#26 - Beyond the Beach - The First Daytona 500
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
To those drivers slated to run in the very first Daytona 500, their first glimpse of the brand new speedway must have been awe inspiring. When Bill France Sr. first proposed a two and a half-mile race course with high banked corners, more than a few people scoffed that it would never be built, and some even said it couldn't be built. There had been long delays in getting the speedway approved and built that led a newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, to once label France's proposed race track the "Pipe Dream Speedway." But there it sat... two and a half miles of fresh blacktop, shimmering in the midwinter Florida sun, with banked corners higher than the tallest buildings in the towns some of those drivers had grown up in. For a group of drivers used to running on short dirt and asphalt ovals, the awe must have been tempered with a bit of fear as well. As Jimmy Thompson, a driver of that era put it, "There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys. This is the track that's going to separate the brave from the weak when the boys are gone."
Bill France had first proposed the Daytona Speedway during the annual beach/road course race in 1954, and was confident enough in his ability to get the track built, he told the drivers there that year they would be racing on the speedway the very next year. In reality, it took a lot longer than that. France's reasoning was sound. Far from the sleepy little beach community that he had arrived in from Washington, Daytona Beach was developing rapidly into a major beach resort. With the increased tourism and construction, the days of the old course on the beach and the public highway were numbered. Only a dedicated racing facility could keep alive the tradition of racing in Daytona Beach. Far from paving the way for him, some politicians threw up all sorts of zoning obstacles and objections. Bankers scoffed openly at the idea of building such a track. Finally, a Racing and Recreation Committee was formed, headed by France's former boss from the Buick/Cadillac agency where he had been employed, J. Saxton Lloyd. The commission bought land for the project and gave France a 99-year lease. No other public moneys were forthcoming. To raise money to build the track, France sold 300,000 shares of stock at a dollar a share, spent every dime he had, re-mortgaged his home, and borrowed $600,000 from oil millionaire Clint Murchison. When that money ran out he began selling tickets to a race at a facility that hadn't even been built yet, to raise additional money to complete his project. But somehow the project was indeed completed, and the racing community gathered in Daytona Beach in February of 1959 for the first Speedweeks, with the crown jewel, the Daytona 500 slated to run on February 22, 1959.
Posted awards for that first "500 Miles Sweepstakes Race" were $62,760, with an additional $5000 bonus to the winner if he drove a 1959 model car. France wanted shiny new cars, not battle scarred veterans out there for his big race. Besides, the Grand National hardtops, the Convertible division cars were also eligible to compete in that Daytona 500, which is where the "sweepstakes" part of the race's name came from. Trying to give the race an international flavor, France also offered a $500 bonus to the highest finisher in a Jaguar, but there were no takers.
As an example of the cost of racing in those days, Holman and Moody, later to become the kingpin of Ford factory racing, brought eight spanking-new and race prepped Thunderbirds to the track for drivers wishing to buy a car to race. The T-Birds included all the allowable safety equipment of the day, two-point roll bars, seat and shoulder belts, the Ford "Severe duty" suspension and spindles, a tachometer hose clamped to the steering column, a 22 gallon gas tank, a blueprinted 430 cubic inch engine and an asbestos floor mat both to keep the driver's feet cool and in the event of a fire. Of course, buying one of those cars was a rich man's way into the race. Each car cost a princely $5500. On the cheaper side of the coin, Lee Petty paid $2500 for his 1959 Oldsmobile and worked on it in the family shop with his sons, Richard and Maurice.
Then, as now, there was a full slate of races set to run, not just the 500. France, after all, had to sell a lot of tickets to start paying back his loans. The first event on the schedule was held February 7th, 1959, qualifying for the qualifying race that would precede the Daytona 500. Only 13 cars showed up and 6 did not pass tech. Of the remaining seven cars, Fireball Roberts in a '59 Pontiac was the fastest, at 140.581 miles per hour, about 24 miles per hour faster than the pole speed at Darlington which had been the circuit's fastest track to that point.
