Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 race on the current super-speedway track back in 1959.
It was a very close race, but the father of the future man-who-would-be-king of NASCAR (Richard Petty) took a photo finish win.
And he did it in an Oldsmobile.
As we all know, Detroit has been on a crash diet for a few years now. A steady menu of famous names like Oldsmobile and Plymouth were given last rites over the past few years, and now we can throw Pontiac and Mercury on the funeral pyre.
For those of us from the Fred Flintstone era, this is nothing short of an absolute tragedy.
All of these brands were readily available over the course of our lives and, for an all too brief golden moment in time, these cars fought on the track.
The old adage “win on Sunday sell on Monday” pushed Detroit into horsepower wars that turned up the heat on the track- and on the street. It was all about brute force, muscle and attitude for the Big Three.
The grand-daddy of NASCAR will always be the Daytona 500. Daytona is Mt. Everest for the Cup boys. It always has been-and always will be – the big hill of racing. So as Pontiac heads to the big garage in the sky, and Mercury receives last rites, we want to salute the lost brands of Daytona.
Oldsmobile won the big one three times, and two victories came from the same family; the Petty family. Twenty years after his father Lee won the race in an Olds, King Richard won the first live network broadcast of the Daytona in 1979.
The race has become famous for its crash-filled conclusion in which Richard avoided a metal-bending battle between the leaders that resulted in a post-race fistfight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers. Richard Petty came from third place to the winner’s circle and NASCAR never looked back again as it became a TV ratings monster.
Richard was no stranger to the winner’s circle at Daytona. In fact, the famous electric blue number 43 Plymouth had been there three out of the four times Plymouth won the race. The lone exception was 1970 when Pete Hamilton took the legendary Plymouth Superbird to the checkered flag at Daytona.
The latest casualty of Detroit is Pontiac. Pontiac won the third and fourth Daytona races in ’61 and ’62, with their last victory in 1983. Cale Yarborough was the wheel man in ’83 after he presumably learned a lesson from his 1979 demolition race with Allison.
Last off the assembly line is Mercury. The name Mercury was very appropriate in ’68, ’72 and 1976 as this brand was the fastest on the track at the Daytona 500 in those years. But, in 1976, David Pearson was rather slow across the finish line as his Mercury limped to the finish after a last lap crash with Petty. Maybe this was the race in which Petty learned his lesson about a demolition derby finish.
Those of us who remember these cars as track and street legends will mourn their passing. Names like Cyclone, 442, GTO and Superbird will always mean something to us.
They were gods among mere mortal cars and we salute them.
Jim Sutherland @mystarcollectorcar.com
TREVOR:”Nice story on the Daytona cars! I loved the #22 Pontiac”.
DENNIS:”If you’re older than Television, this was NASCAR-HERB THOMAS # 92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet”.