Racing Legends: The First Daytona 500
Written by Toby Christie
It’s the biggest race of them all. The Great American Race. The Daytona 500. Winning this one race does more than simply add a trophy to the mantle. A win in this race validates all the blood sweat and tears shed on the path to the top level of NASCAR.
It may be the biggest race of the season, but it’s also one of the wildest. Packs of three and four wide at over 200-miles-per-hour is common place, and seemingly just as common is the dreaded big one. A horrifying crash that can wipe out 10-15-20 or more cars in one fell swoop.
Drivers have tip-toed on this dangerous edge since 1959 for racing’s ultimate prize, but how did the Daytona 500 come to be? This is the story of the first Daytona 500.
To properly tell the story of the first ever Daytona 500, we must take you back to the sandy beach of Daytona in 1903. This serene setting, where waves crashed into the Florida coast, with seagulls chirping in the background, got a bit noisier.
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Two guys traveled down to the hard-packed beach of Daytona believing they had built the fastest car in the world. Ransom Olds had brought his “Pirate” to battle Alexander Winton’s “Bullet”.
In the end, the Bullet won by 2-tenths of a second. But something more important happened. A tradition of cars battling at Daytona Beach was born, and drivers and manufacturers would chase land speed records on the sands of Daytona for more than 30 years.
Motorsports enthusiasts far and wide would come to Daytona to watch these daredevils turn incredible speeds out of souped up production cars. Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet and William K. Vanderbilt were among the huge names that had entries for land speed records on the beach of Daytona.
As the years rolled on, spectators demanded more competition. They wanted to see car versus car, instead of machine versus the beach. In came the Daytona Beach Road Course, a 3.2-mile treacherous part paved part sand track.
Competition began in 1936, and the first race was stopped three laps short of the scheduled distance because the turns became so full of ruts and divots that nobody could pass, and it was hard for scorers to keep track of who was where.
Controversy ensued when Milt Marion was awarded the win and the $5,000 in prize money. The race was an embarrassment for the city of Daytona, which had heavily promoted the race. In all, the city lost $22,000 by putting on the event. The city of Daytona Beach was officially out of the race promoting business.
But all wasn’t lost, as a young man who had just moved to Daytona – Bill France Sr. – finished fifth in the chaotic race. France saw the potential in racing on the beach.
France took over the operations of the track by 1938, but racing was halted in 1942 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Racing would be absent from the road course for the next four years.
The four-year layoff gave France time to seriously think about the opportunity in front of him. He thought if race promoters would band together and organize their efforts that a racing sanctioning body could put on a show across the country and award a season-long championship.
In December of 1947, France and many of the who’s who in stock car racing at the time joined for a several days meeting at the Ebony Bar in the Streamline Hotel in Daytona. During this meeting NASCAR was born, and the original points format was scribbled on napkins.
By February of 1948 NASCAR was in business, and France was in charge. The series enjoyed modest growth over the next few years, but France just couldn’t compete with the IndyCar Series and their spectacle the Indianapolis 500.
France would not throw in the towel though. He brainstormed ways to surpass the show that was put on every May in Indianapolis. Then he had a great idea.
France would build his own 2.5-mile superspeedway. However, unlike Indianapolis – which is a flat rectangular track – France’s new Daytona International Speedway would be a high banked tri-oval. It would provide mind-bending speed, and it would give spectators the chance to see all the way around the track from their seats, something that auto racing fans had never experienced.
France began planning the track in 1953, and one of the major hurdles initially was where would the track be located? Eventually France struck a deal with the Daytona Beach City commission where he would lease out 447 acres adjacent to the Daytona Beach Municipal Airport. The deal was reportedly $10,000 per year for 50-years.
Now that he had a plan for the track, and a place to build it, the question became how would he afford to construct the massive facility?
France found support for his project from Clint Murchison. Murchison was a Texan who became a millionaire in the oil industry. Murchison loaned France $600,000. France then filled the remaining financial gaps with corporate sponsorship deals and France also took out a second mortgage on his house.
It was a bold gamble to go all-in on the idea of Daytona International Speedway, but France made his dream a reality and ground broke on the race track on November 25, 1957.
Just over a year later, the massive Daytona International Speedway was open for business.
When NASCAR drivers rolled into the track in February of 1959 to try their hand in the first 500-mile event at the 2.5-mile speedway, they were blown away with the size of the track.
Remember, until Daytona was opened the largest speedway on the circuit was the 1.375-mile Darlington Raceway, so seeing the steeply banked gargantuan that was DIS was a real culture shock for the drivers. But once the intimidation of the track wore off drivers got comfortable.
“When we all first got there, we drove through this tunnel. We drove onto the track and we saw this big high bank. It was all a shock to all of us,” Tom Pistone recalled, “Once we got onto the racetrack we found out it wasn’t that hard to drive. The track was smooth and it all came to us real quick.”
