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Drivers on edge as 1961 Daytona 500 green flag nears

TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Wednesday, Feb. 02, 2011

The second of two installments:

It was with extreme apprehension that drivers in a 58-car field awaited the green flag for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, 1961.

Just two days earlier, twin 100-mile qualifying races leading to NASCAR’s biggest event had been marred by horrifying wrecks that hospitalized seven drivers and a spectator.

Lee Petty, a three-time champion in the Grand National Division, forerunner of today’s Cup series, was hurt the worst. Petty suffered life-threatening injuries when his car flew from the track and landed about 300 feet away. His body was badly broken, and the accident essentially ended his splendid driving career.

Petty’s son, Richard, and Johnny Beauchamp had also sailed violently out of Daytona International Speedway. Beauchamp sustained a head injury and the younger Petty had bits of glass in his eyes from a shattered windshield.

Junior Johnson’s chin was gashed in the accident that involved Richard. It could have been far worse. Johnson’s engine was knocked well back into the cockpit of his car.

The carnage led Fireball Roberts, stock car racing’s biggest star at the time, to comment, “I was scared to death out there.”

Roberts won the first 100-miler in a Pontiac fielded by colorful engineer/crew chief Smokey Yunick. Joe Weatherly took the second preliminary in a Pontiac prepared by team owner Bud Moore.

There was uneasy, nervous “gallows humor” as time for the green flag in the 500 drew nearer 50 years ago.

Roberts, the fastest qualifier at 155.709 mph, was heavily favored.

Through the first 42 of the race’s 200 laps at the 2.5-mile track, Roberts rode smoothly, carefully and alternated in the lead with Banjo Matthews, Nelson Stacy and Johnson.

In contrast to the qualifying races and to the surprise of the drivers and spectators in a crowd estimated at 51,000,there was no trouble.

His confidence buoyed a bit, Fireball turned up the heat.

The Daytona Beach native swept ahead on the 43rd lap and stayed there. Steadily, he built his lead to a whopping two laps.

Then, heartbreak. On the 187th lap Fireball’s powerful engine flamed out.

Roberts’ departure left his teammate, Marvin Panch, in the lead. Panch, driving a year-old Pontiac that Roberts had wheeled the previous season, inherited first place and a 17-second lead over Weatherly.

Yunick had ordered Panch to finish as high as he could, but behind Roberts.

The personable, popular, gentlemanly Panch followed instructions, which appeared moot when Fireball sped so far ahead.

Now, the Daytona 500 belonged to Panch if he could stave off Weatherly, whose car was thought to be much faster.

The driver nicknamed “Pancho” did so, and readily. He took the checkered flag 16 seconds in front of runner-up Weatherly. Paul Goldsmith was the only other driver completing all 200 laps as Pontiac swept the top three positions. Ford’s Fred Lorenzen and Pontiac-driving Cotton Owens followed, two laps down.

Call it fate, coincidence or less recklessness by the drivers, there wasn’t a single yellow flag over the 200 laps.

The absence of cautions enabled Panch to average 149.701 mph, smashing to smithereens the record for 500 miles in any form of racing. The record in two previous 500s at Daytona was 135.521 mph.

It was the first major victory for California native Panch. And his first win since he took a 50-miler in 1957 on a half-mile dirt track at Concord, N.C.

A delighted Panch said that he heard ominous rattles and other noises from his car in the closing laps.

“I actually was talking to my car, especially during the last lap,” Panch said. “That was the longest lap I’ve ever driven in my life.”

Panch said that he set a steady, conservative pace after taking the lead. However, reporters in the press box clocked him at 157 mph, even on the last lap.

Panch said he had no problem with Yunick’s order to defer to Fireball.

“Everyone knew he had by far the fastest car. No one was going to outrun him if he didn’t have trouble. I was content with second place. Bad luck for Fireball was good luck for me,” said Panch, who won the then-princely sum of $21,050.

Panch was asked about the 500 going caution-free after the 100-milers had been so horrifying and strewn with wrecks.

“I’m surprised,” he conceded. “And very, very thankful. Everyone is.”

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