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Petty declared 500 winner (1959)

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After three days of deliberating over still photos and newsreel film footage, Bill France and other NASCAR officials realized they had made a mistake — Lee Petty had really won the inaugural Daytona 500. Here’s how the review of the evidence took place, and how the new winner and second place finisher learned the news.

Petty declared ‘500’ winner

Beauchamp winds up second

France announces his decision after studying photos

By Bernard Kahn, News-Journal Sports Editor

It’s official and final! Lee Petty won the baffling Daytona 500 Sunday.

Johnny Beauchamp was second.

The final decision was announced last night at 6 p.m., 61 hours after Petty in his 1959 Oldsmobile and Beauchamp in his 1959 Thunderbird had raced across the yellow finish line with no more than 24 inches separating their front bumpers.

Bill France, president of NASCAR and of the magnificent Daytona International Speedway, announced the verdict after a lengthy study of photographic evidence which irrefutably proved Petty in car No. 42 was ahead of Beauchamp in car No. 73 at the payoff finish line. They averaged 135.42 mph for the distance.

It was France, as leader of NASCAR which sanctioned the international sweepstakes stock car race, who had ruled immediately after the unbelievably close 500 mile race that Beauchamp was the winner. Five hours later, as a mass of evidence pointed to Petty as the victor, France declared first and second places “unofficial.”

That was the status of the contest until 6 p.m. yesterday, when France in concurrence with other NASCAR officials ruled Petty winner of the $19,000 first place money and Beauchamp winner of the $8,000 runner-up purse.

Petty received the news of his triumph in a telephone call from this writer. He was eating supper with his wife at a beach motel.

“I was never worried,” replied Petty, “but sure am happy to get it over with. I knew the photographs would prove who was the man who got there first. I want to thank you for reporting the facts.”

Did Petty plan to rush down to NASCAR headquarters and pick up the winning check and trophy?

“I’m still eating my supper and I’m going to finish it,” said Lee. “This is a pretty good piece of ham and, man, I’m hungry. Then I’ll be down town.”

France took the phone. “Congratulations, Lee,” said Bill. “From the angle I saw that finish I thought Beauchamp had won…”

Throughout the hassle, tall, raw boned Petty refused to get excited, and insisted that the weight of official evidence would prove his victory. The 44 year old Randleman, N.C. one time farmer didn’t start racing until he was 35. He is one of the rare race drivers who is also an ace mechanic, and helps set up his own car. He was assisted by his two sons and Red Myler, all fine mechs.

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Petty chauffeured the only Oldsmobile sedan in the field of 59 starters Sunday, and his feat was considered all the more remarkable because there were eight 1959 Thunderbirds racing. And Beauchamp was driving one of them almost as close to Petty as Siamese twins.

It had been the bone tired France and John Bruner, the fatigued chief steward, who had called it for Beauchamp in the now epic on the spot decision Sunday. They were at the flag stand, almost atop the blurring white cars of Petty and Beauchamp, which were traveling over 220 feet per second as they sped over the line. From the outset France and Bruner were almost alone, however, as every piece of photographic evidence and all expert testimony by newsmen and other responsible eyewitnesses at the finish called it for Petty.

France, under NASCAR bylaws, could have stuck to his original decision and closed the books on the race right there. But he admitted the strong possibility of “human error,” and decided to collect all available still photographs and newsreel films until he could be positive.

“I have to be in the position to prove to Beauchamp that he was wrong, and that he didn’t finish first,” said France.

The proof piled up. The first pictures France had examined were The News-Journal finish line shots Sunday night showing Petty ahead. NASCAR pictures taken by Taylor Warren also showed Petty ahead (these were the pictures published in The Morning Journal Monday).

Other photographs also were submitted, showing the two cars just before and just after they blazed over the finish. Included were photos by Bob Torbal, Duluth, Minn., Tom Kirkland, Florence, SC, Ray Brock, Los Angeles and CV Haschel, Indianapolis. Torbal’s was right to the lip of the payoff line, and like all the others it showed Petty in front.

The Petty verdict was cemented by Hearst Metrotone News of the Week newsreel films planed here yesterday from New York. This sequel of pictures supported The News-Journal and other photographs.

“The newsreel substantiated that the cars of Petty and Beauchamp did not change positions from the time those other still photographs were taken just before and just after the finish,” said France, “Petty is the winner.”

Bruner called Beauchamp to inform him of the official news.

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“I hate to be the guy who has to tell you, Johnny,” said Bruner, “but it was Petty who won it. I can’t argue with the pictures. The cameras have better eyes than I have. I admit I was wrong.”

Bruner said Beauchamp took the announcement calmly. Beauchamp, 35, a star speedster from Harlan, Iowa, was not available for comment shortly thereafter.

When all the film evidence was assembled yesterday, it was studied by France along with vice president Ed Otto, executive manager Pat Purcell, chief timer Joe Epton, Commissioner E.G. (Cannonball) Baker and other NASCAR officials.

Otto had stated Monday that Beauchamp had driven to the pits after the hectic finish, “knowing in his own mind he did not win.” Otto said Beauchamp made no attempt to drive to the winner’s circle then. The NASCAR vice president opined Petty won.

Bob Sall, NASCAR field representative in the East, said last night: “Petty pulled his car into the victory lane after completing his 200th lap and the extra lap for safety, not even bothering to drive through to pit road. Beauchamp went straight to the pits and started to climb out of his car. He didn’t go to the winner’s circle until he became evident there was confusion over who was first at the flag stand where France and Bruner stood.”

Peter DePaolo, Los Angeles, 1925 winner of the Indianapolis 500, was an interested onlooker yesterday as the films were being studied. After looking at all the still photographs and the newsreel, DePaolo said: “This is conclusive enough proof for me that Petty won.”

During the 61 hour stalemate between the finish Sunday and the official announcement last night, the 47,000 fans who attended the race and millions of other racing followers all over the country were kept on pins and needles repeating over and over “Who won the Daytona 500?”

France also announced a decision in the dispute over fourth place. It went to Everett (Cotton) Owens, Spartanburg, S.C., and Joe Weatherly, Norfolk, Va., was fifth. Owens will bank $2,000 and Weatherly $1,500. This was decided by a restudy of the tape on the laps and confirmed the decision made immediately after the race.

It’s official and final, but fans will probably never stop talking about the incredible Daytona 500.

 

First photo: The NASCAR Indy 500 finish line in 1959; Second photo: Lee Petty with his car and Harley Earl trophy after winning the first 1959 Daytona 500

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