Memories of the First Daytona 500

February 24th, 2013

by Doug Short

As I type this, the 55th Daytona 500 is about to get underway. The spotlight this year is on Danica Patrick, in pole position with an amazing qualifying average 196.4 miles per hour.

But for me, the Daytona 500 that has a cherished place in my heart was the first race at the newly constructed speedway in 1959. My father, who had just turned 33 nine day before, was the painting contractor responsible for the pristine buildings around the track. He was comped infield tickets for the first 500, and I, three months shy of my 12th birthday, accompanied him to the race.

We were part of the savvy infield ticket holders who arrived the night before and camped out. Dad drove his '57 Ford panel truck, emptied of paint cans, with some quilts added for the infield sleep over.

My most vivid recollection of the race was the carload of four young men who pulled in beside us for a front-row position. They had driven from Seattle, Washington to watch the race. I got relatively little sleep that night, mostly because of the party-hearty foursome beside us. They drank all night long and into the morning. By the time the race started, all four had passed out. They slept through the entire race.

The race was indeed a rarity. It lasted for 3 hours, 41 minutes and 22 seconds with no yellow flags. The photo finish was one for the history books. Johnny Beauchamp was declared the winner and drove his #73 Ford to the victory lane. But runner-up Lee Petty protested, and the win was immediately designated as "unofficial." Three days later NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. named Petty, the driver of Oldsmobile #42, as the winner.

What was at steak for the first-place finisher? Here is a chart of the winner's purse for the past 54 years. I've plotted the nominal values. And of course I couldn't resist a comparison with the real values.

At this point I haven't seen the purse for the 2013 race. But I know who I want to get the check.

Go Danica!

Website by the Boston Web Company