The 50th running of the Great American Race brings out the memories

Johnny Beauchamp, No. 73, drives his 1959 Ford Thunderbird while Lee Petty, No. 42, guides his Oldsmobile down the stretch on the last lap of the 1959 Daytona 500. The winner, Petty, wouldn't be decided for three days. AP Photo

This year's Daytona 500, the 50th edition of the Great American Race, is an exercise in contrasts. In 1959, it sat 42,000. This year, it will welcome nearly 200,000. The inaugural event wasn't even carried on radio. This year's event will be beamed to several hundred nations in dozens of languages. The total purse in '59 was a little less than $68 grand. This year's haul will be a little less than $19 million.

But over the years, even after the addition of lights, sky boxes and the sport's most tricked-out garage, one basic experience has never changed.

"I never get tired of coming up out of that tunnel into the infield," three-time Daytona 500 champ Dale Jarrett says. "You come up through there, and see Turn 4 to your left and the frontstretch to your right. It never gets old. You can't help but think to yourself, 'I've got a shot to win this thing.'"

After nearly five decades, 49 races and countless trips in and out of the old speedway, the magic is still there. That same electricity the old-timers always love to talk about when they are asked about that very first trip to Bill France Sr.'s "World Center of Racing."

"It was the biggest damn thing I had ever seen," inaugural race winner Lee Petty recalled in 1999, still awestruck a full 40 years after the experience. "To most folks, it was scary as hell, too."

"You want us to drive on that?"
The opening day was Saturday, Feb. 7, 1959, and while word had spread throughout the nation about the track, very few had laid eyes on the place until they rolled through that tunnel with their race cars in tow. They had heard the rumors that France was broke and had seen the newspaper photos of the NASCAR president driving an asphalt paver around the 31-degree high banks just a few days before their arrival.

"I remember seeing those pictures," driver-owner Cotton Owens says. "The banks were so steep that the machinery had to be chained to posts at the top of the turns to keep it from rolling over."

They had gotten the early scouting report from Fireball Roberts after his 146 mph test lap one week earlier, only a few miles an hour slower than the top speeds at the Indy 500. "There's only one limit to how fast you can go there," Roberts told his buddies. "How much engine you bring and how much nerve you have."

They had yet to experience the first photo finish (Petty would take care of that two weeks later). They had yet to discover the aerodynamic draft (Junior Johnson would take care of that one year later). They weren't sure what to think about Lake Lloyd, the rectangular pond on the backstretch (driver Tom Pistone ran the first 500 with scuba gear under his seat just in case). And they weren't entirely convinced that France would have the paint dried or the guardrail finished by race day.
But by God, they were there to race. At least they thought they were.

Fireball Roberts

There's only one limit to how fast you can go there. How much engine you bring and how much nerve you have.

-- Fireball Roberts

"Here's a bunch of guys who were running on quarter-mile dirt tracks three nights a week," says Richard Petty, who came to Daytona all of 20 years old and hoping to make just his 11th career start. "We come up through that tunnel, and it's two and half miles of the blackest blacktop you've ever seen. The turns are banked higher than anything in the world, and they're taller than any building that most of us had ever seen. It was like, 'Wait, you want us to drive on that?'"

With each practice lap, the drivers unlocked more guts. By the time qualifying rolled around, the contenders all were running in the low 140s, well more than twice what they ran on a typical short track. When beach racing legend Marshall Teague was killed doing 170 in an Indy car exhibition, everyone took pause, then jumped back into the throttle.

Storybook ending and beginning
On Feb. 20, 1959, 59 cars took the green flag, including a pack of NASCAR-sanctioned convertibles, one driven by Richard Petty. The first DNF in Daytona 500 history was logged on the first lap, when Baltimore's Ken Marriott popped the engine in his Ford ragtop in what would be his final race.

Soon tires began popping as well. Modern fans will be happy to know that tire company versus race team finger-pointing is nothing new, as the manufacturers blamed the reckless driving styles and the drivers blamed the tire construction. Truthfully, it was neither. It was the monstrous new speedway, and after 499 miles of racing, only 33 cars still were running, with only two cars left on the lead lap.

Those two were Lee Petty, already a two-time national champion, and Iowa barnstormer Johnny Beauchamp, making only his sixth NASCAR start. The two cars streaked across the finish line alongside the lapped car of Joe Weatherly, in a finish so unexpectedly close no one knew what to think or whom to declare the winner.

Both cars rolled into the makeshift Victory Lane in the infield grass, where Beauchamp was declared the "unofficial temporary winner," a proclamation that angered Petty so much he packed up his family and headed back home to North Carolina.

Three days later -- 61 hours to be exact -- France produced photographic evidence that Petty indeed had won the race by a nose. Some say the result could have been announced much earlier, but France, the wily race promoter that he was, delayed simply to drum up national attention. Regardless, Petty was the winner and received the phone call as he ate dinner back in Level Cross, N.C.

