Although he only competed in 23 races, Johnny Beauchamp earned a place in NASCAR history by finishing second in the first Daytona 500, a race he always claimed he won. Before his brief NASCAR career, Beauchamp raced at Playland Speedway in Council Bluffs, Iowa from 1950-1954. He won thirty-seven features and two championships on the rough and tumble short track before competing on the IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) series. Beauchamp won the 1956 season championship and the next year he came to Springfield for a 200 lap race at the Fairgrounds on May 26. The event was stopped after just six laps due to blinding dirt that swirled over the speedway. Water was poured on the track for about an hour and the race resumed. Attrition was high and only 7 of the 12 cars that started finished the race. Beauchamp won by five laps over second place finisher Don White. The victory tied Beauchamp with Bob Burdick for the IMCA points lead.
Beauchamp also tried to break into the NASCAR circuit and in 1957 he had an impressive second place finish on the Daytona Beach course. In 1959, Beauchamp was declared the winner of the first Daytona 500 in a photo finish with Lee Petty. Petty protested the results and NASCAR President Bill France turned to photographs and newsreel footage to determine the winner. Although this evidence seemed to show Petty getting to the finish line first, the official scoring was done by hand. A driver’s wife or girlfriend was usually responsible for counting how many laps were completed. It was easy for mistakes to happen and the final results of many races were disputed. Beauchamp and his team insisted that Petty made more pit stops than they did and therefore he was at least one lap down. France declared Petty the winner three days after the race.
Ironically, Petty and Beauchamp were involved in a crash that effectively ended their NASCAR careers. They were following leader Banjo Matthews in the second qualifying race for the 1961 Daytona 500. Matthews lost control of his car in turn four and spun in front of oncoming traffic. Trying to avoid Matthew’s spinning car, Petty and Beauchamp crashed through the guard rail and landed outside the speedway. Petty was seriously injured and although he competed in a few more races, his Hall of Fame NASCAR career was over. Beauchamp suffered a minor head injury and returned to the IMCA series but he never competed in another NASCAR event. In only 23 career NASCAR starts, Beauchamp won 2 races and had 10 top 10 finishes.
For a complete history of Beauchamp’s career and the controversial finish of the first Daytona 500, check out the library’s new book Ghosts of NASCAR by John Havick.
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