The 1959 Season
The Daytona International Speedway Opens
By Greg Fielden
|Marvin Panch decided to retire from racing but changed his mind once he saw Bill France's new Daytona International Speedway.|
In February of 1954, NASCAR announced during SpeedWeeks that the famous old Beach and Road course activities would move to the new Daytona Beach Motor Speedway in 1955. Rapid development along the shoreline south of Daytona Beach most certainly had numbered the days of the 4.1-mile beachfront facility.
NASCAR President Bill France, an individual with decisive foresightedness, dreamed of building the ultimate - a huge, high-banked paved track that had no equal anywhere in the world. A number of factors--politics, rejected proposals, tight money markets, referendum delays and balks by the Civil Aeronautics Board--prevented France from meeting his target date of February 1955. Seemingly endless postponements pushed the grand opening of the "World's Most Modern Racing Facility" up to February of 1959.
By mid-1958, the newly named Daytona International Speedway had cleared all the obstacles. France's massive project, once tagged "Pipe Dream Speedway" by the Indianapolis Star, was only several weeks away from becoming a reality. During the final stages of construction, nearly all the car owners, drivers and accessory representatives stopped by the project. Many were impressed. Others were awe-struck. Some admitted to having a tinge of fear. Everyone had something to say about the two-and-a-half mile D-shaped oval:
John Holman, Car Owner: "This track is a tribute to Bill France for his interest in racing. It's a dream of a track for race drivers." Marvin Panch, Driver: "I had decided to quit racing. But not now. Not until I test this track." Buck Baker, Driver: "It's the darndest thing you ever saw. It's the Hollywood of racing. For the man who really wants to race, this is it." Dave Evans, Goodyear Racing Director: "This is the greatest track I've ever seen, and it should be as safe as it is fast."
Hans Turner, Italian Journalist: "This Daytona track has revolutionized the entire racing business." Fireball Roberts, Driver: "This is the track where you can step on the accelerator and let it roll. You can flatfoot it all the way." Jimmy Thompson, Driver: "There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone."
Sometime later, national champion Lee Petty said, "I'll tell you what, there wasn't a man there who wasn't scared to death of the place. We never had raced on a track like that before. Darlington was big, but it wasn't banked like Daytona. What it amounted to was that we were all rookies going 30 to 40 miles per hour faster than we had ever gone before. There were some scared cats out there."
Entry blanks for the first annual "500 Mile International Sweepstakes" race were mailed from NASCAR headquarters on January 6, 1959. Posted awards were $67,760 including a $5,000 bonus for the winner if he was driving a '59 model car. France felt it was important for a flock of brand new American cars to adorn the wind-whipped banks of his new speedway in the grand opening. He dangled the crisp five-grand as an extra incentive.
Curiously, Jaguar automobiles were eligible to compete in the first Daytona 500. France offered a $500 bonus to the highest "3.4 five-passenger Jaguar to finish in addition to other prize money earned." No one showed up with a Jag. But plenty of other 1959 models did appear. Lee Petty purchased a new 1959 Oldsmobile "for about $2,500 cash from Newton-Chappell Motors in Reidsville, NC." Holman-Moody's T-Bird Power Products Division built eight new Thunderbirds with a $5,500 price tag. Each T-Bird was identically prepared and equipped with roll bars, safety belts, shoulder harness, asbestos floor mat, reinforced suspension, heavy-duty spindles, 22 gallon gas tank, tachometer and a Holman-Moody prepared legal engine.
NASCAR issued a new set of standards for drivers who were entered in the inaugural Daytona 500. "It will be necessary for drivers and relief drivers to prove their ability on the Speedway by driving at least 25 miles at speeds of 100 mph or more under observation of NASCAR officials," read a statement mailed to each NASCAR member. The sanctioning body also declared that a physical examination for drivers competing at Daytona would be mandatory. The Daytona medical staff, headed by Dr. A. A. Monaco, would conduct the physical. Price of the examination was $14.
|1955 Daytona Beach course winner Tim Flock qualified at 138.121 at the new "Palace of Speed," Daytona International Speedway.|
On February 1, 1959, race cars got on the Daytona International Speedway for the first time. Among those participating in the shake-down runs were Curtis Turner, who wheeled his Doc White-owned T-Bird at 143.1 mph; Fireball Roberts, who drove his Fish Carburetor Ford Modified at 145.7 mph; and Bill France, who steered the '59 Pontiac Catalina pace car around the track at 114 mph. Following that Sunday afternoon of practice, the track was closed so that work on the guard rail could be completed.
