Road to the 64th Annual Daytona 500: The Early Years

This February, NASCAR will kick off it’s regular season. To celebrate we at Pit Box Press will be taking a look back at every running that we can find footage of.

1959: A Developing Situation

The 1959 Daytona 500 is considered a landmark moment in the sport’s history. It was the first race on a new, $3 Million (in 1959, equivalent of $29 Million today) racetrack and a dream that was fulfilled by Bill France Sr., as he set out to make changes during the sport’s infancy. It was also the first race after years of running on the beach course. The track would prove itself to be worth the price of admission in the first race, as it would come down to a photo finish. Though the race would be run caution free, it wasn’t without controversy. The unofficial race winner was NASCAR legend Johnny Beauchamp, with the Petty family Patriarch Lee in second. After the race, Lee would protest the results, saying he beat Beauchamp to the line by 2 feet. Beauchamp would of course disagree, but it would come down to a decision by Bill France Sr. After reviewing newsreel footage and looking at photographs for 3 days, France would award the win to Petty. During the waiting period, there were plenty of front page articles and news focused on the sport. And the rest is history.

1960: Johns Spins, Junior Wins

The second act for the 500 wouldn’t repeat the feat of caution free like the first. On lap 118, the 25 car of Tommy Herbert would flip violently down the backstretch, resulting in a broken arm and a severe eye injury. Trying to avoid that wreckage was Pappy Crane, who would also flip his car though would make it out without injury. George Green would have his car catch fire on the frontstretch grass, with the fire being so extreme the only choice was to let the car burn completely. In total, 29 vehicles would DNF. The race would be led in the late stages by Bobby Johns, but with 9 to go Johns would spin due to the loss of his back window with the windy weather. He would go on to finish second to Junior Johnson. The 1960 race is still the slowest race in 500 history, with a speed just over 124 mph.

1961: A Super Substitution

The 1961 Daytona 500 is one of three races in the history of DIS to be run without a caution. However the lead up to the race would be marred with tragedy and incidents. Harold Haberling was killed during practice, and during the twin qualifying races there would be several incidents. One of the worst incidents included 1960 winner Junior Johnson and Richard Petty. Johnson was left with a large gash in his chin and Richard would suffer a sprained ankle and shards of glass were found in his eye. That wouldn’t be the end of the incidents for the Petty family that day as Lee was involved in a serious incident with Johnny Beauchamp that included fractures, numerous internal injuries and a punctured lung. Beauchamp never drove again and Lee was sidelined for much of the season. As the race drew near, several drivers voiced their concerns for safety. There was also concern about experience. Before the race, 17 drivers had their bumpers painted in day-glo paint. This is now referred to as a rookie stripe. As if some magical force was listening, the race would run caution free Marvin Panch, a last minute hire, would take the victory. Panch wasn’t even scheduled to compete until famed crew chief Smokey Yunick offered him a ride in a later model Pontiac. He would lead the final 13 laps, and celebrate in the infield with the team and the France family.

1962: Fireball Blazes the Trail

The final caution free running of the 500 would be in 1962. The usual characters were involved, and a familiar car owner would find his way into victory lane. For the second straight season, Smokey Yunick would prepare the race winning vehicle, this time for Fireball Roberts. Of note, the last place finisher that day? A young 22 year old named Cale Yarborough. The eventual 3 time Daytona winner and champion would finish 48th.

Published by Phillip Spain

A 25 year veteran in the world Motorsports, Phil loves anything with an engine. When he’s not watching cars, he’s out with family.

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