Q: Hi, Greg. With the 2016 Daytona 500 coming up in a few weeks and celebrating 58 years, I still talk with friends about that very first race in 1959 and the photo finish between Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty. You've written about it before, but I'm still wondering about this race and why it took so long for Bill France to reverse his decision and give Petty the win over Beauchamp. Your further thoughts would be appreciated, and also what were your favorite Daytona 500s? Glenn L., New Jersey.
A: Glenn, there was really lots going on at that first Daytona 500, especially as both Bill France and his flagman both called Johnny Beauchamp, in a Ford Thunderbird, the winner over Lee Petty in his Oldsmobile. But most insiders feel it had way more to do not so much with the finish line photo but in the actual scoring of the race, which to this day is still a topic of discussion.
To try and explain in the amount of space I have, Johnny Beauchamp was not one of the regular NASCAR drivers. He cut his teeth on the Iowa based Midwestern tracks where he was a big winner (IMCA Champ) and had many fans. So, Beauchamp was an outsider while Petty was one of the very few NASCAR dedicated regulars who traveled to each and every race regardless of the purse in search of championship points. Back then, they raced three to four times a week, so keep this in mind as I further explain.
In conversations with many insiders in the sport and media people along the way, the actual main topic to this day was whether Lee Petty was actually on the lead lap when the checkered flag fell and NOT the finish line photo, which eventually showed Petty ahead by about a foot at the finish.
This discussion centers on the official scoring of the race, or better said, lack thereof. The scorers back then were usually friends or even family members of the team they scored. These people would report for "scoring" duty and write down the time the car went across the start-finish line every lap from the official race time clock. It was a totally manual effort.
I was told in person by two reputable racing legends, namely Smokey Yunick and Chris Economaki, that the major area of concern was the lap scoring. Turns out that the scorer for Lee Petty was his wife, Elizabeth, who reported as did all the other scorers to the official NASCAR scorer in charge, none other than the highly respected Morris Metcalf, who, notwithstanding, started the very first NASCAR fan club in 1955 for Lee Petty.
This conflict of interest info aside, Smokey and Chris both felt that the reason it took Bill France three days to overturn the finish is because he was more concerned about whether Lee Petty was on the lead lap, period. France knew his scoring system was at best less than adequate, and that "mistakes" in recording might have happened. Mistakes like this could have put a car on the lead lap instead of one or more laps down.
To make sure I got this all correct as both Smokey and Chris have passed and I go from memory, I purchased "The Ghosts of NASCAR, The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500" by John Havick. Havick details exactly what happened at the track, and the fact that Beauchamp made only five pit stops along the way to Petty's six. Smokey and Chris both felt the scoring was "messed up" that first Daytona 500 and many other early day NASCAR races, too. So did Beauchamp and his team as explained by Havick.
Personally, I don't think Bill France intentionally overturned the "outsider" Beauchamp's win to assist his loyal NASCAR driver Petty. I feel he overturned the decision based on the scorecards, be it correct or incorrect. Smokey, meanwhile, felt that Petty was at least one lap down, based on his view of the race from pit road. There he watched his driver, Fireball Roberts, came from 46th starting spot to the lead in a 1959 Pontiac until he dropped out with engine woes.
There will always be discussion surrounding the first Daytona 500 winner. To really decipher that first Daytona 500 and know more about Johnny Beauchamp (and Tiny Lund), don't hesitate to buy Havick's excellent book which is available on all the major websites and bookstores and really goes in-depth on the subject.
As for my favorite Daytona 500, Tiny Lund's win in 1963 aboard the Wood Brothers Ford in a substitute driver role for injured Marvin Panch is my favorite. Another favorite was again a Wood Brothers win, namely the Trevor Bayne rookie win back in 2011 in the famous No. 21 Ford.
Thanks for your question and enjoy this year's "Great American Race" Daytona 500 set for Sunday, Feb. 21.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input on collector cars and old-time racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.