Race Weekend Central

Racing at the Beach: The Daytona Debut of The Great American Race

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 2.5-mile racetrack 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 such long delays in getting the speedway approved and built that a newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, once labeled France’s proposed racetrack the “Pipe Dream Speedway.”

But there it sat, two-and-a-half miles of fresh black top shimmering in the midwinter Florida sun, with banked corners higher than the tallest buildings in the towns some of the drivers racing on it had grown up in. For a group 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 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.

Too bad not everyone liked the racing. Far from paving the way for him, some politicians threw up all sorts of zoning obstacles and objections, and 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 on the facility.

No other public moneys were forthcoming, though, so 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 even 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 track did get built, and the racing community gathered in Daytona Beach in Feb. 1959 for the first ever Speedweeks, with the crown jewel, the Daytona 500, slated to run on Feb. 22, 1959.

Posted awards for that first “500 Miles Sweepstakes Race” were $62,760, with an additional $5,000 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 rollbars, 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 used 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 one cost a princely $5,500. On the cheaper side of the coin, Lee Petty paid $2,500 for his 1959 Oldsmobile and worked on it in the family shop with his sons Richard and Maurice.

Then, as now, there were 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 Feb. 7, 1959, with qualifying for the qualifying race that would precede the Daytona 500. Only 13 cars showed up and six did not pass tech. Of the remaining seven cars, Fireball Roberts in a ’59 Pontiac was the fastest, averaging 140.581 mph. It was approximately 24 mph faster than the pole speed at Darlington, a track which had been the circuit’s fastest to that point in history.

Also part of the festivities that week was an attempt by Marshall Teague to break the world closed-course speedway record at Daytona. Marshall attempted the feat in an Indy car 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 five mph 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 Indy car, sent to drum up a little attention for the Indy car-type race planned to be run at Daytona on the Fourth of July later that year.

Unfortunately, Teague’s plans met with disaster the morning of Feb. 11. 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 well 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 new 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. To be honest, they were simply circus wagons, traveling well over two miles a minute.

The first head-to-head race on the Daytona Speedway on Feb. 20 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 to the checkers. 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 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.

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 Series race is run on the Saturday before the Daytona 500 now, there was a sportsman class race on Saturday the 21st. 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 oversized. 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, an event that would decide starting positions 41-59. Jack Smith would sneak into the 500 by winning that race, moving on to eventually finish seventh in the 500 itself.

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; they claimed 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 flagstand 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 1 three- and four-wide. Ken Marriott holds the dubious distinctions 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.

Polesitter 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 all while wearing a life preserver due to his fear of drowning in Lake Lloyd. Richard Petty, the King of Stock Car Racing and Grand Pumbah of the Daytona 500, didn’t fare so well that first year; he lost an engine on the eighth lap and wound up 57th. Roberts passed the lead duo and took a comfortable lead before he lost a fuel pump and dropped out of the race early.

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 mph.

Coming out of turn 4 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 it his car to victory lane. Meanwhile, 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, although in the confusion of that afternoon Bill France decided there would be before the next race.

Sensing controversy even while Beauchamp was celebrating in victory lane, France was appealing to the press to submit any photos they had of the finish, terming the outcome of the race “unofficial.” The batch of pictures NASCAR received inevitably 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 past him a few feet beyond, but not whether he had beat him to the line was a whole other matter.

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 mph. To put that in perspective, many cautions marred the 1988 Daytona 500, and the average speed was only 137.531 mph. Drivers have been returning to Daytona Beach for the February classic every year ever since. It will cost a bit more than $5,500 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.

1959 AFTERMATH – An Indy car-style race was run at Daytona April 4, 1959. George Amick took the pole at a mind-boggling (for the time) 176.887 mph, 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 doubleheader, and the second race did indeed run, though it was shortened from 100 laps to 50, an event Rathman won to complete the Daytona sweep. After that weekend of tragedy, the Indy cars would never run at Daytona again.

A scheduled Indy car 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, an event which has developed into the modern-day Pepsi 400. During that first Firecracker race, 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 as a result, and as for the draft, well as they say, the rest is history.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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