1959 Daytona: The Ultimate Photo Finish

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1959 Daytona 500
Lee Petty was declared the winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, but it took three days to determine the outcome of the race in a photo finish. (NASCAR Photo)

While the 60th annual Daytona 500 will take the green flag later today, there have been so many historic happenings during the Daytona 500 it has become known as The Great American Race.

It all started with the 1959 race, which many would argue remains the greatest of all Daytona 500s. While Saturday’s photo-finish of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona Int’l Speedway may have been the closest NASCAR finish (.0004 seconds) in history with the winner determined instantly by computer scoring, it was nearly three days after the inaugural Daytona 500 before Lee Petty was declared the winner.

Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were the only contenders for the victory as the 1959 race neared its conclusion.

As Petty and Beauchamp exchanged the lead in the final laps of the race, Joe Weatherly, whose car was two laps down, caught the leaders’ draft.

On the final lap, when the leaders and Weatherly exited turn four to take the checkered flag, they were three wide with Weatherly on the high side, Petty in the middle and Beauchamp at the bottom.

Both Petty and Beauchamp drove to victory lane and Beauchamp was declared the unofficial winner.

The headline in the Feb. 25, 1959 issue of National Speed Sport News declared: “Beauchamp Announced Victor, But Petty Still Has A Chance.”

1959 Daytona 500
This photo by T. Taylor Warren clearly showed Lee Petty (center) beating Johnny Beauchamp (bottom) to the finish to win the 1959 Daytona 500.

While Beauchamp celebrated after the race, Petty was declared the winner 61 hours later after officials reviewed the still photos and newsreel footage.

“That was the greatest thing that happened to the race track because if Lee Petty had won the race, it would’ve been reported on Monday. Tuesday, you would’ve not heard nothing about it,” said Petty’s son Richard, who went on to win the Daytona 500 seven times. “The way it was, it was in the news Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It put Daytona on the map.”

Petty earned $18,600 from a $70,000 purse for that first Daytona race.

All of the 6,000 hotel rooms in the Daytona Beach area were filled and a crowd of 41,921 paid their way in. An infield ticket was priced at $4.

There were no yellow flags in the event and Bill France Sr. was said to have grossed $500,000 on the event with the money promptly paid to creditors he built up during the construction of the facility.