Jan 10, 2010

'Spur-of-the-moment deal' a Daytona winner!

It’s a story of almost fairy tale proportions.

Call it “The Fox And The Greyhound.”

It happened just before, and then during, the 500-miler staged on Feb. 14, 1960, at Daytona International Speedway.

A whopping field of 68 cars qualified for the second running of the NASCAR race, held that year on Valentine’s Day at the Florida track.

Among the cars was a 1959 Chevrolet driven by Junior Johnson, a North Carolina mountaineer and former moonshine hauler who was en route to becoming a legend in his own time.

How the car came to be in the 500 of 1960 is the beginning of the tale, which endures as the race’s 52nd running looms — once again on Feb. 14.

Just eight days before the race a half century ago, the Daytona Beach racing shop of Ray Fox, a well-known crew chief/mechanic, received a visitor.

He was John Masoni, owner of the Daytona Beach Kennel Club, a dog racing track located just outside Turn 1 at the speedway.

“Masoni was proposing a spur-of-the moment deal,” recalls Fox, who still lives in the Daytona Beach area. “Masoni said very emphatically that he wanted a car in the race. I told him there was no way I could get one ready in that little bit of time. He left, but he returned the next day with a surprising offer.

“He said to me, ‘Whatever you charge to build and field race cars, I’ll double it.”

“I agonized about what to do. Finally, I said, ‘Well, maybe I can hunt up enough guys to help me get it done.’ I got the guys to my shop and put them to work.”

What Fox was taking on bordered on the impossible in that era of motorsports. Unlike today, there were no mega-operations employing dozens of specialists and utilizing computer technology that was unimaginable in 1960.

After getting the team he had hastily assembled to work, Fox phoned Johnson. Junior had no ride because Paul Spaulding, a team owner for whom he’d won several races, decided to quit the sport after the ’59 season.

“I liked Ray, so I told him I would come down and see what we could do,” Johnson remembers.

“I knew that Pontiac had a super good race car. And several top stars were lined up to drive for Pontiac, including Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith and Cotton Owens. I knew it was going to be a challenge.”

Sure enough.

The No. 27 Chevy fielded by Fox, a car that featured paintings of a sprinting greyhound over the front wheel wells, was far off the speeds posted by the Pontiacs in practice.

“In some sessions we were 30 miles an hour slower,” says Johnson.

Following, partially excerpted from “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life,” an authorized biography that I co-wrote in 1999 with my friend Steve Waid, is what happened next in that Daytona 500:

“I about decided I was wasting my time,” says Junior. “I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to stay in Daytona and watch the Pontiacs lap me about every 10 or 11 laps. I had no enthusiasm for it.”

“Oh, hell, we were very slow,” agrees Fox. “We only had a little 348 cubic inch engine. The Pontiac engine was much better. I knew that. I was aware of the situation.

“On top of being outpowered, our car was a year old. The only reason I was in the race was because of the guy from the dog track making it so worth my while.”

Junior hinted for Fox to get another driver. However, Fox demurred, vowing to make the car faster. After a series of adjustments, Junior decided to try and run with a top Pontiac in practice.

What happened has become a rich part of NASCAR lore.

Johnson latched onto the rear bumper of Cotton Owens’ Pontiac and he was able to stay there.

Junior had discovered the phenomenon of the aerodynamic draft!

“I wanted to be sure of what I had hit on, so I went back out to practice alone,” says Junior. “The car was still the same — pretty slow.

“So I came back onto pit road and sat there waitin’ for some Pontiacs to come by. I got in with them on the track and I stayed up. They couldn’t shake me.

“I knew then I was right about the air creating a situation — a slipstream type of thing. I saw this gave us a chance to win the race.”

The Fox-Johnson entry finished fifth in a qualifying race, earning the ninth starting spot in the 500.

“I knew that while our car wouldn’t run all that fast by itself, it would draft like Jack The Bear,” says Fox, now 91. “And Junior had found out how to do that better than anyone. I knew that if Junior stayed around we had a chance.”

Staying around proved a challenge.

The race was marred by wrecks, including some of the spectacular variety.

“In one crash an engine came out of a car and went flying down the track,” says Junior, who was 28 at the time. “I missed it by inches and almost went into the lake in the infield.”

So many cars were wrecked that Bill France Sr., founder of both NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway, was forced to cancel the next two races on the 1960 schedule.

But that’s getting ahead of the story …

As the 500 wound down, many of the top Pontiac drivers no longer were in contention. Only Bobby Johns remained, holding the lead with Johnson a bit back.

“Then, coming off the second turn with 10 laps to go, one of the damndest things happened I ever saw on a race track,” says Johnson.

“The back glass popped out of Bobby’s car and flew into the air. The sudden change in the airflow around Bobby’s car caused him to spin into the grass along the backstretch. By the time he got straightened out and back onto the asphalt I was long gone.”

Junior swept to the checkered flag 23 seconds ahead of runner-up Johns as an almost disbelieving Fox and his makeshift crew celebrated on pit road.

Masoni was so delighted that he gave his share of the winnings, $19,600, to charity.

It was the biggest victory for both Johnson and Fox in their hall-of-fame careers.

As usual during Speed Weeks at Daytona, there will be many special gatherings this February. Among those on the schedule is the annual dinner of the Living Legends Of Stock Car Racing, an organization co-founded by Fox.

Richard Petty, a seven-time winner of the 500, will be there, along with three-time winner Bobby Allison and others.

But the stars that night will be Junior and Ray, the lead characters in “The Fox And The Greyhound” fairy tale of five decades ago.

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