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Wrecks mar 1961 qualifying race

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011

Richard Petty was extremely anxious to get out of the infield infirmary at Daytona International Speedway on that day 50 years ago.

He wanted to see how his famous father, Lee, was doing in the second of two 100-mile qualifying races leading to the Daytona 500 two days later on Feb. 26, 1961.

Never mind that “seeing” might prove a bit of a problem for the younger Petty. A savage crash that sent his Plymouth flying out of the fast 2.5-mile track in the first 100-miler had left Richard with several bits of glass from a shattered windshield in his eyes.

Finally, the painful pellets removed, Richard emerged and headed to pit road.

He’d taken only a few steps when fans watching nearby in the infield screamed in horror. “I looked up at some people who were on scaffolds and the tops of trucks,” the man who was to become NASCAR’s King Richard recalls. “They seemed to be in shock.

“I yelled to them and asked what had happened. They said, ‘Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp just went out of the race track in the fourth turn!’

“I couldn’t believe it. Two Petty cars over the rail and out at Daytona on the same day! It seemed unreal. Then it hit me that daddy might be hurt real bad, way worse than I was.” Indeed, driver and team owner Lee Petty, winner of the first Daytona 500 in 1959, was gravely injured.

The three-time champion of the Grand National Division, destined to become the present-day Cup Series, had suffered grave, life-threatening injuries, mainly to his left side. There were multiple fractures of the chest, a badly-broken thigh and leg, a punctured lung and other internal injuries, a blow to the head that left him unconscious.

“It was awful what that accident did to him,” continues Richard, the winner of 200 races and seven championships who remains in the sport as a team owner entering the upcoming season. “It essentially ended his driving career. He entered only six more races over the next three years before retiring to run Petty Enterprises.”

Although no one was killed five decades ago on Feb. 24 of 1961, the day ranks among the darkest in the Daytona track’s history. There was wreck-after-grinding-wreck in the two races. In addition to the two Pettys, five other drivers and a spectator were hurt. Richard Petty’s crash took place as he closely followed Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson as they battled for the lead on the next-to-last lap in the opening 100-miler.

Johnson ran over some debris from an earlier crash, cut a tire and swerved from control. Johnson’s Pontiac nicked Richard’s Plymouth, sending it rocketing to the right and over the steel rails, landing upright on an access road. Johnson then smashed into the rail barrier. The impact was so violent that his car’s engine was shoved back into the cockpit. Johnson sustained a badly-gashed chin as Roberts rode on to win the race that was shortened to 39 laps from a scheduled 40.

Earlier in the first race a violent accident involving Dave Mader and Wes Morgan sent the latter’s Chevrolet flipping seven times near the fourth turn.

Hours after the wild, terrifying developments of the twin races, there was speculation that the Mader-Morgan wreck might have led to Lee Petty and Beauchamp flying from the track. Knowledgeable insiders felt the railing had been so weakened that it easily gave way later on. The Lee Petty-Beauchamp crash was awash with irony. The two had battled abreast for victory in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. They flashed across the finish line in a near dead-heat. NASCAR founder and president Big Bill France stood below the flagstand to make the call on a winner. No photo-finish camera was in place. Such equipment never had been needed previously in a NASCAR race. France declared Beauchamp the victor by inches. A howl from reporters and fans ensued. A majority felt Petty had won by that margin. France declared the outcome “unofficial” and checked various photos and movie clips of the finish for three days. Finally, he reversed himself and named Petty the winner. The elder Petty and Beauchamp wrecked almost at the same instant Joe Weatherly took the checkered flag to win the second 100-miler.

As the two stars of the 500-miler in 1959 ran side-by-side, Beauchamp’s car seemed to bobble slightly up the banking toward Petty, who was in the outer groove. Both cars then slipped sideways and in a blink were into and either over or through the guard rail. The impacts were so great that 13 posts supporting the railing were smashed away. These posts measured a stout 8 x 8 inches. Petty’s car sailed highest and crashed down an estimated 300 feet from the track. Wrapped around it were parts of the railing. Lee Petty’s car struck a spectator walking outside the track, A.B. Kelley of Nashville, Tenn. Although he suffered severe lacerations of the hands, Kelley helped to pull Petty from the car, which had begun to burn. Beauchamp was hospitalized with head injuries.

Weatherly blamed the carnage on rookie drivers among the 67 starters in the two races.

“I know it was veteran drivers in the worst crashes, but it was rookies that caused them, dammit!” charged Weatherly. “The rookies weren’t looking in their mirrors to see faster guys coming up behind them.” Veteran Rex White echoed that charge.

“If NASCAR doesn’t have a meeting to educate some of these amateurs, there can’t be much of a race on Sunday. There were some goofballs on the track today.”

It was so wild that one driver, Brian Naylor, saw the left-front wheel from his car fly far out into Lake Lloyd in the speedway’s infield. The highly-regarded Roberts, a superstar, made an unusual confession after the day of destruction was done. “I was scared to death out there,” he said.

Next up: The 1961 Daytona 500

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