The Ghosts of NASCAR
The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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Foreword by Rex White
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Stock car racing in the 1950s was vastly different than it is today. In the old days a mechanic, operating out of a small garage, using native intel-ligence and elbow grease, could build a competitive racing machine, and a person eager to get behind the wheel could begin learning to race on a small dirt track. The entry costs were modest and danger was minimal. ...
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As a boy I watched Johnny Beauchamp, “motor magician” mechanic Dale Swanson, and many others race. During Beauchamp’s first five years (1950–1954) at the Playland Park track in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he was the only two- time champion, winning many more main events than any other competitor. Suddenly, one season Beauchamp was not racing at the Play-...
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Many individuals shared information with me for this book. Dale Swan-son Jr. patiently gave considerable time along with access to his historical racing documents, which provided a broad outline of his father’s part of the story. Gaylord Beauchamp, John’s younger brother, who also raced and was close to the action, gave details of the early years. John’s chil-...
1. The Natural
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The story begins in 1947 in the sleepy Iowa town of Harlan. Johnny Beauchamp’s journey into stock car racing began on a warm August day in that year, when he was twenty- four years old. He stepped out of his parents’ house, not bothering to lock the door—this was the nation’s heartland. The shabby, small frame house on the north side of town only cost a few dollars a month, although the The Beauchamps originally lived near Rich Hill, Missouri, where Johnny’s grandparents are buried, and he was born in Clinton, Missouri, ...
2. Racing among the Cornfields
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Soon the partnership between Swanson and Beauchamp was thriving. The two men’s personalities meshed. Beauchamp was slow to offend. He was an easygoing, congenial guy. Somewhat reserved, he was careful with words. A few people suspected his silence may have concealed a man with an agenda. A local contempo-rary once reflected that “Johnny was a sly son- of- a- gun.”1Swanson, on the other hand, was direct and more likely to voice his opinions. He had the demeanor of a man who was right—especially about ...
3. The Mafia Race Track
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...wherever Meyer Lansky was, dead bodies turned up—a grand total of forty- three, according to one of his asso-ciates.1 Lansky was an East Coast gangster, a New York Mafia mogul and Bugsy Siegel’s pal. So what was he doing in 1941 on the streets of the Omaha–Council Bluffs metropolitan area?Lansky, unwittingly, was about to build Beauchamp’s “home track” and the biggest stock car venue between Chicago and Denver. Because the nationally known Ak- sar- ben (Nebraska spelled backwards) track had ...
4. Winning with a Hot Rod
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...with Playland racing slammed shut, Beauchamp and Swan-son sifted through the forthcoming events in the region to find races with large prizes. Locating the more seri-ous contests was critical, because many hot rod races at-tracted few cars and offered little money; however, several locations were Racing Association held a “championship” event. Beauchamp, leading by one- half lap as he sped into the final curve of the race, realized his hot rod’s gas pedal was stuck. He recalled, “I went into a real tight fast spin ...
5. Odd Man Out
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...in May 1950, big, gregarious DeWayne Lund lumbered into Dale Swan-son’s brake shop, a small building reached by entering an alley south of the town square. Lund was itching to compete again, and he had an idea. He wanted a partnership with Swanson to race a stock car. His name was DeWayne, but everyone called him “Tiny.” At 6 foot five and 250 pounds, Tiny radiated a boisterous, fun loving, and wild presence. Mass alone was not what attracted people to him. His magnetism demanded attention. Constantly on the move, playing pranks, and showing off—no one ever ...
6. The Racing Capital
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...on a sunny day in May 1950, Swanson and Lund drove a spiffy 1939 Ford coupe to Playland, the track Meyer Lansky had built.1 The Swanson race car traveled from the east edge of Council Bluffs west onto the main artery, Broadway, which led to the Missouri River. Before coming to the river, they turned right onto a narrow street that passed under one of the three 60- foot humps of the roller coaster that paralleled Broadway and that formed a southern Swanson then turned west and drove along the edge of the amusement ...
