No. 5 most memorable Daytona 500: The photo finish

No. 5 most memorable Daytona 500: 1959.

Updated: February 15, 2007, 6:05 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

After 200 laps in the debut event on the biggest and fastest racetrack anyone in stock car racing had ever seen, three cars crossed the finish line at almost the same moment.

What was happening in 1959
• Dwight Eisenhower was president.
• The Barbie doll debuted at a retail price of $3.
• The average cost of a gallon of gas was 29 cents.
• The average cost of a home was $18,500.
• Alaska became the 49th state on Jan. 3, eight months before Hawaii became the 50th state.
• The price on the showroom floor of an Olds Super 88 that Petty drove to victory (yes, it really was a stock car in those days) was $3,900.
• Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash three weeks before the Daytona 500.
• Bonanza was the first TV western in color.
-- Terry Blount

Five most memorable
Daytona 500s

• No. 1: 2001 | ESPN Video
• No. 2: The fist fight | ESPN Video
• No. 3: Dale gets his | ESPN Video
• No. 4: The crash | ESPN Video
• No. 5: The photo finish | ESPN Video

Uh Oh. What do we do now?

No one in NASCAR considered the possibility of the first Daytona 500 in 1959 ending in a photo finish. It wasn't a realistic option for a 500-mile race on the brand new, gargantuan 2.5-mile oval near the Central Florida coast.

That's exactly what happened when Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly crossed the finish line three wide.

The amazing finish makes the inaugural event No. 5 on our list of most memorable Daytona 500s. Petty, the father of seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty, won it, but no one knew it for sure when the race ended.

"I remember we stayed down there until Wednesday," Richard Petty said. "Eventually, they said Dad won when they found enough photos [and film] of the finish. Having that long a wait to find out who won turned out to be good for NASCAR because the race stayed in the newspapers a week."

Richard was a 21-year-old rookie that day. His engine blew after eight laps and he finished 57th in the 59-car field.

Much has changed since that first race 48 years ago. Attendance was 41,921, about one-fifth the number of people expected to attend the 2007 Daytona 500.

The race ended without a single caution. Petty's average speed for the victory was 135.521 mph.

He took home a check for $19,050. Jimmie Johnson earned $1.5 million last year for his win, and last-place finisher Carl Edwards earned $269,882.

But 19 grand was a nice piece of change in 1959. The average salary was about $5,500 and the minimum wage was $1 an hour.

Daytona International Speedway in 1959 had little resemblance to the massive complex it is today. There were no garages in the infield. The teams put up tents for a work area.

The most popular track at the time was Darlington Raceway, which had the biggest race in the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. The egg-shaped South Carolina track (a 1.3-mile oval) was the biggest before Daytona.

But the incredible finish of the first Daytona 500 helped the event quickly become the biggest show in NASCAR.

Lee Petty, who had won his second championship the previous season, was driving an Oldsmobile Super 88 Coupe. Beauchamp was in a Ford Thunderbird. They broke away from the pack and traded the lead several times in the final 30 laps.

Johnny Beauchamp (73), and Lee Petty, (42)
AP PhotoJohnny Beauchamp, front, and Lee Petty were neck and neck on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 1959. Petty nosed out Beauchamp at the finish line.

Petty took the lead on Lap 197, but Beauchamp made a move to the front on the last lap. The problem was he had to contend with Weatherly, who was a lap down.

"I don't think Weatherly did it intentionally, but I was hampered by his blocking at times," Beauchamp said after the race.

The three cars reached the finish line together -- Beauchamp on the inside, Petty in the middle and Weatherly on the outside.

Electronic scoring wasn't around in those days. NASCAR didn't even have a photo-finish camera. A NASCAR official at the finish line thought Beauchamp had won by about a foot. Beauchamp was initially declared the winner.

"I had him by two feet," Beauchamp said after the race. "I glanced over to Lee's car as I crossed the finish line and I could see his headlight slightly back of my car. It was so close I didn't know how they would call it, but I thought I won."

Petty saw it differently: "I had Beauchamp by a good two feet," Petty said afterward. "In my mind, I know I won."

Driver Fireball Roberts, who left the race early, was standing near the finish line at the end: "There's no doubt about it," Roberts said. "Petty won."

NASCAR President Bill France knew he had a big problem. France decided to delay the determination of the winner until officials could examine photographs and 8 millimeter footage of the finish.

Three days later, newsreel footage confirmed that Petty won. Petty went on to win his third championship that year.

Petty and Beauchamp's Daytona story doesn't end there. They were involved in a serious incident during a qualifying race for the 1961 Daytona 500.

Leader Banjo Matthews spun in front of them while they were racing side-by-side, causing Petty's and Beauchamp's cars to tumble over the guard rail. Petty's injuries forced him to retire.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter