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Lee Petty - The First Daytona 500

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In 1959 Petty entered the inaugural running of the Daytona 500, NASCAR's answer to the Indianapolis 500. The race was held on a brand new track, the highly banked Daytona International Speedway. The race was a nail-biter that ended in a three-way photo finish between Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly. NASCAR officials immediately declared Beauchamp the winner. Petty was infuriated, particularly after he heard that a dozen newsmen unanimously thought Petty had won. Petty remained in Daytona for three days after the conclusion of the 500, campaigning for the victory. Finally, after reviewing the photos for days, NASCAR changed its ruling and named Lee Petty the winner. The victory marked the highlight of Petty's career.

Two years later, Petty nearly lost his life in a qualifying race at Daytona. While attempting to avoid another driver who had gone into a spin Petty and Johnny Beauchamp hit each other. Lee's car was sent flying 150 feet over a wall and into a parking lot. Richard Petty witnessed the crash and described the aftermath in his autobiography: "There wasn't anything left of either car. There was blood everywhere, and they had just taken Daddy out of the car and were putting him in the back of an ambulance. He was lifeless." Petty suffered a crushed chest, punctured lung, fractured collarbone, and a broken leg, among other injuries. After days in a coma, Petty managed to pull through. He spent the next four months in a hospital bed.

Petty explained the accident, according to Sports Illustrated's Mark Bechtel, by saying "It was a left turn, and we went straight." However, he was never the same afterwards. His son Richard noticed the difference the next time Lee drove. "It sure wasn't the Lee Petty of old," Richard wrote in his autobiography, "he didn't charge into the turns and he wasn't smooth. That's the part I noticed most." Petty drove in six more races, but his winning days were behind him, admitting in 1989 to the Sporting News's Richard Sowers "That wreck in '61 took the desire out of me." His last win came in 1960 in Jacksonville Florida. He hung on until 1964, then retired after a race in Watkins Glen, New York, telling his sons it was not fun anymore.

Lee Petty always supported the racing ambitions of his son Richard, who began his career while Lee was still active. When the two drove against each other, Richard experienced first-hand what a hard-boiled competitor his father was. In one of Richard's very first races, Lee took his son into the wall in order to pass him. Richard thought he had recorded his first victory at a race in 1960—until a protest was filed claiming that Richard was actually a lap short at the finish. The protest, made by Lee Petty, was upheld and a new victor was named, also Lee Petty. "I would have protested even if it was my mother," Lee Petty said, according to Joseph Slano of the New York Times.. That race turned out to be his last win.

Awards and Accomplishments

1950 Mechanic of the Year
1954, 1958-59 NASCAR champion
1959 Winner Daytona 500
1969 Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame
1990 Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame
Lee Petty - Awards And Accomplishments [next] [back] Lee Petty - A Nascar Pioneer

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almost 2 years ago

I believe I would check the newspapers at the time (1961 about whether Lee Petty spent four months in the hospital); he may have, but it is more likely it took him four months to recover. Beauchamp, not discussed regarding his recover, had difficulty recovering, but he was out of the hospital in perhaps a week or so -- the local newspaper have the exact times on these things.

In 1959, there is considerable evidence that Lee Petty was one lap or more behind when he Beauchamp went over the finish line. Ghosts of Nascar book