History Timeline 1950's

Photo above: A race to the moon. Right: Allegheny Ludlum Steel Company, Pennsylania, 1940-1946, U.S. Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1950s

Two Cars in Every Garage

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1959

    February 22, 1959 - The Daytona 500 stock car race is run for the first time with Lee Petty taking the first checkered flag.

    Daytona 500 Stock Car Race, 1959

    Their brethren in the open wheel car racing world had been at this for awhile, with the first Indianapolis 500 run in 1911, but the boys of stock car racing were somewhat new at the distance, contesting five hundred mile races at only one event, the Southern 500 at Darlington since 1950, the first NASCAR race to boast such as honor. However, the racing at Daytona was about to come on fast, at this distance, in what would become their signature event over the next sixty years. The Daytona 500 would be run for the first time on February 22, 1959. It was about to breathe open an era of malt shops and car fanatics, dirt tracks and an, at first, southern tradition to top most southern sport traditions, unless you count college football. And to some, it even tops that.

    There had certainly been car races held at Daytona Beach prior to the first five hundred mile race. The beach and highway next to it, what would be known as the Daytona Beach and Road Course, had been home to events of two hundred miles. So, nine years had passed since the debut of distance for the stock car circuit when the Daytona International Speedway opened on February 22, 1959, in front of 41,921 spectators, replacing the old half beach and one road course where races had been held, either official or not, since a few years past the turn of the century.

    Daytona Beach and Road Course

    So what precipitated the change to the new distance and what had come before? The Daytona Beach and Road Course had been used since 1902 for racing, with fifteen land speed records being set on the sand and highway. It was 3.1 to 4.2 miles in length, starting on pavement, Highway A1A, then two miles later turning north for two miles on the beach. Races here were instrumental in the formation of NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Racing, originally a private company founded by Bill France, Sr., in 1948.

    In 1927, a remarkable land speed record had been set on the beach, reaching a top speed of 211 mph by Major Henry Segrave and his Sunbeam 1000 hp Mystery. The first official race, to most, was the 1936 race organized on the original 3.1 mile course by Sig Haugdahl with the city of Daytona Beach awarding a prize of five thousand dollars. Races continued, with different sponsors, but starting in 1938, were run by Bill France, a northern transplant from Washington, D.C., who, after the depression ran a car repair shop in Daytona Beach. After the disruption of World War II, France contemplated the formation of a sanctioning body for stock car racing that would end the practice of promoters reneging on the purse. On February 21, 1948, France formed NASCAR and held the first events of the stock car series. For ten years from 1948 forward, the Daytona Beach Road Course hosted various events in the NASCAR series, but France had bigger ideas for Daytona. Bill France began plans for the Daytona International Speedway in 1953, with construction starting in 1956. The Daytona Beach Road Course would close on February 23, 1958.

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    Lee Petty Wins the First Daytona 500

    The inaugaural Daytona 500 was the second race of the 1959 Grand National Series season in 1959. Yes, some credit a race held in 1958 as part of the 1959 season, so prehaps it was the third. The new track, two and one half miles long with four turns, would be run over two hundred laps. Bob Welborn manned the post position, 140.121 mph, winning that right by taking the checkered flag at the one hundred mile qualifying race on February 20. Cotton Owens had the best qualifying lap at 143.198 mph.

    The race itself would be unique. There were no caution flags during the entire race and thirty-three lead changes. Welborn led early, but engine trouble ended his day after seventy-five laps. Johnny Beauchamp took the lead at lap one hundred forty-nine with Lee Petty taking back and forth charge with three laps to go. Both Beauchamp and Petty crossed the finish line in a photo finish. Beauchamp was initially feted as the winner, driving to victory lane, but Petty protested. Three days later, after watching newsreel and photos from the race, Bill France declared Lee Petty and his 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 (No. 42), the first victor of the Daytona 500. The controversy on who won was a major boost for NASCAR and the Daytona 500, as newspaper coverage on the race finish elevated the sport and race to more than avid stock car fans. The average speed of the Daytona 500 in 1959 was 135.521 mph.

    Lee Petty won a purse of $19,050. His victory margin was credited as two feet. This would be the only Daytona 500 that Lee Petty would win. He would win fifty-four times in his NASCAR Cup Series career and be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. In 1959, Lee Petty won eleven times and was awarded the points race for the NASCAR Grand National Standings with 11,792 points, competing in forty-two races. Cotton Owens was second. What about Johnny Beauchamp? He only raced seven times in 1959 and finished outside the Top 100.

    Image above: Photo of the 1959 Daytona 500, Lee Petty car in the center, 1959, Unknown author. Courtesy "NASCAR Victories By Car # (1949-present)" on Pinterest. Image below: Daytona International Speedway, 2011. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source Info: daytonainternationalspeedway.com; NASCAR.com; racing-reference.info; Nascar Hall of Fame; Wikipedia Commons.

    Daytona International Speedway

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