Pencil Pushes Way Into Daytona Lore


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Johnny Beauchamp (73) and Lee Petty during the final lap of the 1959 Daytona 500. Beauchamp was initially declared the winner, but after a review, the title was handed to Petty three days later.

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Associated Press

When two cars flashed across the finish line together at the Daytona 500 two weeks ago, modern camera technology captured the moment, leaving no doubt that Denny Hamlin had won by a nose.

The race brought back memories of another photo finish: in the first Daytona 500, in 1959. Built to be the largest stock car track in the United States and to rival Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway was a work in progress then, reflecting the primitive nature of Nascar, a Southern-based organization founded 11 years earlier.

The first Daytona 500 may only have appeared to be won by a nose.

It may have been won by a pencil.

The first Daytona lacked the technology to determine who crossed the finish line first and to monitor the cars’ positions on the track. Confusion reigned.

Johnny Beauchamp, Lee Petty and Joe Weatherly sped across the finish three wide. Weatherly was, without a doubt, one or two laps behind, but Beauchamp and Petty were side by side, making it difficult to determine which car was first.

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Most observers who were positioned directly at the finish line agreed that Petty crossed first, but Bill France Sr., the owner of Nascar, and his flagman, Johnny Brunner, insisted that Beauchamp was the winner.

Beauchamp kissed the race queen and accepted the trophy. But about five hours later, France showed up at the local television station where Beauchamp was being interviewed and said, “Hold everything, Beauchamp may not be the winner!”

With no photo-finish camera at the speedway, France asked anyone with film or photos of the end of the race to let him see them. After three days of reviewing film, France declared Petty the winner.

Many thought there was more to the story.

In the pits after the race, there was considerable bickering about whether Beauchamp really was the winner. The Beauchamp pit was near the Petty pit, and Beauchamp’s crew thought Petty had made more stops. With each stop, a car would lose about one lap or more. Other drivers also thought Petty had run fewer laps than Beauchamp.

France and his officials reviewed the handwritten score cards. Each car had a card to record the time displayed by an official clock for every lap when the car goes by the clock. This was not a trivial problem, with nearly 60 cars spread out, circling the two-and-a-half-mile course, some making as few as four pits stops and others making more than 10. Even experienced drivers were not certain in what position they were running.

In fact, Nascar had a lap-counting problem. Friends, wives, and strangers interested in free entrance to the race could be lap counters, called scorers. In the 1950s, scoring could be a problem in any race. Technology was not available, and professional scoring was often too expensive. Nevertheless, with the wives and girlfriends counting the laps, the door was open for mischief.

The appearance of a counting problem was made worse because the official supervising much of the scoring for Nascar also organized the first driver fan club — for Petty.

Petty had been involved in other races in which officials did not award him the victory until after he protested, the score cards were checked, and indeed it was learned that he had more laps than officials believed. Beauchamp, a Nascar outsider from the Midwest, was not aware of the other controversies.

The most notable instance was at the Concord, N.C., track, near Charlotte, in 1958. The veteran driver Curtis Turner was certain he had won; Speedy Thompson was positive he was in second place. The officials agreed, until after Petty protested and the score cards were reviewed. Ultimately, Petty was declared the winner.

Turner was later quoted as saying of Lee Petty’s wife, “That Mama Elizabeth has the fastest pencil in Nascar.”

Thompson, unlike Turner, failed to see any humor in the matter.

“If they can whip you once like this and get away with it, they’ll do it again,” he said.

Similar incidents did happen after the 1959 Daytona 500 — at the Atlanta race in June 1959 and in Weaverville, N.C., in April 1960.

But could a race as big as the Daytona 500be reversed by a pencil? An admission of lap-counting problems would have severely damaged the Nascar brand. If it had been possible, France would have dealt with it quietly.

In 1965, France collaborated on a book, “The Racing Flag,” about his organization and its history, and in the section entitled, “Daytona’s First Big Race,” he described a contest that did not match published accounts. According to France and his co-author, Bloys Britt, Beauchamp rarely led and “watched the rear of Petty’s car for 150 laps.”

But reports at the time of the race said Beauchamp slowly advanced from his 11th-row starting position, and by about Lap 43 he was in the lead. He then alternated leading the race or ran among the top three cars for most of the remainder of the contest.

Petty, with only a few exceptions, was recorded as farther back, behind the three leaders. How Petty caught up with the leaders on about Lap 149 of 200 is not clear.

Beauchamp and his car owner, Roy Burdick, on separate occasions asked Petty, “Did you really win the Daytona 500?”

Petty responded similarly to both: “I got the money.”



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