The Frontstretch: Racing At The Beach : The 500 Tradition Gains Momentum, 1960-64 by Matt McLaughlin -- Friday February 1, 2008

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Racing At The Beach : The 500 Tradition Gains Momentum, 1960-64

Matt McLaughlin · Friday February 1, 2008

 

Editor’s Note: With the 50th running of the Daytona 500 just days away, we’re proud to present Frontstretch Senior Writer Matt McLaughlin’s “History Of Daytona” series. Starting February 1st through Speedweeks Pole Day on Sunday, February 10th, McLaughlin will profile all 49 Daytona 500s – and whether it’s Pearson and Petty spinning through the grass or Dale Earnhardt finally getting the monkey off his back, he’ll have you feeling as if you’re back in the middle of the action all over again.

In Part Two of his series, McLaughlin delves into the 500s of the early 1960s. Miss Part One? Click here to catch up.

The inaugural Daytona 500 of 1959 had been a huge success with blistering speeds and nary a caution to mar the proceedings, so as the Grand National circuit prepared for their second visit to Bill France’s high-banked monument to speed in 1960, everyone was hoping for more of the same. Instead, the second version of the Great American Race brought with it a bit of a reality check.

Fireball Roberts, who had run so strong in 1959, took the first qualifying race in a Pontiac edging out Cotton Owens by less than a second. It was in the course of that race that Tommy Irwin spun his fleet Ford T-Bird and wound up driving into Lake Lloyd in the center of the track. Luckily, Irwin was able to swim to safety. Jack Smith, in another Pontiac, took the second qualifier, edging out Bobby Johns by two seconds. The track had lived up to its promise of high speeds and close racing.

The 1960 Daytona 500, however, was marred by numerous severe accidents. George Green was fortunate to escape injury after the gas tank ruptured on his Chevy and the car burst into flames. Tommy Herbert was not so lucky. He lost control on the backstretch on lap 118, slammed the guardrail, and rolled his T-Bird numerous times. The engine was sent tumbling down the track, while pieces of the front end were reported to have been shot 75 feet off the ground. Herbert was rushed to the hospital with severe injuries to his eye and arm. A second driver, Pappy Crane, tried to avoid Herbert’s disintegrating car and also wound up rolling his mount. Two laps from the end of the race, “Tiger Tom” Pistone, an early leader of the event, lost control in turn four, hit the guard rail and was taken to the hospital with a broken clavicle and internal injuries. Fans and racers alike got their first glimpse of just how bad a wreck could be at those high speeds.

Meanwhile, up front it had been a dog fight for the win between Junior Johnson in a Chevy and Bobby Johns in his Pontiac. Johns had the advantage and seemed to be cruising for the victory, when something unexpected happened. A gust of wind got his car a little out of shape, and as Johns struggled to regain control, the rear window of his car blew out. At that point, the aerodynamics was a black science in the automotive industry, but what Johns had happen to him that day was the same cause for NASCAR requiring roof flaps these days. In the interim, I’m sure you’ve seen those metal straps that run down the rear windows of stock cars and the tabs around the windshield. Those were added to the cars to try to remedy the same problem. With the air flowing into his race car, Johns spun into the infield and appeared to be trying to enroll in the Tommy Irwin school of Stock Car Scuba Diving as he flew at Lake Lloyd. Luckily, he stopped a few feet short of the lake and hurried back out onto the track in time to salvage second. Junior Johnson hung on to take the win, while Richard Petty, the King whose throne was set up in Daytona, drove to a third place finish, beating his dad Lee to the line for the position.

So many cars had been wrecked or suffered mechanical failures that day, NASCAR canceled the next two races on the 1960 schedule fearing there wouldn’t be enough cars to fill the fields. In those days, teams didn’t have superspeedway and short track cars; they ran the same one at Daytona or on a ½ mile dirt track.

On a brighter note, Junior’s car owner John Masoni gave the portion of the $19,600 first prize check left over after paying Junior and other expenses to charity. He said his team was in racing for fun, not for profit. Boy, things sure have changed in racing today.

If 1960 showed the high speeds at Daytona could be dangerous, 1961 was an obscene lesson in just how bad things could get. 13 cars were totaled and 5 drivers hospitalized in the first qualifying race alone. Notable drivers involved in wrecks included Junior Johnson, who hit the wall so hard he narrowly escaped having his legs crushed when the engine of the car came through the firewall. In the course of his wreck, Junior hit Richard Petty, whose car was knocked up and over the guardrail and into the parking lot. Wes Morgan rolled his Chevy on the 7th lap and suffered spinal injuries, while Dave Mader tangled with Marshall Sargent and backed hard into the wall, injuring his neck. In the meantime, Fireball Roberts avoided all the wrecks and went on to win his qualifier for the second year in a row.

