By admin | February 4, 2014
I have been a NASCAR fan for as long as I can remember, and a significant number of my racing memories have come from the Daytona 500. There have been 55 Daytona 500’s to this point and every one of them has been historic in its own right. In this series that will run in the days leading up to this year’s running of ‘The Great American Race’, I will list the twelve versions of the sport’s most important event that I consider to be the most noteworthy.
By Richard Allen
The first Daytona 500 certainly holds a special place in history(more on that later), but the second version of ‘The Great American Race’ also became noteworthy when it added a new term to the racing vocabulary. Hall of Fame driver Junior Johnson won this race in 1960 when he employed “the draft” to allow his 1959 Chevrolet to keep up with the much faster 1960 Pontiac machines.
Oddly enough, Johnson did not even have a ride going into NASCAR’s second go around on the behemoth 2.5 mile high banked track. But John Masoni, owner of the nearby Daytona Beach Kennel Club, went to local racing guru and mechanic Ray Fox barely a week before the green flag was to drop and asked if he could have a car ready in time for the race. After a frantic effort by Fox and some helpers he called in, the car was finished and recently unemployed Johnson was enlisted to drive it.
Pontiac had put together a stellar team of drivers for the race that year and went in as the heavy favorite among the manufacturers. Fireball Roberts, Cotton Owens and Paul Goldsmith were among those set to drive the brand’s latest model. Johnson’s hastily built ‘59 Chevy was considerably slower in the practice sessions leading up to the race.
“I about decided I was wasting my time,” Johnson recalled years later in an interview with Steve Waid. “I was about to go home. I didn’t want to stay in Daytona and watch the Pontiacs lap me every 10 or twelve laps. I had no enthusiasm.
“On top of being outpowered, our car was a year old,” Johnson added. “The only reason I was in the race was because of the guy from the dog track making it worth my while.”
After Fox tuned a bit more on the car, Johnson went out to practice just behind the Pontiac driven by Cotton Owens. The driver discovered that when he latched on to the rear bumper of the car just in front of him that he could stay with the much faster machine.
“I wanted to be sure of what I had hit on, so I went out to practice alone,” Johnson remembered. “The car was still the same- pretty slow. So I came back onto pit road road and sat there waitin’ for some Pontiacs to come by. I got in with them on the track and I stayed up. They couldn’t shake me.”
Once the race finally got underway, it proved to be a crash-fest with tons of metal being twisted almost beyond recognition. Almost half of the 68 cars to take the green flag were involved in one wreck or another. So many cars were destroyed that NASCAR boss Bill France, Sr. was forced to cancel the next two races on the series schedule so teams would have time to rebuild their cars.
As the race drew to its conclusion, most of the top Pontiacs had fallen by the wayside. Only Bobby Johns remained, and with 10 laps to go, he looked as if he would hold Johnson at bay to take the victory. However, as the cars roared down the back stretch of the giant track, the rear glass suddenly popped out of Johns’ car.
The change in air flow caused Johns to spin which allowed Johnson fly by. The former moonshine runner from North Carolina had pulled off his greatest slip ever, slipstream that is, as he had kept his much slower car in contention and introduced a new term at the same time. Since that day, every race held at Daytona has featured ‘the draft’ as a major part of the story.
The 1960 version of ‘The Great American Race’ was certainly one of the most historic of the 55 Daytona 500’s to have been contested.
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