7. Big Shoes to Fill
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On opening day in 1951 at Playland, Beauchamp battled eighty cars; however, in the feature, he could not go faster than the winner, the “roar-ing” Bud Aitkenhead, who piloted a car with an exceptionally loud ex-haust muf_f_ler and modified parts. Track rules now permitted the use of such parts, but Swanson had gambled that the unmodified 55 was better ...
8. Lilienthal’s Revenge
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The nervous grind is too tough,” Swanson said. The long hours working every night on the cars followed by more hours at the races left him exhausted. “Following my cars around the race circuit has kept me away from my business too long.”1Having sold his two successful cars,2 Swanson took orders to build mo-tors for whoever wanted them.3 Like a military arms dealer, he did busi-ness with drivers in several states, selling motors for between $500 and Swanson’s withdrawal left Beauchamp scrambling, and he once again ...
9. The Lost Season
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Beauchamp’s finish- line loss of the 1952 season championship was a harbinger of tough times. In 1953 he was behind the wheel of the same car he had driven in 1952, and again it was not the fastest vehicle on the track. Once again Swanson did not own a race car. Beauchamp’s competition was champion drivers from Nebraska, such as Bud Burdick, Lloyd Beckman, and Rex Jordan, and Playland regu-lars Bobby Parker and Keith “Porky” Rachwitz, who had upgraded their On Friday, May 21, Beauchamp clashed with the “roaring” Bud Aitken-...
10. The Invasion
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Beauchamp wanted to go up against national competition. His success had come by defeating local drivers of old model stock cars, and in the southwestern corner of Iowa he had achieved as much as possible. Racing additional seasons at Playland offered only repetition of past struggles and attainments. His challenges were to be found on more distant tracks with drivers gathered together Several steps up was the Indianapolis 500. Indy racing, however, in-volved a type of vehicle and competition vastly different from the old ...
11. The Ghost of Playland Park
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...it was 1954 and Beauchamp was behind the wheel of a Swanson- owned race car once again, lured back to old model racing by the opportunity to team up with the motor magician.1 The Playland track had changed its rules, reverting to the 1950 standard: straight stock cars. The cars could not be souped up with expensive racing parts. Another important change had occurred in the middle of the 1953 season, when officials began allow-With these rule changes, cars from neighboring tracks, such as those in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa, that permitted the older- style ...
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...on opening day of Playland’s 1955 season, Beauchamp only managed a fourth in the feature. He followed this inauspi-cious beginning in subsequent weeks with a second in the semi- feature, a first in the semi- feature, and a second in the feature. By July 4, Bud Burdick was the leader with 1,200 points, and Beau-champ not far behind with 1,121. However, Beauchamp’s second- place standing was deceptive, because points were difficult to earn. The compe-tition was stronger than ever. Winning was so difficult that Tiny Lund was ...
13. The Flying Frenchman
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...on July 17, 1955, Dale and Phyllis Swanson, George Short and his wife, and several children, including twelve- year- old Dale Swanson Jr., piled into Short’s Cadillac for the drive to watch Beauchamp compete in his first IMCA event at the Grand Forks, North Dakota, Fairgrounds, which had a one- half mile track.In North Dakota, Don White, the IMCA point leader, gave Beauchamp a rude welcome, initiating some banging and bumping that slowed the Harlan driver and caused him to lose control of his car. Swanson didn’t ...
14. Johnny Hoseclamp
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...eventually, the uncertainty at the end of the 1955 season cleared: Dale Swanson became an owner- mechanic and was ready to field a late model race car for the 1956 season with Johnny Beau-champ the driver. The previous year, Swanson had established two important connections that enticed him to become a race car owner. First, he made friends with Chevrolet dealers in the communities that held the IMCA races, becoming especially good friends with one dealer, Art Raduenz, the owner of Stillwater Chevrolet. The Swanson and Raduenz ...
