These days, the purpose-built tube frame cars that run in the Daytona 500 top out around 200 mph on the 2.5-mile oval, using a series of time trials and two 150-mile qualifying races to determine the 43-car field. For the first Daytona 500 in 1959, things were a bit different. Cars were literally driven off the showroom floor, painted, and raced as is — and at speeds over 140mph on the big oval. Convertibles were allowed, and the field of 60(!) was set by time trials and two 100-mile qualifying races, plus a 25-mile “consolation” race. – AJW
Sixty car field in Daytona 500
By Bernard Kahn, News-Journal Sports Editor
There was lots of speculation and no official action yesterday at Daytona International Speedway as drivers and mechanics continued painstaking preparations for the glitter and gold at stake this weekend.
Racing observers are unanimous in predicting that a closed sedan will cross the finish line first in Sunday’s 500 mile international sweepstakes grind. The fastest sedans and convertibles match speed and endurance and the drivers match skill in the first Daytona classic, with the prize money totaling $70,000.
60 cars & 3 preliminary races
The field for the Daytona 500 will be made up of 60 cars, based on three preliminary races.
A 100-mile race for late model sedans and a 100-mile race for late model convertibles start the chain reactions Friday. The first 20 finishers in each of these races will qualify for the big money derby Sunday.
The cars which fail to place among the top 20 or which fail to finish at all will run in a 25-mile consolation race at 4:15 Saturday to fill up the Sunday field. The 20 first finishers in the consolation also will qualify for the Daytona 500.
Bill France, president of the speedway, announced yesterday that the convertible 100 will be run first Friday at 2 pm, and the sedan 100 will follow at 3:30.
Originally, the schedule was the other way around, but 38 sedans have qualified and only 11 convertibles. France figured spectator interest would be maintained at a higher peak by making the change and running the sedans to climax the Friday prelims.
France anticipates that late entries will swell the sedan field to about 45 and the convertible field to about 18.
The Sunday field originally was set for 64 cars — 60 American made automobiles and four places for 3.4 litre British Jaguars, which are classified by NASCAR as stock production. However, the Jaguar entries did not materialize, as expected.
Asked how the Sunday 60 car field would be decided if there are only 18 convertible entries, France explained:
“The first 20 sedans would get in and all 18 convertibles also would qualify. That would leave 22 places to be filled in the Friday consolation race, instead of 20.
“Reason for the consolation is that if a driver has an engine blow up Friday, he’ll still be in contention by having repairs made or installing a new engine and racing in the consolation.”
The speedway proxy acknowledged that the sedans are faster than the convertibles, and announced a $2,500 bonus award has been added for the ragtop throttle benders.
“The sedan roofs are streamlined and this is a factor which adds about five to six miles speed over the convertibles,” said France. The convertible drivers are at a handicap. In past late model races at the beach-road track this difference was not apparent. However, the speedway offers maximum speed and we have learned about it through experience in the qualifying trials.
“As a result, we have added $2,500 for the first nine convertible finishers in the 500-mile race. The first convertible to finish will receive $750 and so on. This is in addition to any prize money the convertible driver might earn by finishing in the money in the sweepstakes.”
The fastest so far
In the two lap qualifying time trials which have ended, the fastest sedan was a 1958 Pontiac, which averaged 143.19 mph with Everett (Cotton) Owens at the wheel. The fastest convertible time was 128.81 mph, set by Glen Wood in a 1958 Ford.
If qualifying speeds determined a favorite, it would be narrowed to the six cars which topped 140 mph in the trials — three new Thunderbirds, two Pontiacs and a Chevrolet.
However, 500 miles is a grueling grind, and the car that finishes must possess a heady driver and endurance as well as flat out speed.
In addition to Owens, the drivers who exceeded 140 were Curtis Turner, Tom Pistone and Fritz Wilson in 1959 T-Birds; Glenn (Fireball) Roberts in a 1959 Pontiac; and Bob Welborn in a 1959 Chevy.
Twelve cars qualified between 135 and 140 — eight Chevrolets, three T-Birds, and one Pontiac, all 1959 models except the Pontiac, 1957 vintage.
The Chevrolet chauffeurs are Rex White, Elizey (Buck) Baker, Joe Weatherly, Bob Potter, Jack Smith, Dewayne (Tiny) Lund, Jim Reed and Dick Freeman. John Beauchamp, Ralph Moody and Tim Flock are the Thunderbird pilots, while Dick Freeman will drive the Pontiac.
The odds heavily favor one of those 18 fast qualifiers to win the Daytona 500.
However, racing followers recall last year that Fireball Roberts collected more prize money than any other driver in the NASCAR circuit driving a 1959 Chevrolet. And such experienced drivers as Roscoe Thompson, Jimmy Thompson, Speedy Thompson, Roy Tyner, John Allen, and Joe Lee Johnson will be piloting 1957 Chevrolets.
The breakdown for the sedan 100 by cars is 17 Chevrolets, eight Fords, six Thunderbirds, three Pontiacs and Oldsmobile, Studebaker, DeSoto and Dodge, one each.
Top photo: Bird’s eye view of the Daytona International Speedway race track; Daytona Beach, Florida (1959). Courtesy Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services.