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The Ghosts of NASCAR

The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500

John Havick

Publication Year: 2013

Who won the first Daytona 500? Fans still debate whether it was midwestern champion Johnny Beauchamp, declared the victor at the finish line, or longtime NASCAR driver Lee Petty, declared the official winner a few days after the race. The Ghosts of NASCAR puts the controversial finish under a microscope. Author John Havick interviewed scores of people, analyzed film of the race, and pored over newspaper accounts of the event. He uses this information and his deep knowledge of the sport as it worked then to determine what probably happened. But he also tells a much bigger story: the story of how Johnny Beauchamp—and his Harlan, Iowa, compatriots, mechanic Dale Swanson and driver Tiny Lund—ended up in Florida driving in the 1959 Daytona race.
The Ghosts of NASCAR details how the Harlan Boys turned to racing cars to have fun and to escape the limited opportunities for poor boys in rural southwestern Iowa. As auto racing became more popular and better organized in the 1950s, Swanson, Lund, and Beauchamp battled dozens of rivals and came to dominate the sport in the Midwest. By the later part of the decade, the three men were ready to take on the competition in the South’s growing NASCAR circuit. One of the top mechanics of the day, Swanson literally wrote the book on race cars at Chevrolet’s clandestine racing shop in Atlanta, Georgia, while Beauchamp and Lund proved themselves worthy competitors. It all came to a head on the brand-new Daytona track in 1959.
The Harlan Boys’ long careers and midwestern racing in general have largely faded from memory. The Ghosts of NASCAR recaptures it all: how they negotiated the corners on dirt tracks and passed or spun out their opponents; how officials tore down cars after races to make sure they conformed to track rules; the mix of violence and camaraderie among fierce competitors; and the struggles to organize and regulate the sport. One of very few accounts of 1950s midwestern stock car racing, The Ghosts of NASCAR is told by a man who was there during the sport’s earliest days.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword by Rex White

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pp. ix-x

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 intelligence 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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pp. xi-xiv

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...


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pp. xv-xx

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1. The Natural

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pp. 1-4

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...

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2. Racing among the Cornfields

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pp. 5-6

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...

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3. The Mafia Race Track

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pp. 7-11

Wherever Meyer Lansky was, dead bodies turned up—a grand total of forty-three, according to one of his associates.1 Lansky was an East Coast gangster, a New York Mafia mogul and Bugsy Siegel’s pal. So what was he doing...

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4. Winning with a Hot Rod

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pp. 12-15

With Playland racing slammed shut, Beauchamp and Swanson sifted through the forthcoming events in the region to find races with large prizes. Locating the more serious contests was critical, because many hot rod races...

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5. Odd Man Out

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pp. 16-20

In May 1950, big, gregarious DeWayne Lund lumbered into Dale Swanson’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...

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6. The Racing Capital

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pp. 21-28

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...

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7. Big Shoes to Fill

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pp. 29-39

An informal poll of Playland drivers predicted Beauchamp was the man to beat. He had finished second in the 1950 season point standings, and now he was behind the wheel of the Swanson car. The big prize, the season championship, was within his...

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8. Lilienthal’s Revenge

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pp. 40-43

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.”1

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9. The Lost Season

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pp. 44-47

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...

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10. The Invasion

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pp. 48-55

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...

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11. The Ghost of Playland Park

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pp. 56-63

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...

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12. IMCA

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pp. 64-69

On opening day of Playland’s 1955 season, Beauchamp only managed a fourth in the feature. He followed this inauspicious beginning in subsequent weeks with a second in the semi-feature, a first in the semi-feature, and a second in the...

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13. The Flying Frenchman

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pp. 70-74

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...

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14. Johnny Hoseclamp

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pp. 75-80

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 Beauchamp the driver. The previous year, Swanson had established two important connections that enticed him to become a race car owner...

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15. The Duntov Cam

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pp. 81-84

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...

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16. Champion for the Record Books

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pp. 85-93

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...

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17. Building a Beach Car

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pp. 94-99

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 freezing cold of Iowa. Swanson pulled up to the Alamo Plaza motel...

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18. Corvettes and the Black Widow

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pp. 100-103

Florida’s wide, hard sand beaches beckoned landlocked midwestern 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...

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19. Racing in the Sand

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pp. 104-107

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 season wins in the Midwest, was eager to test the NASCAR competition...

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20. Tough Times

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pp. 108-113

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 compete in 1957...

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21. An Indy Track for Stock Cars

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pp. 114-118

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...

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22. The First Daytona 500

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pp. 119-124

The Daytona Beach Journal could not settle on one driver as the most likely to win the first Daytona 500. Photos of three favorites 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...

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23. The Photo Finish Quagmire

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pp. 125-128

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...

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24. Success at Any Cost

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pp. 129-133

Amonth after the crushing events of Daytona, Johnny Beauchamp still smoldered. He contemplated what he might do to reverse Bill France’s decision. In Atlanta he sought the advice of veteran driver Frank Mundy. Mundy listened as Beauchamp told him, “I was cheated out of the win. What should I do? Maybe...

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25. Covering Up and Rewriting History

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pp. 134-136

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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26. Scoring

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pp. 137-141

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...

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27. Connecting the Dots

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pp. 142-147

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 opportunity to cheat, and the evidence that people took advantage of that opportunity makes the official outcome of the first Daytona 500 look...

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28. Out of the Air

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pp. 148-154

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...

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29. The Hard Charger Wins Slow

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pp. 155-158

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...

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pp. 159-164

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 Johnny Beauchamp battling Bud Burdick...


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pp. 165-194


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pp. 195-201

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382117
E-ISBN-10: 1609382110
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381974
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381971

Page Count: 237
Illustrations: 20 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: first


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Subject Headings

  • Daytona 500 (Automobile race) -- History.
  • Stock car racing -- United States -- History.
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