On this day in 1959, Lee Petty defeats Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish at the just-opened Daytona International Speedway in Florida to win the first-ever Daytona 500. The race was so close that Beauchamp was initially named the winner by William France, the owner of the track and head of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). However, Petty, who was driving a hardtop Oldsmobile 88, challenged the results and three days later, with the assistance of news photographs, he was officially named the champ. There was speculation that France declared Beauchamp the winner in order to intentionally stir up controversy and generate publicity for his new race track.
Today, the 200-lap, 500-mile Daytona 500 is one of auto racing’s premiere events and the first race of the NASCAR season. France, a gas station owner and racing promoter, officially co-founded NASCAR in Daytona Beach in 1948. The following year, Lee Petty, a mechanic from North Carolina, began his racing career at the age of 35. He went on to win more than 50 races on NASCAR’s Grand National circuit (subsequently known as the Winston Cup from 1971 to 2003, the NEXTEL Cup from 2004 to 2007 and the Sprint Cup from 2008 onward) and three championships before being seriously injured in a crash during a qualifying event at Daytona in 1961. Following the crash, Petty drove in a handful of races before retiring from competition in 1964. He went on to found Petty Enterprises, which became NASCAR’s oldest and most successful racing team. In January 2009, Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and became Richard Petty Motorsports.
Petty’s son, Richard (1937- ) became one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, winning the Daytona 500 a record seven times between 1964 and 1981. Richard Petty’s sixth victory at Daytona, in 1979, also marked the first time the race was shown live, flag-to-flag, on television. Due to a snowstorm on the East Coast, a larger-than-anticipated TV audience tuned in to the race, which included a memorable fistfight between drivers Cale Yarborough and brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison, and the broadcast was a key moment in NASCAR’s rise to become one of America’s most popular spectator sports.
The Petty racing dynasty also includes Richard’s son, Kyle Petty, and Adam Petty, Kyle’s son, who died at the age of 19 in a crash at the New Hampshire International Speedway on May 12, 2000. Adam’s great-grandfather, Lee Petty, had died less than a month earlier, on April 5, at the age of 86.