Also part of the festivities that week was an attempt by Marshall Teague to break the world closed course speedway record at Daytona, in an IndyCar of the day, modified with crude aerodynamic body work to form a canopy over the driver and enclose the tires. On the very first day of testing, the team was within 5 miles per hour of the record of 177.038 MPH and confident with a little fine tuning and higher gears they could shatter the record easily. Also running that day was an IndyCar, sent to drum up a little attention for the IndyCar type race planned to be run at Daytona on the Fourth of July later that year. Teague's plans met with disaster the morning of February 11th. While he was working his way up to speed, the car lifted off the ground and headed down the banking. When it struck the infield apron the car launched into a series of five violent flips traveling over a quarter mile. The car disintegrated and Teague, still strapped in his seat by his harnesses, was thrown 150 feet beyond the wreck. By the time the rescue crew arrived, they found Teague was already dead. He was the first man to lose his life at the Daytona Speedway.
There were four rounds of qualifying for the Daytona 500 and the fastest time was set by Cotton Owens in another 59 Pontiac, who blistered the new asphalt at 143.198 MPH. Remember, these were production 1959 cars, longer than most of today's pickups, complete with huge tail fins and a half-ton of chrome trim present and accounted for; circus wagons to be honest, and traveling well over two miles a minute.
The first head-to-head race on the Daytona Speedway on February 20th, was a 100-mile qualifying race for the convertibles, which incidentally competed with the roofs down. It turned out to be a remarkably close race, with Shorty Rollins in a '58 Ford beating Marvin Panch by inches. Third place went to a young man piloting a '57 Oldsmobile, by the name of Richard Petty.
Later that day, 38 hardtops lined up for their qualifying race (there was only one that year) with Fireball Roberts on the pole. Right from the outset, Fritz Wilson, in one of the store-bought Holman and Moody T-Birds, took off like a rocket, but it was Bob Welborn, in a '59 Chevy, that had the strongest horse. Both drivers found out some peculiar things during the race. For one thing, with a nearly 100 cubic inch advantage in displacement, the Ford should have been faster, but its awkward aerodynamics slowed it down. But Wilson found by tucking right on Welborn's rear bumper he could travel along faster than he had qualified. They didn't have a name for it yet, but Wilson had inadvertently discovered what would become the black art of winning at Daytona, drafting. Fireball Roberts, who became drafting's first master, was watching the curious phenomenon carefully. Welborn tried to describe what he had been doing for Wilson as "breaking wind" a name that fortunately didn't stick.
Much as the Busch race is run on the Saturday before the Daytona 500 now, there was a sportsman class race on Saturday the 21st. The legendary chassis builder, Banjo Matthews, won that event. Junior Johnson had been flagged in fourth place, but was disqualified when it was found his fuel tank was way oversize. It was not the last time Junior would get caught bending NASCAR's rules. Later that day there was a 25-lap consolation race for cars that had yet to qualify for the 500, and to decide starting positions 41-59. Jack Smith would sneak into the 500 by winning that event, and would go on to finish seventh in the 500.
With all the preliminaries out of the way, it was finally time for the first Daytona 500. Naysayers predicted no cars would finish the race, as no car could take that sort of beating. They were certain there would be terrible accidents, and the race would be boring, with one car leaving the field laps and laps behind. Hopefully, those naysayers still bought tickets to see the spectacle.