Unfortunately, The carnage continued in the second qualifying race. On the 37th lap of the event, Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty (ironically the two drivers involved in the disputed finish in 1959) made contact, and both vaulted the guard rail at over 150 miles per hour. Lee Petty was injured so badly he was hospitalized for months, and his active career, which included three championships, was effectively over; the crash meant no member of the Petty family competed in that year’s event for the first time in Daytona history. At least Petty was able to recover over time; Beauchamp suffered head injuries and never raced in NASCAR again. As for the racing, the finish itself was a close one. Joe Weatherly and Banjo Matthews were running side by side when the two cars hit and Matthews was sent spinning, allowing Little Joe to take the victory. That race also marked the debut of Bobby Allison, who made the field for the 500 by finishing 20th, earning a 36th place starting berth.

The Daytona 500 itself was once again run caution free in 1961. Teammates Fireball Roberts and Marvin Panch, in a stout pair of Pontiacs out of the legendary Smokey Yunick’s garage, dominated the event and treated the fans to a thrilling battle before Robert’s engine expired. Joe Weatherly inherited second and Paul Goldsmith finished third, the only three cars on the lead lap, giving Pontiac 1-2-3 finish. Fred Lorenzen, from the USAC stock car ranks, raised a lot of eyebrows coming home fourth that day.

In 1962, there was an unusual format change. Rather than running against the clock for the pole position, there was a 10 lap sprint race to determine the pole winner. Fireball Roberts won that event, then backed it up by winning his third consecutive 100-miler Thursday qualifying race after Junior Johnson, who had been dogging him, ran out of gas. A nasty six car wreck decimated the field in the second qualifier. Joe Weatherly won that event, upholding Pontiac’s dominance of Daytona.

The Daytona 500 of 1962 was once again caution free, and once again, a Pontiac won. Fireball Roberts shook off the bad luck that had plagued at him at the track and finally won the race, streaking to the checkers at a blistering 152 plus miles per hour. The win gave Roberts the trifecta for the month: he won the pole race, his qualifier, and the 500. Riding in Roberts’ slipstream was a surprising Richard Petty aboard a Plymouth, upholding the Petty family honor in the first Daytona 500 he entered as the team's lead driver. Joe Weatherly continued his string of strong finishes and came home third, while that Midwestern kid, Fred Lorenzen, continued to showing his strength on the big tracks by bringing the number 28 Ford home fifth, albeit a lap off the pace. Making his first Daytona 500 start, Cale Yarborough suffered an electrical short that relegated him to dead last in the field.

After the race, Petty family patriarch Lee filed a protest, claiming that Fireball’s car owner Jim Stephen’s crew had too many men over the wall during pit stops. NASCAR dismissed the protest, and the win was allowed to stand.

Ford must have been tired of getting Daytona Beach kicked in their face and showed up with a Charles Atlas team in 1963. Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however, at least not in the qualifiers. Once again, there was a pole qualifying race and once again, Fireball Roberts and his trusty Pontiac took the win. But come the first qualifier, it was obvious Roberts and Pontiac had a bit of a horsepower disadvantage. That year, the big teams had bought in a bunch of “ringers” from the Indy and sports car ranks, including A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, and Johnny Rutherford. Junior Johnson upheld the honors of the stock car set in the first qualifier, winning in a Chevrolet (of all things) owned by former Mopar campaigner Ray Fox. Junior’s teammate G.C. Spencer (no relation to Jimmy) appeared to have taken second place, but was penalized because his pit crew had forgotten to reinstall the gas cap; Second and third place then went to Paul Goldsmith and A.J. Foyt, both in Pontiacs. In the second qualifier, Ford had two of its big guns running, Fred Lorenzen and Ned Jarrett, the 1961 Champion, making his Daytona debut in a factory Ford after having been lured away from the Chevys he had driven. (In fact, Jarrett’s 1961 championship was the last Chevy would enjoy until 1973, when Benny Parsons won). Also competing in that event was Tiny Lund, filling in as a relief driver in the Wood Brothers’ Ford for an injured Marvin Panch. Panch had been injured when he flipped a Maserati sports car he was shaking down earlier in the month; Lund was among the onlookers who rushed to help him after the accident. The car had burst into flames, with Panch trapped beneath it; Tiny, who was anything but, managed to lift the car enough to allow the others to drag his friend to safety. While in the hospital, Marvin asked the Wood Brothers to let Lund take his place in the No. 21 car.

