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1959: WHAT A WAY TO START
Kenneth Rudeen
February 06, 2008
RACING ON THE BRAND-NEW SUPERSPEEDWAY WAS FAST AND FURIOUS FROM THE GET-GO, WITH A WEEK OF TOP-GEAR ACTION CAPPED BY A THRILLING PHOTO-FINISH WIN BY A NASCAR LEGEND
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February 06, 2008

1959: What A Way To Start

RACING ON THE BRAND-NEW SUPERSPEEDWAY WAS FAST AND FURIOUS FROM THE GET-GO, WITH A WEEK OF TOP-GEAR ACTION CAPPED BY A THRILLING PHOTO-FINISH WIN BY A NASCAR LEGEND

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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 2, 1959

EVERYONE EXPECTED THE NEW DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL Speedway to be fast. No one was prepared, however, for the extraordinary velocities reached by racing stock cars in this year's edition of Daytona Beach Speedweeks—a period of exhilarating highs and frustrating lows, with events tumbling feverishly one after another. � One of the most dramatic moments came on the first day of racing on the magnificent track as a jaunty young driver named Bob Welborn streaked across the finish line of a 100-mile sprint race. Another uncommonly exciting race had been run just before, and now the taut crowd strained to see whether Welborn's metallic-blue Chevrolet would be caught in the dash to the finish by a terrier of a white Thunderbird that had been running in the Chevy's slipstream. At last the T-Bird made its move, but without sufficient zip, and as the pair crossed the line, the Chevy led by just over three fourths of a length. Welborn had averaged a phenomenal 143.198 mph; this in a stock car, mind you, on a mint-new track, an average speed never remotely approached before by a passenger car made over for racing. In fact, it was a speed more than 7 mph faster than the record for the Indianapolis 500.

The pursuit of speed at Daytona was unceasing. It started early, and badly, with the death of a hometown Daytona hero, 37-year-old Marshall Teague. Two days after becoming the speedway's fastest driver, with an electrifying lap of 171.82 mph, Teague, twice the AAA stock car champion, was killed when he crashed in the west turn at an estimated 160 mph. No one has discovered exactly what went wrong.

There were other, happier, episodes of high drama during Daytona's Speedweeks—most played out on the spectacular, new 2�-mile high-banked speedway, which completely overshadowed the action on the old beach raceway. The new track certainly earned praise from the drivers. Even laconic Indy veteran Jim Rathmann, who last summer won the Monza 500 in Italy, called the Daytona layout "pretty racy, I guess."

That was an understatement. After a series of fast and exciting supporting races, the week was capped by a high-tension duel and an unprecedented photo finish in the final event—a 500-mile, $62,660 sweepstakes for 58 cars on Sunday. The principals were the grizzled NASCAR champion, Lee Petty, 44, of Randleman, N.C., and a big, blue-eyed Midwesterner, Johnny Beauchamp, 35, of Harlan, Iowa. For 60 miles they scrapped wheel to wheel—Petty's Oldsmobile against Beauchamp's Thunderbird. At the end Petty raced out of the east turn with a slight lead, but Beauchamp was overtaking him. The crowd of 47,000 raised a great roar as they finished side by side. The unofficial winner: Beauchamp. His unofficial speed: 135.521 mph. His achievement: a speed exceeded only by the Indianapolis record of 135.601 among all continuous 500-mile races ever run. But 24 hours after the race officials were still examining pictures; in the end it was ruled that Petty had finished fractionally ahead of the Thunderbird.

All in all, it was quite a race. And it is quite a track.

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