Amazingly, NASCAR Celebrated the Wrong Winner at First Daytona 500
At first, late on Sunday afternoon of Feb. 22, 1959, there was uncertainty surrounding who had won the first Daytona 500.
Three cars had taken the checkered flag side-by-side-by side: Joe Weatherly in a Chevrolet on the outside, Lee Petty in an Oldsmobile in the middle, and Johnny Beauchamp in a Ford on the bottom.
By Wednesday following the race, after reviewing live footage from Hearst News sources, France reversed the decision of who won the race.
When all was said and done, the inaugural Daytona 500 in February of 1959 couldn’t have turned out better for NASCAR and its founder/president Bill France Sr.
Unlike some other major races in subsequent years, everything that could go right went right.
But not at first.
At first, late on Sunday afternoon of Feb. 22, 1959, there was uncertainty surrounding who had won the first 500-miler at France’s brand-new Daytona International Speedway. Three cars had taken the checkered flag side-by-side-by side: Joe Weatherly in a Chevrolet on the outside, Lee Petty in an Oldsmobile in the middle, and Johnny Beauchamp in a Ford on the bottom.
France, on the flagstand with flagman Johnny Bruner Sr., immediately called it a Beauchamp/Petty 1-2. (Weatherly was lapped and of no consequence). France’s call was immediately second- and third-guessed by the media overlooking the start-finish line and competitors watching from pit road.
Petty drove toward Victory Lane in the trioval grass, only to be waved away as Beauchamp and his team were welcomed in as winners. All this confusion led to France and scorers insisting the finish would be considered “unofficial” for the time being.
In this case, “the time being” turned into three days.
Within an hour of the controversial finish T. Taylor Warren, the chief photographer for NASCAR, knew Petty was the winner. He was certain Petty had barely beaten Beauchamp in the new speedway’s debut. After leading laps 197-199, Petty was clearly ahead of Beauchamp by about two feet at lap 200. It was right there on Warren’s film, indisputable evidence that Petty was the winner over Beauchamp.
So why were officials waving Beauchamp into Victory Lane and waving Petty and his crew away? Why were the beauty queens poising with Beauchamp with the winner’s trophy? Who should the media interview first since both drivers said they had won? And why was Petty more agitated than usual, bouncing from one official to another, pleading his case?
Maybe “chaotic” exaggerates the moment, but “confusing” certainly doesn’t.
Warren had been in the trioval grass, poised to document the final few yards of the speedway’s first 500. He aimed, focused and clicked just as Weatherly, Petty, and Beauchamp approached Bruner’s checkered flag. Perhaps surprisingly, NASCAR didn’t have a still or rolling camera aimed at the start/finish line. Several photographers shot the finish, but only Warren caught the exact winning moment at the precise right angle. Based on their real-time eyesight—mistakenly, as it turned out—Bruner and France sent Beauchamp to Victory Lane.
By the time Warren got to the speedway’s photo studio, news of Beauchamp’s victory was spreading. Understandably, France defended his call.
“To me and John (Bruner), it looked like Beauchamp by about two feet,” France told reporters. “There has never been a photo camera used in racing, but I’m going to see if such a device would be practical right away.”
Bruner said he wanted an electronic eye or camera, “if I have to buy it myself.”
Even though he was lapped and no factor, Weatherly weighed in. “As (we) hit the finish line, I was about a hood-length ahead of Petty,” he said. “And Petty was about the same distance ahead of Beauchamp. If Petty didn’t win this race, he never won a race. I don’t know what the argument is all about. Petty won easily.”
Petty, of course, agreed: “A man who finished two feet ahead of another is supposed to be the winner,” he said. “I just hope the man who got to that finish line (first) collects the first-prize money. I am confident I won.” Beauchamp’s stoic reaction was simple: “I won,” he said.
In time, evidence emerged that Weatherly, Petty, and the media were right. Several photos from various angles—Warren’s the most famous—showed Petty ahead at the line. As NASCAR’s primary photographer, he didn’t hesitate to tell France later that evening that Petty was the winner. France didn’t argue, but insisted on waiting until seeing live-action footage of the final lap to make the call official.
“It was pretty clear to me that Lee won,” said Warren, a much-honored and highly respected photojournalist who died in 2008. “I don’t know if I had the absolute best shot, but mine was good enough to (eventually) convince Mr. France that Lee won. I saw the front of his car at the line before Johnny’s nose got there. It was pretty obvious to me, but I still wanted to look at my finish-line shot to be sure.”
By Wednesday, after reviewing live footage from Hearst News sources, France reversed himself. (It can be argued he was convinced Sunday night, but wanted to milk the uncertainty for a few days; even then, his ability to get the most PR bang out of his buck was evident). Finally, citing Warren’s still shot and Hearst’s video footage, he officially announced Petty the winner and Beauchamp second ahead of Charlie Griffin, Cotton Owens, and Weatherly.
He made the announcement late in the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 25.
“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 the finish,” he said. Finally, 73 hours after Bruner waved the checkered flag over the three-wide group, France confirmed the obvious: “Petty is the winner.”