View Full Version : 1959 Daytona 500

Steve Holmes
11-09-2011, 01:42 AM

Motor racing had been taking place on Daytona beach for decades prior to the construction of the massive 2.5 mile Daytona super speedway. American and world land speed record attempts had taken place on the beach since 1902, with the first fatality occurring just three years later. The Daytona beach was long and the sand reasonably smooth, while the Florida air offered gobs of horsepower producing oxygen.

But it was also a dangerous place at speed, with just a narrow strip of sand to funnel down, and unpredictable winds. When the British began arriving to attempt their record runs, they brought with them enormous aero engined monsters that were a little less susceptible to the winds. Record attempts at Daytona came to a head by 1928, when Sir Malcolm Campbell, Ray Keech, and Frank Lockhart all attempted to oust each other on the sands, the outcome being a new world record for Lockhart (beating the just days old record set by Campbell), who then suffered a blown tyre as he sped across the measured mile. His car steered hard left, flipped, and disintegrated around him, killing him instantly. From there, the flat expanse of the Bonneville salt flats in Utah became the place of choice for most record attempts.

In 1936, a 250 mile race was organized by Sid Haugdahl, utilizing both a section of the Daytona beach, and a road that ran parallel to the beach, with a pair of bends joining the two. The circuit measured 3.2 miles in length, with the race for coupes, hardtops, and convertibles set for 78 laps. However, after the turns became so torn up they were near impossible to negotiate, the race was called at 75 laps. Finishing 5th in that race was Bill France, who would help Haughdahl organize and promote another race the following year, and eventually go on to take over all running of the beach races from 1938.

Following the war, in 1947, France would form the National Championship Stock Car Series, with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) being formed the following year, with the intention of holding separate races and championships at several venues for different divisions, including Modifieds and Strictly Stock division, which would go on to become known as Grand National, by 1950.

France had just created Speed Week, a week long motorsport festival held at Daytona during the month of February, that saw not only races for Grand National and Modified cars, but also an attempt at both an American land speed record, and a possible Class C (for cars of engine size between 250 310ci) world record, by the Mercury flathead V8 powered streamliner owned by Alex Xydias, of the So-Cal Speed Shop, and sponsored by Robert E. Petersens new magazine Hot Rod. The Class C world record at that time was held by a streamlined Auto Union at 219.1 mph.

The 1950 Speed Week ended badly for the So-Cal Speed Shop streamliner. With driver Bill Dailey at the wheel, a wind gust caught the little car, and flung it into the air, where it destroyed itself on impact along the sands. But for France, the event had been a major success. By 1953, Bill France knew he'd need a permanent, purpose built facility for his event, and in 1956, construction began on the massive 2.5 mile D-shaped super speedway.

The first Daytona 500 stock car race was held at the new super speedway in February 1959. This beautiful short piece of film shows that first event. The legendary Cotton Owens took pole position, ahead of another 58 cars. After 500 miles, and 3 hours and 41 minutes of racing, the near 42,000 spectators (each paying $8 for the privilege), saw Lee Pettys Oldsmobile and Johnny Beauchamps Ford Thuderbird cross the finish line side by side. Initially, the win was awarded to Beauchamp, unofficially, until photo stills proved it was actually Petty who crossed the line first.