France named the race the first annual 500-mile NASCAR International sweepstakes at Daytona, and the $53,000 purse attracted 66 drivers. Among the notable drivers who rode to Daytona hoping to walk away with a big check were Lee Petty, Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Glen Wood, Fireball Roberts and Buck Baker. Oh, and a rookie by the name of Richard Petty was there as well.
In the opening practice session of the week, calamity ensued.
“Well what happened was, we didn’t know what the drafting was,” Pistone said. “We first got down there, we did a lot of practicing. The first practice we crashed. Lee Petty started in the back of the field and came through the middle of us and there was a big crash. Because when he came through the middle of us, he took the air off of us. A lot of us guys spun out. NASCAR had a meeting right after practice and it was explained to us what this drafting was.”
After a stern talking to from France, the drivers settled down and figured out the draft as the week wore on.
The unique thing about this race – aside from the size of the track and speeds that the cars would end up turning – was that France opened the field up to two classes of cars – Hard tops and convertibles. Two classes of cars meant a different qualifying format than usual NASCAR races.
Two separate qualifier races would be held to determine the starting lineup for the race. The hard-top cars would start on the inside row of the starting lineup, while convertibles would make up the outside lane of the grid. This is why we have qualifying races for the Daytona 500 to this day.
The convertibles were considerably slower than the hard tops because of the wind buffeting around inside the cock pit of the top-less cars. As a result, not many convertibles showed up to race. This prompted France to famously offer a $100 bonus to any driver who cut the top off their hard- top race car in hopes that the field would have an equal amount of hard top and convertible cars.
Several drivers did take the guaranteed money and cut the tops off of their cars, but even with the extra incentive only 21 of the 59 starters would be driving the convertibles on qualifying day.
Heading into the 1959 season, Darlington Raceway had the fastest lap times of any speedway on the NASCAR circuit. A 120 mile-per-hour lap in a stock car was something unfathomable, that is until Daytona opened.
On time trial day, fans were treated to a record-setting performance. Fireball Roberts won the pole for his qualifying race with a fastest lap of 140.581 miles per hour in Smokey Yunick’s black and gold No. 3 Pontiac. Roberts did this all while wearing a white t-shirt, khaki pants and dress shoes.
Despite how much safety equipment has changed over the years, one thing still remains constant since 1959: Daytona is one bad fast race track.
As Speedweeks rolled on, Roberts looked to back up his single car run with a win in the hard-top Daytona 500 qualifier event.
But things didn’t go according to plan in the qualifier for the former high school baseball pitcher, who was named Fireball because of his devastating fast ball.
Roberts slipped back when the green flag was shown, and by lap 14 of the 40-lap event he was out of the race after his distributor went caput.
Bob Welborn, who finished fourth in the 1955 NASCAR championship standings, and who won three straight Convertible Division championships from 1956 to 1958, would go on to dominate the hard-top event.
In all, Welborn led 33 laps and he cruised to victory by five car lengths over Fritz Wilson.
The more thrilling qualifier event was the slower paced convertible race.
The convertible qualifier was amazing Kerry, especially when you factor in that it featured a duel with two NASCAR Hall of Famers – Glen Wood and Richard Petty – in the closing laps.
Wood started in the pole position, and the action was fierce from the start. Over the first five laps, the race had seen four lead changes as Shorty Rollins took the lead on lap two, Petty snuck past to lead lap three, and Bob Harkey paced the field on lap four.
Rollins snagged the lead back on lap five, and would lead the next 26 laps, while the field jockeyed for position.
In the closing laps, it was a slugfest between Rollins, Wood and Petty. The three drivers swapped the lead five times over the final 10 laps.
With one lap to go, Wood held the lead. He attempted to make his No. 21 Ford three cars wide in an effort to hold off Rollins. Unfortunately for Wood, he couldn’t hang on.
Shorty Rollins made a thrilling last lap pass, and he brought with him Marvin Panch – who opted to cut the top off of his hard-top car earlier in the week. Petty would finish third and Wood would finish fourth.
The field for the 500-mile NASCAR International Sweepstakes at Daytona was officially set.
On Daytona International Speedway’s first race day it already proved how big of a spectacle the track was for racing fans. More than 41,000 folks showed up to watch stock cars battle at speeds of over 140 miles per hour.
And when the green flag dropped, the 59 drivers on the grid put on one hell of a show.
Drivers jockeyed for the lead feverishly. In the first 23 laps, fans were treated to 11 lead changes.
Pole sitter Bob Welborn led lap one and bounced around with the leaders for a good chunk of the early portions of the race.
The race ultimately turned into a war of attrition as cars struggled to last the full 500 miles at full throttle all day long.
Rookie Richard Petty was one of the first to succumb to mechanical failures as his engine let go after just 8 laps of competition. Petty would spend the rest of the race helping on his father – Lee’s – pit crew.
Driving Smokey Yunick’s patented gold and black Pontiac, Fireball Roberts knifed his way from 46th starting position, to the lead on lap 23.