41,291 people attended the first Daytona 500 that day. 59 cars sat on pit road ready for battle, the morning sun gleaming off enough chrome to plate the Statue of Liberty twice over, and more tail fins than the Iraqi Air Force left littered over the desert during the Gulf War. Among the unusual vehicles set to compete that day were a '58 Edsel convertible driven by Paul Bass and a '59 Studebaker entered by Harold Smith. There was no flag stand in those days, so the starter waved the green flag from the apron along pit road and dove for cover as 59 bellowing cars headed for turn one, three and four wide. Ken Marriott holds the dubious distinction of being the first driver to drop out of the race and the first man to finish last in the Daytona 500, when he popped an engine on the very first lap. Pole sitter Bob Welborn holds the honor of leading the first lap of the first Daytona 500, and he treated the fans to a spirited battle with "Tiger" Tom Pistone, who led the second and third laps, while wearing a life preserver, so fearful was he of drowning in Lake Lloyd. Richard Petty, the King of Stock Car Racing and Grand Poobah of the Daytona 500, didn't fare so well that first Daytona 500. He lost an engine on the 8th lap and wound up 57th. Fireball Roberts passed the lead duo and took a comfortable lead before he lost a fuel pump and dropped out of the race early. Jack Smith, who had only made the event in the consolation race, was left to uphold the Pontiac brand's honor, and he did so convincingly in the middle stages of the race, until several tire problems dropped him out of contention. Attrition took its toll on the machines, but remarkably, there were none of the high speed wrecks people had feared, and the first Daytona 500 was run without a single caution flag. Late in the event, two contenders rose to the top of the heap on a lap by themselves, Lee Petty in his "Styling by Stevie Wonder" Oldsmobile, and Johnny Beauchamp in his “Buck Rogers" Thunderbird. The two cars seemed evenly matched and the crowd was on their feet as the two drivers swapped the lead eight times in the final 127 laps, running door handle to door handle at 140 miles per hour. Coming out of turn four on the final lap, the two cars were side by side heading for the checkers, and as they took the flag, no one in the stands was sure who had won. After 500 miles of flat out racing, the separation between the two cars was a matter of a foot or so.
From where Bill France sat he thought Beauchamp had won, and the Ford driver was instructed to take his car to victory lane. Lee Petty angrily insisted he had won, and a group of reporters who had been right at the start finish line backed up his contention. There were no photo finish cameras in those days, though in the confusion of that afternoon Bill France decided there would be before the next race. Even while Beauchamp was celebrating in victory lane, Bill France was appealing to the press to submit any photos they had of the finish, and he termed the outcome of the race "unofficial". The batch of pictures NASCAR received proved inconclusive. Some were taken a little before the finish line, and some taken a little beyond it. It was clear that Beauchamp had been closing hard on Petty before the finish line, and was in fact passed him a few feet beyond, but not whether he had beat him to the line. Finally newsreel footage was obtained of the finish from the Hearst organization. (Hearst as in Randolph and Rosebud, not the shifter folks.) In those days, newsreel films still showed before a feature movie in the theaters and Hearst executives had thought the movie house audience might find the 500-mile race at the novel new track exciting. Little did they know! After reviewing the film, it was clear that Petty had indeed won the first Daytona 500, so three days after the fact he was awarded the victory. The average speed for the caution free event was 135.521 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, many cautions marred the 1988 Daytona 500 and the average speed was only 137.531 miles per hour. Drivers have been returning to Daytona Beach for the February classic every year now and this year will be the 40th running of the most prestigious race on the schedule. It will cost a bit more than $5500 to buy a competitive car, but it remains to be seen if the finish will be as exciting as it was in the days of tail-finned and chrome dinosaurs.
AFTERMATH- An IndyCar style race was run at Daytona April 4th of 1959. George Amick took the pole at a mind-boggling (for the time) 176.887 miles per hour, just short of the closed course speed record. Jim Rathman won the event, but while Amick was battling it out for third place, he lost control of his car, slammed the wall, flipped over and skidded 900 feet upside down. He became the second driver to lose his life at Daytona. That race was the first of a scheduled double header, and the second race did indeed run, though it was shortened from 100 laps to 50. Rathman won that event as well. The IndyCars would never run at Daytona again. A scheduled IndyCar race set for July Fourth was canceled, so Bill France hastily arranged a 250-mile Grand National race to take its place. The event was dubbed the "Firecracker 250" in honor of the country's birthday. Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly discovered running "in the draft" they could leave the rest of the field in their wake. Fireball won the first Firecracker, and as for the draft, well as they say, the rest is history.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.