Everyone expected the new Daytona International Speedway to be fast. No one was prepared, however, for the extraordinary velocities reached by racing stock cars last weekend in the annual Daytona Beach, Fla. Speed Week—a week 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 (SI, Feb. 16) 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 1959 Chevrolet would be caught in the dash to the finish by a terrier of a white 1959 Thunderbird which had been running coyly 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. An exhilarating finish indeed. Welborn had averaged a phenomenal 143.198 mph; this in a stock car, mind you, on a mint-new track in turbulent wind, 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 this nation's foremost race—the Indianapolis "500."
The pursuit of speed at Daytona was unceasing. It started early, and it started badly, with the death of a home-town Daytona hero, 37-year-old Marshall Teague. Marsh Teague had twice won the old AAA stock car championship. He had placed seventh at Indianapolis in 1957. Considered a careful driver, he caused no apprehension when he took a streamlined, 1955-vintage Indianapolis car out on the speedway blacktop in the week preceding Speed Week. He soon became the speedway's fastest driver by recording an electrifying lap of 171.82 mph. Two days later, still working toward a goal that will lure Indianapolis drivers irresistibly until it is reached—exceeding the world-record single-lap speed of 177 mph set at Monza, Italy—Teague crashed and died. Entering the high-banked west turn at approximately 160 mph, his Sumar Special veered abruptly downward, struck the horizontal road at the bottom of the banking and flipped end over end. Teague, still strapped to the seat, was thrown from the car. No one has discovered exactly what went wrong.
During that week a speed of 170.06 mph was reached by the superb Indianapolis driver Jim Rathmann, with the Kuzma roadster that was driven to sixth place in the 1956 "500" by Bob Sweikert. Rathmann, winner of the Monza 500-mile race last summer at over 166 mph (the race is run in three heats), returned to Daytona last Thursday to try again. This time his brother Dick, winner of the pole at Indianapolis in 1958, came along. The Kuzma had been tuned beautifully by the salty Daytona Beach racing mechanic Smokey ("Best Damn Garage in Town") Yunick, but it was admittedly inferior to the best new roadsters. Nevertheless, Jim Rathmann pushed it to 166 mph on a windy morning—poor for record runs—and Dick managed a lap at 170.648 mph in the afternoon.
In characteristically laconic speech, Dick Rathmann gave his impressions: "It's pretty racy, I guess. You know you're really smoking it around there."
A smoking-around that is sure to threaten Monza's supremacy in the realm of speed will occur at the Daytona Speedway on April 4, when the Indianapolis drivers will compete in a 100-mile race. Scheduled for the same day is a 100-mile Formula Libre race (no limit on engine displacement), and on the following day there will be a 1,000-kilometer professional sports car race. But that is getting ahead of the Speed Week story.
The new track dominated Speed Week so thoroughly that the traditional straightaway runs for passenger cars on Daytona's historic beach sagged away to a poor start and finally fizzled out in an atmosphere of confusion and rancor. This is regrettable, because the beach trials are unique. Only at Daytona are Detroit's high-performance cars—and some less fierce models—matched publicly in top-speed and acceleration tests. In the past, despite a number of disqualifications for tampering with stock factory equipment, these trials probably were more important to the keen motorist than the Speed Week races on the old beach racecourse.
Entries were light for the beach runs last week, but still the speeds were impressive—until the post-trial inspections began. Take the case of John James Paul, a slender 21-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio. He had driven a 1959 Plymouth Fury for the owner, Gary Bentley, a hometown chum, to a new record of 120.967 mph in the so-called Big Three class for reasonably tame Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths—no special speed equipment permitted. Bentley faced the inspection confidently but was disqualified for having smaller valve faces than the book specified.
What really cooked things, though, was the furor over the most powerful class of high-performance cars, those with piston displacements of more than 350 cubic inches. A new record of 140.350 mph apparently was set by Bob Pemberton of Lansing, Mich., a manufacturer of automotive air springs, with a 1959 Pontiac. The winning car and the next four finishers, all Pontiacs, were impounded for inspection. After some heated wrangling in the hectic garage area at the speedway, where racing cars were being readied, Norris Friel, chief inspector for the trials, disqualified all five of the top finishers for "unsportsmanlike conduct."
FROM THE BEACH
"They hindered the inspection," said the angry Friel. "After seven hours of it, I called it off."
Seventy-two hours after the disputed events, winners in other high-performance classes had not been officially announced. Acceleration trials for the same cars were postponed until this week because of an unsuitably rough beach on the day scheduled for them.
It was with considerable relief, then, that observers turned from the sourness of the beach trials to the promise of fine things at the speedway. They were soon rewarded, on that cool and windy Friday.
The preliminaries were brief. Bill France, president of NASCAR, the biggest stock car racing organization, and the man who got the speedway built, told the crowd of 12,000 that he thought the track was the finest in the world. Bias aside, he may well have been right.
In the first of two 100-mile dashes 21 late-model convertibles took the green starting flag and hurtled into the steep west turn in a tight pack, with every driver pushing his gas pedal to the floorboards. (The veteran driver Tim Flock has given a succinct explanation of how to race stock cars on the speedway: "You just push the pedal all the way down and wish you could go faster.") Out in front, by inches, was the 1958 Ford of little-known Lloyd George (Shorty) Rollins, 29, of Corpus Christi, Texas, a small, muscular, clean-cut driver with a toothpaste-ad smile. His original engine had sickened the day before, and he had worked most of the night to help tune and install an engine taken from a wrecked car. But the really startling thing about the race was that eight cars were in hot contention for the lead for half the 40 laps on the superfast 2½-mile track. Contenders were often three abreast on the turns. They could not outpace Shorty Rollins, however, and he whooshed over the finish line one half length ahead of the 1958 Ford of Marvin Panch, a veteran from Charlotte, N.C. Rollins' average speed was 129.50, 3 mph faster than his two-lap qualifying speed. To exceed qualifying speeds in actual racing is so rare that no official could remember offhand when it last happened.
Exit Mr. Rollins; enter Mr. Welborn, a cigar-smoking devil-may-care lad from Greensboro, N.C. who has three times been NASCAR's convertible champion. He had 37 competitors to beat in the 100-mile race for the most important stock cars—the late-model closed cars—and he did it with vast assurance, despite brushing a guardrail. This race marked the first appearance in stock car competition of the Ford Thunder-bird. Welborn lost the lead now and again to the T-bird of Fred Wilson, a newcomer from Denver, but never for long. Wilson spent nearly half the race in the slipstream of Welborn's Chevrolet, "getting a tow," as they say. When Wilson gave his all at the end it was not quite enough, and Welborn had his sensationally fast victory. His speed of 143.198 mph exactly equaled the fastest qualifying time.
If episodes of high drama had gone before, they were completely overshadowed by a high-tension duel and an unprecedented photo finish in the week's climactic event—a 500-mile $62,660 sweepstake for 58 closed cars and convertibles on Sunday.
The principals were the grizzled NASCAR champion, Lee Petty, 44, of Randleman, N.C, and a big, blue-eyed Midwesterner, Johnny Beau-champ, 35, of Harlan, Iowa. For 60 miles they scrapped wheel to wheel and nose to tail—Petty's 1959 Olds-mobile against Beauchamp's 1959 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; some of them thought Petty had finished fractionally ahead of the Thunderbird.
All in all, it was quite a race. And it is quite a track.
EIGHT LATE-MODEL STOCK CARS HIT DAYTONA'S 31° BANKED TURN FLAT OUT
BOB WELBORN got traditional kiss for winners from Queen Scottie McCormick.