Roberts would be the first driver to really sustain a lead throughout the race for an extended period of time, as he would lead 21 consecutive laps.
Unfortunately, Roberts and the No. 3 team would not see the end of the race, as a faulty fuel pump ended their day on lap 56. Had it not been for that, would Roberts have been the winner of this race?
“Fireball Roberts was definitely the fastest car. Definitely 100-percent,” claimed emphatically 60 years later.
The other dominant driver of the early portions of the race, Welborn, blew a motor on lap 75.
In all, 28 of the 59 starters fell by the wayside because of mechanical issues.
Those who didn’t have part failures, struggled with trying to keep their tires under them. Everyone except Lee Petty, says Tom Pistone.
“The tires we had, had too much rubber on them. If you go over 145 mph the tires would come apart,” said Pistone. “Lee Petty knew that, so he slowed his pace down by 20 mph. He was the first one who noticed it, Lee Petty was pretty sharp with that stuff.”
While the rest of the field kept the foot anchored on the gas pedal, Petty slowed down and conserved tires.
It didn’t look sexy on a stop watch, but Petty’s strategy was effective. It kept him near the front all day long.
Someone else who was up front basically all day was Tiger Tom Pistone. Pistone led a grand total of 39 laps, but eventually he was eaten up by tires and finished eighth five laps off the pace.
“Well it was the tires. Back in those days we didn’t have too many crew chiefs, the drivers were more or less the crew chiefs. We were the ones who always made the calls,” Pistone explained. “We didn’t know what was going on because we had no radios back then. And we didn’t pick up that the tires were coming apart because of the speed. Like I said before, Lee Petty picked up on it.”
Jack Smith, driving a car sponsored by Bud Moore’s garage led a race- high 57 laps, but like so many others he also fell victim to shredded tires. Smith wound up finishing seventh four laps down to the eventual winner.
In the end, after hours of drivers body slamming each other, the race came down to a duel between two drivers. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp.
Over the final 50 laps of the race, the two drivers scratched and clawed for stock car racing’s ultimate prize.
Petty would lead for a lap or two. Then Beauchamp would coast past for the lead for a lap or two. Then Petty would take his No. 42 to the front again.
This pattern would continue over the entire final 50 laps, and as the two drivers came down to the white flag the 41,000 fans in attendance stood in awe of what they were seeing.
As the two drivers ran down the back stretch on the final lap, they came up on the lapped car of Joe Weatherly. Both drivers could not clear Weatherly before they got to turn 3, so they would follow him through the final turn.
As they came onto the front stretch, Petty and Beauchamp fanned out in an effort to eek ahead of each other. As they came down to the finish line, there were three cars – the lapped Weatherly up top, Beauchamp in the middle, and Petty on the bottom of the track separated by a mere few feet.
They crossed the line, and nobody could tell who the winner was. Petty and Beauchamp both drove towards victory lane, where NASCAR awarded Beauchamp the electrifying victory.
And to the victor, went the spoils. Beauchamp got the trophy. He kissed the super models. And he was anxiously awaiting his $19,000 check from NASCAR.
However, Lee Petty had just put his life on the line at 140 miles per hour and raced 500 miles, and he was sure that he was leading at the finish line. Petty challenged NASCAR’s ruling of Beauchamp’s win.
Everyone loaded up and left town, but the inaugural Daytona 500 win remained unsettled. And it stayed that way for 61 hours, while Bill France Sr. studied video and photographic evidence of the finish.
“Nobody knew. There was only one guy who knew – Taylor Warren, the photographer who took the picture. They kept it quiet,” said Piston. “Bill France Sr. was pretty sharp at that. They got a lot of free advertisement, it was great for the sport.”
When France finally saw enough evidence – or received enough publicity for his series – Lee Petty was rightfully named the winner of the first- ever Daytona 500.
NASCAR was officially on the map, and the Daytona 500 started off on the right foot. The 1959 Daytona 500 was a race that had it all.
33 lead changes, which was unheard of in 1959. Two drivers battling to a photo finish, also unheard of. And of course, higher speeds than anyone had ever seen before.
In the decades following the 1959 Daytona 500, France succeeded in that his creation became one of the most iconic racing facilities in the entire world.
More than that, his NASCAR sanctioning body, which most Indy Car drivers scoffed at, went on to become the most watched form of motorsport in the United States.
Along the way, the stock car series has attracted some of the biggest names in open wheel racing.
Two years later, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp would be battling for position again at Daytona, this time in the 1961 Daytona 500 qualifier race. The two would make contact, which sent both drivers flying over the guardrail and out of the track.
Petty would suffer numerous injuries and the crash would basically be the end of his Hall of Fame career, which included 54 wins and three championships in what is now the NASCAR Cup Series.
The crash also marked the last time Johnny Beauchamp would strap into a NASCAR stock car. Beauchamp ended his career with two victories.