"Yeah, he called during supper," Petty recalled less than one year before his death in 2000. "I told him I wasn't coming all the way down there to take a picture, so he could just mail me the check. Then I told him I was hungry, and I hung up and went back to the table."

50 years of numbers, large and small
There have been 31 winners of the Great American Race, including Lee Petty and his son. Richard Petty finished 57th in the inaugural event after a blown engine on the eighth lap, but that pretty much was where his bad luck at Daytona ended and the butt-kicking began.

One year later, he led 29 laps and finished third. Thirty-two years later, he ran his final 500, and in between, he wrote basically every record there was to write. The King holds the marks for career wins (7), laps led (781), races led (20), biggest margin of victory (2 laps, 1973), laps led in a single race (184 of 200, 1964) and autographs signed (unofficially, a bazillion).

Petty also was the youngest driver to win the 500 (at 26 years old in 1964) for 33 years, until a 25-year-old named Jeff Gordon went and broke that record. And that 1964 win was the first bookend of another record -- longest span between first and last 500 victories, which stands at 17 years between '64 and '81.

Petty also is one of only three men to win back-to-back 500s, which he did in 1973 and 1974. Cale Yarborough did the double in '83 and '84, and Sterling Marlin joined the club in '94 and '95.

Marlin's '94 win also was his first career Cup victory, making him one of only six men to hold a double celebration in Victory Lane. The others were Tiny Lund ('63), Mario Andretti ('67), Pete Hamilton ('70), Derrike Cope ('90) and Michael Waltrip (2001). That was Andretti's only NASCAR win, although we hear he had a pretty nice career away from stock cars. And Cope's only other victory came just 10 races later at Dover.

Petty's mark of 184 laps led in '64 is the standard for most laps led in winning the race, but Fireball Roberts holds a similar, albeit much more painful, mark. In 1961, the home state hero led 170 of 200 laps and was sitting on a one-lap lead with 13 to go when his engine went up in smoke. The good news: He bounced back to win the following year.

On the flip side, Benny Parsons led only four laps in 1975, but led the circuit that mattered most -- the last one. Kevin Harvick matched that mark in 2007, leading three laps in the middle stages and coming out of nowhere to lead the final lap although truthfully, he led only the final few feet of the final lap.

Harvick's win also set the standard for the closest 500 finish of all time, clocking in at .020 seconds. The second closest? That very first race. They didn't have electronic timing and scoring back then, but the official margin is listed as "two feet."

The best to never win
When Dale Earnhardt finally won the 500 in 1998, it came on his 20th try. Before Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Buddy Baker had shed their "best to never win the Big One" scarlet letters with victories in their 17th and 18th tries, respectively.

"A lot of guys will give you a big speech about how their career doesn't have to include a Daytona 500 win to be complete," Baker says with a chuckle. "I used to say that, too. But I was just trying to convince myself of that."

The list of winners is legendary, but the list of oh-fers is just as impressive. Since 1959, 12 of the 23 Cup champs also have won the 500, while 11 have been shut out, a list that includes two-time Cup champ and 50-race winner Ned Jarrett (0-for-6), 1989 Cup champ Rusty Wallace (0-for-23), 18-race winner Harry Gant (0-for-17), 23-race winner Ricky Rudd (0-for-29), 35-race winner Mark Martin (0-for-23) and third generation racer Kyle Petty (0-for-26).

But the best driver never to win the best race (excluding the stars of today who still have plenty of chances left) is Terry Labonte. Throughout his three-decade career, Texas Terry won 22 races and two Cup championships. But in the Daytona 500, he finished 0-for-27, despite holding the records for laps completed (4,996) and miles run (12,490).

Making the experience more excruciating is the number of times he came oh-so-close to winning it. He finished second to Geoff Bodine in '86, Cope in '90 and Gordon, his teammate, in '97. In 1996, he was the class of the field, but while leading, his engine suddenly started gasping for air, and he faded to 24th.

"It was a plastic bag from a dry cleaning place," he says, still in disbelief. "It was blowing around the track and got sucked up under the hood. It shrink-wrapped itself around the entire intake manifold, just choked it to death. That's how close we came to winning it. By however thin one of those bags is."

The Great American Race
For the record, Terry, it's a couple of hundred microns, or about two-tenths of a millimeter.

But no matter the measurement -- two feet, .020 seconds or a thin sheet of plastic -- the difference between winning and losing the Daytona 500 is the difference between joining Lee Petty, Kevin Harvick and, yes, Derrike Cope with the immortals, or being tossed onto the also-ran pile with Johnny Beauchamp, Mark Martin and, yes, Terry Labonte.

That shot at greatness -- no matter how thin -- is why they keep trying. For a chance to stand with the 49 previous winners or the 2,113 losers.

So, they will keep showing up each February, just as they have every winter since the Eisenhower administration. And today, just as they did then, they will come up out of that tunnel with only one thought on their minds.

I've got a shot to win this thing.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.