Lee Petty wins the very first Daytona 500.
On this day in 1959, Lee Petty defeats Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish at the just-opened Daytona International Speedway in Florida to win the first-ever Daytona 500. The race was so close that Beauchamp was initially named the winner by William France, the owner of the track and head of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). However, Petty, who was driving a hardtop Oldsmobile 88, challenged the results and three days later, with the assistance of news photographs, he was officially named the champ. There was speculation that France declared Beauchamp the winner in order to intentionally stir up controversy and generate publicity for his new race track.
Today, the 200-lap, 500-mile Daytona 500 is one of auto racing’s premiere events and the first race of the NASCAR season. France, a gas station owner and racing promoter, officially co-founded NASCAR in Daytona Beach in 1948. The following year, Lee Petty, a mechanic from North Carolina, began his racing career at the age of 35. He went on to win more than 50 races on NASCAR’s Grand National circuit and three championships before being seriously injured in a crash during a qualifying event at Daytona in 1961. Following the crash, Petty drove in a handful of races before retiring from competition in 1964. He went on to found Petty Enterprises, which became NASCAR’s oldest and most successful racing team. In January 2009, Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and became Richard Petty Motorsports.