First Daytona 500; February. 22, 1959
NASCAR had been racing at Daytona Beach since the 1930s, but the first 500-mile race at the closed oval known as the Daytona Motor Speedway was held on Sunday, February 22, 1959. The #49 car of Bob Welbord won the pole with an unprecedented speed of 140.12 mph. This race was to be run at speeds not seen up to this time in stock car racing. Amazingly there would be no wrecks or yellow flags. 20 of the 59 qualifiers were convertibles, including “The King” himself, 21-year old Richard Petty who qualified sixth. The convertibles performed so poorly that they would never participate again.
Besides Richard Petty, who had #43 on his car for the first time, the front of the field included legitimate contenders such as; the #73 T-Bird of Johnny Beauchamp (21st), the #48 Chevy of Joe Weatherly (7th), #6 Pontiac driven by Cotton Owens (11th), along with the #42 Oldsmobile of Lee Petty (15th). Among contenders starting towards the rear were the #47 Chevy of veteran Jack Smith (41st), the #3 Pontiac of Fireball Roberts (46th), and the legend, # 11 Junior Johnson (33rd). Nobody was sure how the engines would react to 3 1/2 hours of maximum speeds.
With the green flag rookie Fritz Wilson surged to the lead, only to relinquish the lead to pole sitter Bob Welbornon on turn three. Welborn would exchange the lead with Tom Pistone for the first ten laps. Richard Petty’s day would end quickly when he blew an engine on lap 8. Fritz Wilson didn’t last much longer, going out on lap 15. Joe Weatherly seized the lead on lap 11 and would run near the front the entire day ultimately finishing 5th. Weatherly battled with Pistone and Welborn until lap 22, when an old rival from the back of the pack came roaring to the front.
The fastest car on the track was Daytona Beach native Fireball Roberts. He streaked past the field to take the lead on lap 23. He would hold the lead until lap 44 when engine trouble forced him out of the race. Bob Welborn day was finished a few laps later with a blown engine. This thrusted Johnny Beauchamp to the front for the first time. He would remain near the front for the rest of the race. Exchanging the lead with Tom Pistone and Jack Smith until lap 150, when Lee Petty for the first time sped to the front. For the rest of the race it was a two car contest. Petty led laps 150-154, Beauchamp 154-156, only to see Petty regain the top spot on lap 162. For the next 21 laps Petty held off Beauchamp, but yielded the lead back to the # 73 on lap 183. For the next 17 laps the two cars would constantly swap the lead, many times running even!
Side by side they took the white flag signaling the final lap. Petty was ahead, then Beauchamp would nose in front. On the backstretch they were side by side when they came upon the #48 of Joe Weatherly. Attempting to lap Weatherly both drivers went low, creating a three wide spectacle with Weatherly on the outside, Petty in the middle and Beauchamp on the bottom. Moving as one the three cars came off the last turn. At the checkered flag both drivers thought they won. Both finished in 3 hours 41 minutes and 22 seconds. Both cars had an average speed of 135.521 MPH.
“I glanced over to Lee Petty’s car as I crossed the finish line and could see his headlight slightly back of my car. It was so close I didn’t know how they would call it, but I thought I won,” according to Beauchamp.
Lee Petty was more sure; “I had Beauchamp by a good two feet. In my mind I know I won.” Both drivers drove to the winner’s circle thinking they had won. After much discussion Bill France, Sr., a founding member of NASCAR and the regulator of the newly created organizations rules, pronounced Johnny Beauchamp the winner. Lee Petty immediately protested.
Cotton Owens joined Weatherly a lap down to finish 4th, Jack Smith stayed running, but dropped out of contention four laps down in 7th place, one place and one lap ahead of Tom Pistone. Junior Johnson was never a factor, coming in 14th eleven laps behind. Only Beauchamp and Petty completed 200 laps.
For three days Johnny Beauchamp was the Daytona 500 winner. NASCAR did not have equipment in place to verify the winner. France and NASCAR asked the media to provide video. The Beauchamp Camp insisted that the finish didn’t matter, because Petty’s lap counters had the wrong lap count and Petty only completed 199 laps. It was a wild three days, but finally on Wednesday NASCAR overturned the earlier decision and declared Lee Petty the champion by less than two feet. The lap count objection was not addressed. The first Daytona 500 produced the most controversial finish in race history.
Lee Petty would be the patriarch of the greatest family in NASCAR. The father of Richard Petty, the Grandfather of Kyle Petty, and Great-Grandfather of Adam Petty. Lee himself had a Hall of Fame Career, winning 54 races, including 11 in 1959. He would live to see his son win a record 200 NASCAR Races. This would be Lee’s only Daytona 500 win.
Iowan Johnny Beauchamp’s NASCAR career would end with a wreck involving Banjo Matthews and the same Lee Petty at the 1961 Daytona 500. He quit with only two victories. He passed away in 1981, convinced that the powers that be took away his greatest victory.