CEDAR RAPIDS – If you know anything about NASCAR, you probably know the story of the first Daytona 500, in 1959.
It was a controversial, three-wide photo finish that has gone down in history, with NASCAR icon and Hall of Famer Lee Petty being named the winner days after Iowa native Johnny Beauchamp went to victory lane.
Council Bluffs native Georgia Tech professor of 30 years (retired in 2005) John Havick thought he knew the story, too.
Then, while doing research for a project on Beauchamp, 1963 Daytona 500 winner Tiny Lund and a mechanic who worked with them early in their careers, Dale Swanson, Havick stumbled upon something deeper.
The result was “The Ghosts of NASCAR.”
“I honestly didn’t know the whole story of that ’59 race until I started working on it,” Havick said. “Their (Beauchamp, Lund and Swanson’s) story kind of brought me into it, and as I started talking to people, and they started telling me about that race.”
What those people had to say could be somewhat uncomfortable for longtime NASCAR fans to hear.
Havick unearthed stories from people surrounding the sport in a time where – due to a vastly different media climate and a lack of attention to the sport from a national perspective – blurring the lines of the rulebook was common place.
The Petty family, Havick said, was notorious for protesting finishes. In Ghosts, Havick tells the story of Lee protesting the finish of son Richard’s first win.
After a review of the lap counts, Lee was declared the winner, and Richard had his first win taken away. In the early days of NASCAR, with electronic scoring not even a dream yet, each team kept track of their laps on a scoresheet. With that sometimes came controversy, and according to Havick’s reporting, the Pettys were often at the heart of it.
Havick wrote in his book that Lee’s wife, Elizabeth, was known as “having the fastest pencil in NASCAR” at the time. Rumors swirled around the garage of the time that perhaps the Pettys were the beneficiary of fudged results, often having recorded one more lap than the officials and thereby earning the victory – with no way to prove it.
Word of mouth led Havick from those rumors to the first Daytona 500, and how that same scoring process may have cost Beauchamp a place in history more prominent than a footnote – for most people, at least.
“That was like a mystery. It became that way. Each little part of it evolved, but there were many mysteries,” Havick said. “That ’59 race, the way it unfolded – I first talked to someone, just one person maybe, and then they’d say Lee Petty was probably a lap behind. Then I’d call one of the old NASCAR drivers, and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I told my girlfriend when she was keeping my laps to keep one eye my lap card and the other eye on Petty’s lap card.”
Havick stressed that there was little documented about these stories, and surmised that William “Big Bill” France, the founder of NASCAR, wanted to let sleeping dogs lie at the time. Havick believes some evidence for that lies in a disqualification Petty received shortly after at a race in Charlotte for an infraction that normally garnered a nominal fine.
And enough people told him a similar story, he said, that he believes where there was smoke, there was bound to be fire.
“Whether they caught him then or not, I think old Big Bill France wanted to teach them a lesson that they better not be cheating,” Havick said. “That’s what I think probably happen. To me that seemed like the message.”
The story of the 1959 Daytona 500 is the heart of Havick’s book, but is just one facet in an otherwise fascinating read.
The Harlan Boys – Beauchamp, Lund and their mechanic Swanson who were all Harlan, Iowa natives – were what drew him into the project initially, and the words he spent on telling their story were deliberate, purposeful and meaningful.
Havick was a boy at Playland Park, a now-defunct race track that sat next to an amusement park in Council Bluffs, in the late 1940s and ‘50s, and watched the Harlan Boys as they were honing their craft and on their way to NASCAR success.
Racing fans will find stories they’ve likely never heard in Ghosts, which makes it a must-read for anyone who loves the sport and loves to hear stories of the past.
“I think if there’s anything (fans) need to know, is that that race (the ’59 Daytona 500) was probably decided incorrectly,” Havick said. “And then, the next thing to know was there were some pretty darn good racers coming out of Harlan, Iowa. That basically, in the case of Beauchamp and his mechanic Dale Swanson, they dominated racing in that corner of Iowa for quite a while.”
You can purchase “The Ghosts of NASCAR: The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500” on Amazon and at most major book retailers. Find out more at www.ghostsofnascar.com.