The official open house for Daytona was on Sunday, February 7, 1959. Some 6,500 spectators showed up for the opening round of qualifying. Thirteen cars were ready for qualifying, but six had failed inspection. Only seven cars made qualifying runs, which disappointed the crowd. Fireball Roberts pierced the timing lights at 140.581 mph to gain the pole position for the 100-mile Grand National qualifying race. Tim Flock's T-Bird followed at 138.121, Joe Weatherly drove a Chevrolet at 137.741, Jack Smith ran 136.425 in a Chevy and Bobby Johns took a two year old Chevy around at 126.528.
A pair of Convertibles took their turns in the race against the clock. Marvin Panch tooled Glen Wood's Ford at 128.810 mph and Gene White posted a 120.048 in a '57 Chevrolet. The next morning Chapman Root, of Terre Haute, Indiana, unveiled a new Sumar Special Indianapolis car in the garage area. With native Daytonan Marshall Teague handling the controls, the duo was set to make an assault on the world record of 177.038 mph established by Tony Bettenhausen at Monza, Italy on June 28, 1958. Root had built a unique specimen - an Indy car with a hand-crafted aerodynamic canopy attached over the cockpit and fenders covering the wheels. He and Teague felt confident the world record would be theirs in a matter of days.
Teague toured the high banks of Daytona at 171.82 mph in his opening run. "I was just playing around," he said. "We won't get serious until later in the week." Car owner Root remarked that "we are not geared right for this speedway." France had booked a United States Auto Club Indy Car race for April 4th, and he openly invited the Indy cars to engage in practice sessions at his new plant. Initially, USAC officials turned thumbs down on the invitation and denied permission to any of their drivers to participate in the NASCAR-oriented gala festival.
However, France applied a little pressure to the USAC offices in Indianapolis, and USAC President Thomas Binford relented. He agreed to a two-hour practice session on specified days - from 10 a.m. to Noon. "The drivers will be covered by USAC insurance," declared Binford. "We will have prescribed familiarization runs on this new course for the drivers who are entered in the April race."
Joining Teague was Jim Rathmann in the D-A Lubricant Special. High winds hampered Rathmann, and his fast lap was 170.06 mph. On Wednesday, February 11, Teague went onto the Speedway shortly after 10 a.m. On his first warm-up lap, the dark blue Sumar was clocked at 128.42 mph. Teague upped the pace on the next time around to over 140 mph. On his third lap he was timed at 160.25 mph. As Teague entered the first turn of his fourth lap, the car lifted slightly and slid down the track. As the car hit the safety apron, it flipped. The car overturned five times and traveled some 1,500 feet from the first roll-over until it stopped. Teague, still strapped into his seat, was thrown out and landed 150 feet ahead of where the car stopped. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Moments before the fateful run, Teague had said, "We're trying to get the gears and the weight adjustment and everything set up for this speedway. This is the finest speedway in the world. It's deceptive, though. When you're going 165 mph you feel like you're coasting at 135. I feel safer on this speedway than I do on U.S. 92." NASCAR qualifying continued through four sessions. Tom Pistone was fastest in the second round with a speed of 141.376 mph in his T-Bird. Lee Petty's Olds topped the third round with a 141.709 effort, and Cotton Owens' Pontiac turned in the quickest time of SpeedWeeks with a 143.198 mph lap in the final session.
The 100-mile Convertible qualifying race on Friday, February 20, was the first competitive event staged at Daytona International Speedway. Four cars in the field of 21 broke away from the pack--but they were unable to break away from each other. Glen Wood, Shorty Rollins, Richard Petty and Marvin Panch swapped the lead five times in the final nine laps. Wood led the charge into the final lap, but slipped to fourth at the finish line as a freight train motored past him. Rollins nipped Panch at the strip by a bumper bolt. Petty was third.
Rollins nearly missed the race. "I blew my good engine during practice yesterday (Thursday)," said the 1958 Rookie of the Year. "This engine is a junk one that we installed last night. We were still working on it right up to race time." Rollins expressed surprise that his 'junk engine' was able to keep up and actually win the race. "How in the world could that happen?" he queried. Thirty-eight hard top sedans lined up for the Grand National qualifier. Bob Welborn, manning a Chevrolet, led all but seven laps, but could not pull away from Fritz Wilson, who had bought one of the Holman-Moody T-Birds. Welborn edged Wilson by a half car length at the finish.
|Edwin "Banjo" Matthews lapped the field and won the preliminary 200-mile Sportsman race at Daytona in 1959.|
"There I was breaking the wind for him, and I couldn't seem to shake him," Welborn said in victory lane. "I let him go around me twice to shake him. But when I would regain the lead, he would latch on to me again." Welborn, who had qualified at 140.121 mph, averaged 143.198 mph for the 100 miles. Drivers, including Welborn, were wondering what was going on. How could all of these cars running together suddenly be going decidedly faster than when they had qualified?
