Haglund: ‘I never want to hear that name again,’ he screamed at me
For 20 years, this time of year would find me far away from Iowa, hoping for warm temperatures and dry weather in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Two weeks in the “Sunshine State” always included meetings with motorsports promoters from around the country followed by days spent at Daytona International Speedway and nights spent at various auto racing venues around Florida. For a time, it also included promotional duties for an IMCA Modified Series at various locations around the state.
One of the highlights of the days spent down south was an annual “Iowa Party” that brought together more than 100 Iowans, who, like me, had escaped the cold for a week-long adventure in Florida.
Those days are gone, but I’ve remained loyal to my auto racing roots and spent several days watching all the action at Daytona International Speedway, culminating with the Daytona 500.
However, in recent years, NASCAR’s popularity has waned around the nation. The powers-that-be decided the fault of that decline rested on the shoulders of Brian France, grandson of founder Bill France, who built Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama — the biggest and fastest of all NASCAR tracks around the nation.
The first race at Daytona came in 1959. Talladega followed about 15 years later.
Iowan Johnny Beauchamp, the late speedster who was from Atlantic, drove to an apparent victory in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. However, three days later, Bill France announced photos showed Beauchamp was actually second, nosed by Lee Petty at the finish.
That resulted in a change of the Sunday results and created some lasting controversy that has, over time, pretty much faded from conversation among race fans around the nation.
However, it has never faded from the memory of many Iowans, this writer included.
I’d watched Beauchamp race during the Iowa State Fair. I was one of the race fans of that era who thought Beauchamp was unbeatable and was a hero with super-human abilities.
That didn’t change, even after I met him for the first and only time in my life. That was in 1981, shortly before his death, when he was promoting races at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, along with a man named Homer Melton.
That association didn’t end well, at all. Melton also promoted races at Cedar Rapids’ Hawkeye Downs and also at Davenport. He set up a three-track series and offered drivers a big point fund at season’s end.
However, before that point fund was paid, Melton took off to Florida. Apparently, the season’s point fund went with him.
That wasn’t even a thought, though, when Beauchamp and I first visited. It didn’t take long for Beauchamp to learn that I was a true race fan, not to mention I viewed him as something of an Iowa idol.
He was amazed I could talk about that 1959 Daytona 500. I’d read every story about that race, from the time he was announced as the winner until three days later when it was taken away from him.
Of course, I had no idea Beauchamp’s life would end shortly after that meeting. I suppose that’s one of the reasons his words ring in my ears every year about this time.
“Bill, I won that first Daytona 500,” he told me that day. “I was a full lap ahead of Lee Petty at the finish. Don’t let anyone ever forget that.”
Those words rang in my ears, and I become one who sought to either validate, or invalidate, Beauchamp’s claim.
There’s no way to actually know. The only records of that first race are film and photos of the finish that show Petty ahead of Beauchamp as the two cars crossed the finish line. Joe Weatherly is also pictured, his car crossing the finish line in a three-wide conclusion.
Weatherly was a lap behind Petty and Beauchamp. Beauchamp died believing that Petty, also, was a full lap behind at the finish.
“I knew I was a lap ahead of Petty,” Beauchamp said. “He was in the pits during the race, and I never pitted. He never passed me on the track, which would have simply put him back on the lead lap, until the finish.”
Beauchamp’s belief he’d won, were given even more credence a few years later. In those days, each car was required to have a scorer, and all those scorers were overseen by NASCAR’s chief scorer, the late Morris Metcalf.
In a 1965 race at Rockingham, N.C., Lee Petty’s wife, who was the scorer for her husband, was caught cheating. She’d scored her husband with one more completed lap, the same thing Beauchamp claimed had happened during the 1959 Daytona 500.
Because of that, Petty’s wife was forever banned from scoring any other races. To Beauchamp, that came six-plus years too late. It only added to his belief he’d won the first Daytona 500.
Back in the ‘80s, when I was a regular at Daytona, I mingled with all of the NASCAR stars. One year, while working on a NASCAR crew, our car was assigned a garage stall that happened to be next to Richard Petty’s.
By that time, Lee Petty was a regular in Richard’s garage. One day, while both cars were in the garage, Lee Petty appeared at his son’s car. I thought it was a good a time as any to ask Lee Petty about that first Daytona 500.
“You know, Mr. Petty, Johnny Beauchamp believes that he, not you, won the first Daytona 500,” I said, as innocently as possible.
But, Petty’s response was anything but mild.
“Johnny Beauchamp! Johnny Beauchamp!” he literally screamed at me. “I don’t want to hear that name ever again.”
He stomped away, and I never spoke to him again.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.