In all forms of auto racing, major breakthroughs come when they are least expected. One major surprise surfaced in the days leading up to the 1960 Daytona 500.
Junior Johnson stood quietly in the Daytona Int’l Speedway garage area trying to keep a smile from crossing his face. He had been given a ride only eight days earlier when crew chief Ray Fox called and asked him to come to Florida. Local entrepreneur John Mason paid Fox twice the going rate to build a car to enter in the 500. Fox agreed and his Daytona-based crew worked around the clock to complete the job.
Johnson, a 29-year-old moonshiner turned race driver, made a crucial discovery during practice. He qualified a 1959 Chevrolet ninth among 68 cars in the starting field, but was some 30 mph slower than the Pontiac driven by polesitter Cotton Owens.
The week had gone so badly Johnson told Fox he was going home North Carolina. He wanted no part of being embarrassed by having the stronger and sleeker contingent of Pontiacs lapping him every 10 or 12 laps.
Fox convinced Johnson to stay in Daytona by promising the car would be much faster before race time. Johnson agreed, but left the option open of turning the car over to another driver.
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Less than 24 hours before the second annual Daytona 500, Johnson discovered some type of mysterious vacuum that pulled him along behind the faster cars. A bit unnerving at first, something magical was happening and Johnson knew he could use it to his advantage.
In essence, he had discovered the draft, a term that’s been commonplace in motorsports ever since.
“Pontiac had built an engine for racing and they were strong,” Johnson said in February 2015. “We had a 409-cubic-inch engine in our car and that was a stock Chevrolet motor they used in trucks. It wasn’t good for racing at all.”
While circling the track during practice and longing to be in a fast car, Johnson fell in behind Owens and was suddenly pulled close to his rear bumper while running at half throttle.[caption id="attachment_224481" align="alignleft" width="300"] Junior Johnson discovered the draft en route to winning the 1960 Daytona 500. (NASCAR Photo)[/caption]
“We hadn’t been running fast at all but when I got behind Cotton, my car took off like Jack the Bear,” Johnson said. “I was on his rear bumper and stayed right there with him. I discovered I could make my way to the front by getting behind the faster cars. It was my chance to win the race.
“I came back in the garage and told Ray I thought we could run with the leaders. He thought I was crazy and said, ‘How are we gonna do that?’” Johnson remembered. “I didn’t tell him what I discovered because I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I just told him I thought what he had done to the car made it faster.”
As the race progressed under clear Florida skies, Johnson steadily worked his way forward as the powerful Pontiacs of Owens, Jack Smith, Fireball Roberts and Mel Larson dropped off the pace one by one. Sammy Johns was the strongest of them in the Jim Stephens Racing Pontiac, surviving the wreck-strewn event that saw so many crashes NASCAR postponed the next two events so teams could rebuild their cars.
With 10 circuits remaining, Johnson drafted close behind Johns, who led the race. In the blink of an eye, Johns spun wildly on the backstretch when turbulence sucked the rear glass out of his car, sending him through the grass. Johns finished second, 23 seconds behind Johnson. It’s still considered one of the most remarkable finishes in Daytona 500 history.
So what was it that Johnson had discovered? Fundamentally, smooth air acts as a slipstream and increases efficiency in a tandem draft, causing a vacuum effect behind the lead car. That allows the second car to travel with much less resistance, creating more speed for both cars. The extra speed of the second car helps the lead car, as multiple cars can travel faster than a single car.