February 07, 2008

In the '50s there was just Darlington. The paved, high-banked 1.4-mile South Carolina track was the fastest on the Grand National circuit during NASCAR's first decade, with winning speeds typically topping out at more than 90 miles per hour. But then Daytona International Speedway opened, in 1959, and a year later came kindred tracks in Atlanta, Charlotte and Hanford, Calif. NASCAR's space age had begun. Like Darlington, all of the new venues allowed cars to run with stability at high speeds, encouraging drivers and manufacturers to push the outside of the envelope with greater horsepower and sleeker aerodynamics. The pursuit of pace was never more exciting, as increases in velocity came in large jumps. As the '60s began, average speeds on dirt tracks were typically around 60 or 70 miles per hour. But on the shiny new speedways, the cars' big V-8 engines began to take them far beyond those limits. By the time Talladega opened, in 1969, the 200-mph barrier was within reach.

With high speed a permanent part of the game, NASCAR initiated one of its first safety revolutions. In the years that followed, several measures were implemented to protect drivers: Fire-retardant suits became mandatory, gas tanks were replaced with impact-resistant fuel cells, and manufacturers strengthened their racing tires to prevent the blowouts that started many accidents. There was very little that was "stock" about the cars racing at the end of the '60s. NASCAR had entered a brave new world, leaving its dirt-track past in the dust.

1959 - The first Daytona 500 also has the closest finish, as Lee Petty edges Johnny Beauchamp -- initially declared the winner before officials took three days to review race film -- by a mere two feet. The winner's share of the prize money is $19,050.

1960 - Junior Johnson wins the second 500 with the slowest average speed in race history (124.74). Five months later Bud Moore and Jack Smith participate in a NASCAR first: They use a two-way radio system to communicate during the Firecracker 250 at Daytona.

1961 - After leading for 170 laps, Daytona Beach resident Glenn (Fireball) Roberts can't hold off Marvin Panch, whose victory in the 500 is his only win of the season.

1962 - This year the 144 laps Roberts leads after starting from the pole position are enough for him to hold off second-place finisher Richard Petty and earn the victory.

1963 - Injuries sustained from a fiery crash 10 days before the 500 sideline '61 winner Panch, so friend Tiny Lund drives in Panch's place and wins the race -- his first Cup victory -- amid a crowded field of 50 cars.

1964 - Taking after his father, Lee, a three-time Cup champion and inaugural 500 winner, Richard Petty wins his first Great American Race and first Cup title in the same year.

1965 - The first driver to win more than $100,000 in a season, in '63, Fred (Golden Boy) Lorenzen adds $27,100 to his winnings by taking the checkered flag at the 500 two years later.

1966 - Don't crown him yet, but Petty is already turning in performances worthy of his future royal nickname, such as his second win at the 500, just a warmup for his record-setting 27-win spree in '67.

1967 - Open-wheel star Mario Andretti wins the 500, the first of only four races he'll win in a stock car during a racing career that spans five decades.

1968 - The King meets the King on screen as Petty (along with Buddy Baker and the year's 500 winner, Cale Yarborough) makes a cameo in an Elvis Presley movie about stock car racing, Speedway.

1969 - The first victory of LeeRoy Yarbrough's seven-win season comes at Daytona, where he begins his successful quest to capture NASCAR's Triple Crown (the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500). Eleven seconds behind with 10 laps to go, Yarbrough takes the checkered flag by a car length.

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