On Saturday, the day before the Daytona 500, a 200-mile Modified-Sportsman race was staged for the NASCAR "Weekend Warriors." Edwin "Banjo" Matthews lapped the field and won $2,400 for his efforts. Junior Johnson finished in fourth place, worth $500, but he became the first driver to be disqualified at Daytona International Speedway when NASCAR officials discovered his fuel tank was much larger than the maximum 20 gallons allowed. Jack Smith, who had qualified at 136.425 mph, won the 25-mile Grand National consolation event at an average speed of 141.288 mph. The remainder of the 59-car Daytona 500 field was determined in the consolation event.
Race day dawned warm and sunny. Johnny Bruner, Sr. waved the green flag from the apron of the tri-oval area--unquestionably the bravest act of SpeedWeeks--and the 59 cars roared off. Three, four, five abreast they went--in a neat and noisy formation. Bob Welborn and Tom Pistone traded the lead in the opening laps. Fireball Roberts, who started 46th, stormed around the clumps of traffic in a bold charge to the front. Tim Flock and Jack Smith, who started 42nd and 41st respectively, latched onto Fireball's bumper, and the speedy trio quickly scampered to the front. By the 23rd lap, Roberts' big Pontiac was on the point. And a funny thing happened, he was able to pull away from the field without having any rival tag along for a "free ride." Roberts was stretching his lead until fuel pump problems intervened after 56 laps.
Jack Smith's Chevrolet led most of the laps after Roberts' departure, heading the field for 47 laps of a 61 lap stretch. However, recurring tire troubles knocked the Sandy Springs, GA veteran four laps off the pace in the caution-free event. Curtis Turner and Tim Flock, front runners in the Lincoln powered T-Birds, encountered blistered tires and dropped well off the pace. As the field became depleted, Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty were left in the lead lap by themselves. In the last 125 miles, they traded the lead a dozen times. All eyes were on Beauchamp's T-Bird and Petty's Oldsmobile as the final laps wound down. It was clearly evident that the race would be a down-to-the-wire affair between Petty--a two-time NASCAR Grand National champ--and Beauchamp--a newcomer out of the International Motor Contest Association ranks.
The two drivers raced furiously with each other lap after lap. Soon, they caught up with Joe Weatherly, who was running two laps down. The three cars toured the high banks with reckless abandon. Petty led by a single car length as Johnny Bruner waved the white flag. The cluster of cars--Petty, Beauchamp and Weatherly--raced around the track and the impossible happened. The three cars danced across the finish line side-by-side-by-side.
The crowd of 41,921 were on their collective feet, cheering wildly. The finish was so close that no one seemed to know who had won the thing. Lots of shrugged shoulders in the grandstands. France and Bruner, standing together in the flagstand, called Beauchamp the winner in unison. When the announcement was made over the public address system, howls of protests and jeers rose from the area near the finish line. Bernard Kahn, Daytona Beach News Journal Sports Editor, polled 12 accredited newsmen who saw the two cars cross the finish line together--and all of them claimed that Petty had won. Confusion reigned supreme.
"To me and John, it looked like Beauchamp by about two feet," declared France. "There has never been a photo camera used in auto racing before, but I'm going to see if such a device would be practical right away." "I never want to call another one this close," said Bruner. "I want an electronic eye or camera, if I have to buy it myself."
Petty drove his Oldsmobile to victory lane but found NASCAR and Speedway officials calling for Beauchamp. "A man who finished two feet ahead of another is supposed to be the winner," said Petty. "I just hope that the man who got to that finish line collects the first prize money. I am confident I won." Beauchamp defended the original decision and said, "I won."
Roy Burdick of Omaha who owned the T-Bird Beauchamp drove, declared his man won "beyond the shadow of a doubt. We would have won by a decisive margin if it hadn't been for that rough riding by Weatherly," said Burdick. Weatherly, although two laps down and coming up to complete his 198th lap, refused to give an inch and actually outran the principles who were vying for victory. "As they hit the finish line, I was about a hood length ahead of Petty," said Weatherly. "And Petty was about the same distance ahead of Beauchamp. If Petty didn't win this race, he never won a race. I don't know what the argument is all about. Petty won easily."
By virtue of beating Petty and Beauchamp to the finish line, Weatherly was able to complete another lap. He got credit for fifth place, completing 199 laps. Upon hearing all the protests, France declared the finish "unofficial." He solicited all available still photographs and said he would wait until conclusive evidence supported either Petty or Beauchamp. He also solicited film footage of the finish, but that may take days, he was told.