15. The Duntov Cam
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...in the morning, the IMCA inspectors called the Chevrolet factory in Michigan. They were told that the strange cam in Swanson’s car had the part number 3736097 and that it was indeed valid.1 Dale Swanson’s car was within the rules of IMCA.The inspectors were not aware of the part’s origin and that it had the name “Duntov Cam” after its creator, Zora Arkus- Duntov. He had come to the United States after an adventurous life in Europe, with stops in Bel-gium and Leningrad and an escape from fascist Germany with his wife, a ...
16. Champion for the Record Books
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Beauchamp continued winning races after the inspection. In the ten 100- lap features before July 4 he won eight, losing only in Springfield, Missouri, and in Hutchinson, Minnesota.1 Bob Burdick, fresh out of high school, led the Hutchinson event in a new Ford. Beauchamp was in hot pursuit when on lap 31 his car broke a wheel and almost overturned, forcing him out of contention. Before this race, Bob Burdick had never finished higher than third, and now he had won his first IMCA contest. Supported by his mechanic father, Roy (Bud’s ...
17. Building a Beach Car
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Dale Swanson was one of many racing mechanics drifting into Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957. He was pleased by Atlanta’s balmy late January weather, which compared favorably to the freez-ing cold of Iowa. Swanson pulled up to the Alamo Plaza motel Swanson was involved in a hush- hush Chevrolet operation. After the dismal 1956 season in which Chevrolet cars won only three of thirty- nine NASCAR Grand National races,2 the factory, embarrassed, opted for a new strategy, and Swanson—under whose care a Chevrolet had won most of the ...
18. Corvettes and the Black Widow
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Florida’s wide, hard sand beaches beckoned landlocked mid-western drivers, who had never competed with an ocean spray blowing across their cars. No other race was like one at Daytona Beach. For the Harlan contingent—Beauchamp, Swanson, and their friends and followers—the racing, plus ocean breezes, palm trees, ums soaring into the sky as twenty- first century visitors will, but instead stretches of open beach and small, unpretentious, dilapidated dwellings. Daytona in the 1950s was a sleepy, impoverished, and scruffy town. But the ...
19. Racing in the Sand
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There was a new gunslinger in town. In 1957 Johnny Beauchamp came to Daytona Beach for a shootout with NASCAR stock car drivers. The man from Harlan, with a record thirty- eight sea-son wins in the Midwest, was eager to test the NASCAR com-NASCAR claimed it had the best drivers, many of whom, legend says, honed their skills hauling moonshine on winding mountain roads. The southern drivers believed they could get the best of anyone, and they were not going to welcome any hotshot outsider. Beauchamp was invading for-...
20. Tough Times
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Beauchamp and Swanson rushed to Michigan to pick up the promised Chevy. Swanson would have to work fast to build a new race car for the upcoming season. The good news was that Chevrolet planned to pay its most winning 1956 team to com-At a meeting with Vince Piggins and Mauri Rose, Piggins asked Swan-son what he would like as a monthly salary. Swanson hesitated, not certain how much money to ask for. Under the table, Rose signaled with his hand for Swanson to bid up his asking price. Swanson said $500 a month, plus ...
21. An Indy Track for Stock Cars
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The falling snow became a blizzard in the cold winter of 1959, causing rock sensation Buddy Holly’s plane to crash in a frozen Iowa cornfield.1 About the same time that “the music died,” Beauchamp had the biggest opportunity of his life. Rival Roy Burdick needed a late model stock car driver. His son and brother were not options because Bob had joined the military and Bud had a day job, a wife, and five children, plus he had limited experience with late model cars. So Roy Burdick called Beauchamp and asked him to drive in the first ...
22. The First Daytona 500
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The Daytona Beach Journal could not settle on one driver as the most likely to win the first Daytona 500. Photos of three favor-ites splashed across more than half of the front page: Cotton Owens, Fireball Roberts, and Lee Petty. These three NASCAR stalwarts had the pedigree for a victory. Owens had won the 1957 Beach race; Roberts was a big star; and Lee Petty was the 1958 champion. Bernard Kahn, sports editor for the Daytona newspaper, reported that according to the pit chatter, a number of different cars had a chance of winning: Chev-...
