to face. One example? Richard Petty. The future King Richard saddled up - in an Oldsmobile convertible! He was bucked off early though with engine problems, completed only 8 laps, finished a peasant-like 57th, and spent the rest of the race in the pits cheering on his dad. 

Young Richard wasn't the only one piloting a ragtop. The first 500 was officially sanctioned as a combination hard-top and convertible race. It may seem ludicrous today with the benefit of hindsight to imagine racing a convertible at high-speed on a superspeedway. Drivers racing Indy roadsters, however, had been racing for decades at similar speeds with full-on winds on their chins. Also, NASCAR drivers were afraid of fire more than anything else. So the opportunity to escape from a convertible may have seemed a better way to mitigate risk than in a full-bodied sedan.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm from
Bob Welborn - who at times during his career raced for Petty Enterprises and Julian Petty (Lee's brother) - won the pole to set the pace for the 59-car field. The relatively inexperienced Richard Petty remarkably lined up sixth - an early sign the Randleman Rocket would take to Daytona over the next three decades like a duck to water.

A few additional trivia nuggets about the race are:
  • Several drivers in the first 500 continued or developed solid NASCAR careers. But only a few are still with us. Looking at the finishing order, NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Glen Wood, and Junior Johnson are still alive as is 1961 Daytona 500 and 1966 World 600 winner Marvin Panch. Of the top 10 finishers, however, only two remain: Jim Reed (6th) and Tom Pistone (8th). TEASER ALERT: Return tomorrow for a post about Tiger Tom.
  • The race was run with zero cautions. Think about that for a moment. First race for the NASCAR guys on a true superspeedway - mixture of hard-top sedans and convertibles - fastest speeds in the history of stock car racing - drivers sensing the draft for the first time - and so on. Yet, no cautions. Truly remarkable.
  • Fifty-nine cars started the race - 59. Did I mention no cautions? Almost half the starters raced Chevrolets, and 20+ others piloted cars from Ford Motor Company. The two Petty entries were the only two Oldsmobiles in the field.
  • Bob Said made his first and only NASCAR Grand National start. Who?? Bob Said's actual name was Boris Said, Jr. He also raced bobsleds for the U.S. Olympic team. So Bob Said raced bobsleds - perfect. And yep, Bob was the father of contemporary driver and "Said Head" fan favorite, Boris Said III. 
Source: Wikipedia
To this day, its simply remarkable to realize three cars could finish side-by-side-by side after 500 miles with no cautions. Joe Weatherly was on the outside but a lap down. Lee was in the middle, and Beauchamp hugged the inside rail.

Most in attendance believed Petty was the winner when the threesome flashed across the line. But Beauchamp was brought to victory lane and awarded the win. Lee was confident that he was the winner and headed for victory lane also. In the photo below, Petty's car can be seen at the end of the ruts in the infield grass. Beachamp's "winning car" is hidden a bit by the throng of folks around it.

Photo courtesy of Dog427435 at Jalopy Journal's Hokey Ass Message Board

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The drawn-out drama by NASCAR head honcho (and owner/promoter of Daytona International Speedway) Bill France, Sr. as to the winner of the race is pretty well known - even amongst the most novice of NASCAR fans. But there was a bit on debate about who finished third, fourth and fifth as well. Weatherly who was magically caught in the photo finish of Beachamp and Petty was eventually placed fifth.

Charley Griffith, a driver with a career of only seventeen Grand National races, wound up third - the only top 5 of his limited career. Griffith hailed from Red Bank, TN, near Chattanooga - home to See Rock City, Moon Pies, Boyd Speedway, occasional Bench Racing contributor Banktruck, and to TMC for nearly a decade.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Cotton Owens finished fourth after needing a splash of gas with one lap to go. His decision to pit rather than chance it cost him big money as Griffith finished third - at least as prize money was considered in that era. Of course what isn't mentioned is the what Cotton may have lost had he chosen to stick it out, not pitted, and run out anyway. The hit to his bank account may have been even larger.

Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive
After three days of "reviewing the evidence", NASCAR finally reversed its race-day decision and declared Lee Petty as the winner. For those in attendance, the decision was a yawner as most knew from the get-go Lee rightfully won the race. But the PR-media minded France Sr. played the drama to his advantage. The finish and the debate about who finished ahead of whom remains amongst the top 5 or 10 NASCAR stories of all time to this day.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive


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