To everyone’s great surprise, interloper Johnny Rutherford won the second qualifying race in a Smokey Yunick Chevrolet. Compounding the factory Ford team’s headaches, Rex White also claimed second place in another Chevy. Lorenzen and Jarrett took third and fourth in their Fords, while Tiny Lund managed to bring his Ford home sixth.

The 1963 Daytona 500 was a whole different story. Ford’s team strategy involved a steady conservative pace for the first quarter of the event, waiting for the inevitable mechanical carnage to slim the field. It was a highly competitive race, with 11 drivers swapping the lead 30 times, and fortunately no serious wrecks considering the blistering pace. Towards the end of the race it came down to Jarrett, Lorenzen, and Lund swapping the lead between themselves. Both Lorenzen and Jarrett had to give up the lead for pit stops late in the going, while Lund and the Wood Brothers employed a surprising strategy, running the entire 500 miles on one set of tires. The time saved in the pits helped Lund win the Daytona 500. Lorenzen was second, and Jarrett, who was more noted as a short track campaigner, acquitted himself well that day, coming home third. In fact, Fords took the first five positions, relegating the fastest Pontiac to seventh position, driven by Bobby Johns. Sandwiched in between, Richard Petty bought his under-powered Plymouth on home sixth.

As Ford took home the Daytona trophies in ’63, the Chrysler executives were gnashing their teeth and uttering four letter words watching Ford dominate. The solution to their headaches was another four letter word; “Hemi”. The 1964 event was the coming out party for the Hemis at Daytona, and a fine celebration it turned out to be for the Chrysler camp. The Hemi had been specifically designed for the hallowed high banks and the high speed straights of Daytona, and the beast was in its element there. There was, however, a note of sadness to that year’s event. 1961 Daytona runner-up and consistent hard charger Joe Weatherly had been killed at the Riverside race prior to that year's Daytona celebration.

In the first qualifier, Chrysler products powered by the potent Hemis finished 1-2-3. Junior Johnson, who had been slated to join the Ford team but jumped ship and swam like hell when he heard about how powerful the Hemi was, took top honors in a Dodge. Behind him, Buck Baker, driving a Petty Engineering Plymouth, took second, and David Pearson finished third. Junior averaged close to 171 miles per hour in the caution free event; no question about it, the Chryslers had plenty of horsepower up their sleeve. When asked to comment on how the Mopars ran, fourth place finisher and “best in class” Ford driver Marvin Panch commented, “disgustingly well.”

The second qualifier in ’64 produced one of the closest finishes ever at Daytona. Richard Petty in a Hemi Plymouth had waved a polite “bye-bye” to everyone else at the drop of the green and looked to have the event in hand; but on the last lap, he ran out of gas and coasted for the finish line while Bobby Isaac and Jimmy Pardue, both also in Plymouth Hemis, tried to beat him there. All three crossed the line side-by-side, and the finish was too close to call. So, Bill France grinned and went to get the film from the “Photo finish” camera he had had installed after the ’59 side-by-side finish NASCAR had bungled, had the film developed…..and found it was blank. Once again, NASCAR was forced to ask the press for any photos they had, while the three drivers posed together around the trophy smiling and laughing waiting for the official decision. It was finally determined Isaac had won by a foot over Pardue, who was an equal distance ahead of Richard Petty.

But Richard Petty had his revenge in the Daytona 500 of 1964, making a mockery of the field and leading every lap from 52 until the end, even while in the pits, eventually coming around to lap the entire field. Pardue came home second and Paul Goldsmith third to give the Hemis another 1-2-3 finish. The race was not without incident, most of them caused by tire blowouts as the rubber proved unable to handle the brutal speeds. While no one was seriously hurt, Johnny Rutherford got sideways and flipped over, skidding the length of a football field on the roof of his Mercury in a shower of sparks. In what was to be, sadly, his last Daytona 500, Fireball Roberts finished a disappointing 37th in his debut as a Ford driver at the track after losing a transmission.

Look for Part Three Of Matt’s Daytona Series to appear Sunday.

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