23. The Photo Finish Quagmire
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At the moment of the finish, France and his flagman had not hesitated— Beauchamp won. They waved Petty, who was claiming victory, out of the winner’s circle. If there had been a photo finish, why had France and Bruner declared the winner with unusual assurance?1 Lee Petty, shunted to the side, mounted a barrage of...
24. Success at Any Cost
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Amonth after the crushing events of Daytona, Johnny Beau-champ still smoldered. He contemplated what he might do to reverse Bill France’s decision. In Atlanta he sought the ad-vice of veteran driver Frank Mundy. Mundy listened as Beau-champ told him, “I was cheated out of the win. What should I do? Maybe A former NASCAR driver who had left the circuit to become the 1955 AAA champion, Mundy knew France well, and he knew where the bodies were buried. Years before, they had promoted a Charlotte race, and another ...
25. Covering Up and Rewriting History
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France was likely troubled by the controversy over the 1959 race. Questions lingered about who had really won. His organization was gaining importance, and it was not good to have his first big event tainted. Still, he had done everything he could do immediately after the race. That included checking the laps, even though the press...
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...in fact, the people closest to the race—the drivers and the pit crews—focused on the lap count from the moment the race ended. The Petty and Beauchamp pit crews stood eyeball to eyeball, and both crews claimed victory. Beauchamp’s mechanics, a few spaces from Petty’s pit, had counted the other driver’s stops, and they were positive Petty had made more than four stops, while Johnny had made only four.1 They had witnessed Petty make his stops and observed the consequence: Petty was lapped by the leaders, including Beauchamp.2 They were so sure that in the ...
27. Connecting the Dots
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The pattern of suspected cheating occurred over several years until the uncontrolled, wild days of NASCAR came to an end in the 1960s. The compromised scoring system provided oppor-tunity to cheat, and the evidence that people took advantage of that opportunity makes the official outcome of the first Daytona 500 look After that race, Bill France must have wondered if Lee Petty had ended up with an extra lap on his scorecard, because France and his flagman had already heard the rumors about Elizabeth Petty’s scoring and dealt with ...
28. Out of the Air
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Beauchamp had something to prove after the 1959 Daytona race. He announced, “I’ve been thinking about shooting for NASCAR’s grand national championship. I expect Lee Petty is the man to beat.”1 Beauchamp’s problem was that he didn’t have a race car. Bob Burdick, who had completed his military service, was back driving his father’s Thunderbird.2 So Beauchamp bought from Delta Airlines pilot Beau Morgan the Thunderbird that Tim Flock drove at Day-tona,3 and he had Holman- Moody tune the car. Promoters, eager to capi-...
29. The Hard Charger Wins Slow
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The story of the great racers from Harlan must include what happened to Tiny Lund. After almost being killed in his first NASCAR race in 1955, he borrowed the money to buy a 1956 Pontiac that was built into a new race car with the help of Robert McKee.1 In 1956 McKee, Lund, and Ruthie, Lund’s wife, left for NASCAR and South Carolina. In twenty- one races, the Harlan driver managed one top five finish and eight top ten finishes, earning only small amounts of With so little success, Lund’s first effort to conquer NASCAR was a sad ...
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The Playland track is gone. The asphalt oval became a grassy park; for many years the faint outline of the track remained visible.1 Looking over the grounds, those who remember the track may imagine they hear the roar of engines and cars banging and rolling. They may even imagine The track fell to the winds of progress. In 1964 a new bridge stretching ...
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The endnotes, combined with the list of individuals interviewed, represent, with perhaps a few exceptions, all the sources for the book. I drew information from scrapbooks owned by four people: Dale Swanson Jr., Norma Brix, Russell Leslie, and me. My scrapbooks consist of newspaper coverage of most of the Playland I supplemented scrapbook articles by personally spending many hours in ...
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Page Count: 237
Illustrations: 20 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013