At trackside, Peter DePaolo, a former Indy 500 winner who had watched the finish, said, "It's one of those fantastic finishes that couldn't happen--but it did. Hollywood would have rejected a race script like this as too unbelievable." At least seven still photographs were examined by France and other NASCAR officials. Each one indicated that Petty was slightly ahead as they came to the finish line, but none caught the cars at the moment they crossed the line. Finally on Wednesday, three days after the race had ended, newsreel film shot by Hearst Metrotone News of the Week in New York arrived in Daytona Beach. The film proved conclusively that Lee Petty had won the Daytona 500.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday February 25, 61 hours after the checkered flag fell, Petty was officially declared the winner. "The newsreel substantiated that the cars of Petty and Beauchamp did not change positions from the time those other still photographs were taken just before the finish," said France. "Petty is the winner."
The final laps of the Daytona 500 were a wide open scramble for first place. Neither Petty nor Beauchamp employed any scheming. Rather than outsmarting the other, they were concerned with outrunning the other. Both Petty and Beauchamp felt little bits of trickery with the wind currents while they were scrapping closely for the $19,000 top prize. They were far too busy with the task at hand to explore the wonderous art of "drafting."
|Fireball Roberts won the first Firecracker 400 at Daytona in 1959.|
Most of the front runners knew the winds were doing something. Speeds would suddenly escalate when the cars were running in nose-to-tail formation. But it took a little scar-faced squirt from Norfolk, VA to utilize the effects of "drafting" at Daytona on NASCAR's return visit on July 4. Joe Weatherly was entered in a Convertible T-Bird owned by Doc White, an Orlando dentist, in the inaugural Firecracker 250--a Sweepstakes event open to both Grand National and Convertible cars.
Weatherly qualified his ragtop T-Bird at a two lap average speed of 139.664 mph, which earned him the 12th starting position. Pole sitter was Fireball Roberts, who drove his hard top Pontiac at a speed of 144.997 mph. Second fastest qualifier was Bob Burdick's Convertible T-Bird, which was timed at 140.911 mph. Young Burdick had replaced Johnny Beauchamp in the saddle of the car owned by his dad, Roy.
Weatherly knew his only chance was to try to follow the fleet Fireball. At the drop of the green flag, Weatherly whisked past several slower cars that had lined up in front of him (Weatherly had qualified on the second day), and caught Roberts' rear bumper by the backstretch. Weatherly, described by some members of the media as an individual who spoke in shorthand, explained his Firecracker 250 game plan: "I stuck the nose of my 'Bird under the rear of 'Ball's Big Indian, and he took me for a ride." Translated, Li'l Joe said he drove his Thunderbird close behind the rear of Fireball Roberts' big Pontiac and hooked up in a delightful draft.
A statistical account of the 250-miler on Independence Day proved Weatherly was perhaps the first to utilize the full effects of the draft. Although he qualified at 139-plus, his car was clocked at an average speed of 144.000 mph for the first 25 miles. After 50 miles, he had averaged 143.769 mph. After 100 miles, his speed was logged at 142.857 mph. After the first round of pit stops, Roberts shook the pesky Weatherly.
Roberts won the Firecracker at an average speed of 140.581 mph. Weatherly wound up second, 57 seconds behind Roberts. Weatherly's time for the 250 miles was 139.340, only a fraction off his qualifying speed. Both NASCAR events at Daytona International Speedway, the Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 250, were run without any wrecks. Such was not the case when the USAC Indy Cars came to the world's fastest speedway on April 4.
George Amick, who had finished second in the 1958 Indianapolis 500 in his rookie year, topped qualifying for the 100-mile Indy Car race with a 176.887 mph lap. Jim Rathmann completed the 100 miles in 35 minutes, 14.4 seconds for a world record average speed of 170.261 mph. At the precise moment Rathmann sailed under the checkered flag, Amick, battling for third place, lost control of his car, and it darted into the outside retaining wall at an estimated 190 mph. The front end of the car was sheared off, eight sturdy fence posts were reduced to splinters, and Amick slid 900 feet upside down on the backstretch. George Amick died instantly.
Rathmann won a 50-mile Indy Car race later that same afternoon. It was shortened from the scheduled 100 mile distance due to "driver fatigue, high winds, electrifying speeds," and the uncertainty of the stability of Indy Cars on a track like Daytona. USAC Competition Director Henry Banks, said the upcoming 300-mile event slated for July 4 at the 2.5-mile Daytona tri-oval would be cancelled. "The Daytona track is still way ahead of the equipment we now have available," he remarked. "We have a little research to do as far as Daytona is concerned. We have to find out just what our problems are. We knew we would reach high speeds at Daytona, but we had not foreseen the problems."
Banks said the high speeds--over 175 mph--were nearing "air speed, and the USAC Speedway cars have a tendency to lift off the ground. We need further testing before we ever come back to Daytona." The Indy Car race was replaced with the Firecracker 250. The Indy Cars never came back to Daytona. During their short tenure at Bill France's new creation, they resoundly established Daytona as the fastest track in the world. It wasn't until 1971 that Indy Cars would break George Amick's Daytona record at Indianapolis.
Photo credits from top: All CMS