Air Lift Oldsmobile Wins First Daytona 500

Lee Petty Daytona 500
Petty’s ’57 Olds racer went 144+ mph.

In 1949, Air Lift Co. founders Claude Pemberton and Don Perkins developed an air-assisted automobile suspension that would help support overloaded vehicles and improve ride quality and safety. Pemberton was a General Electric engineer and Perkins would later be known for his help in developing the front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado. Both men were successful innovators and Air Lift now employs 130 people and makes suspension parts that fit 543 cars and trucks.

However, the concept of an air suspension wasn’t immediately accepted in the early postwar years and Air Lift turned to the world of stock car racing to prove that its system really worked.

In that era there were no super speedways and land speed racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats was in its infancy. The birthplace of early speed trials and stock car racing was on the sandy beaches of Florida and Daytona Beach ultimately became Mecca for the stock car racing fraternity. The Daytona Beach Road Course was the home of Speed Week and the place where records were set each year. Drivers from Alexander Winton to R.E. Olds proved their ideas there.

Lee Petty Daytona 500
Petty and Beauchamp dueling during the race.

Daytona was a tricky course at that time. The two-mile-long stretch of sandy beach suddenly changed to paved asphalt where it met the A1A Highway after a number of hairpin turns. Many racing cars had trouble maintaining traction and more than a few flipped on their sides or roofs as their nearly-stock 1950s suspensions were not really up to the level of racing car handling.

Air Lift company realized that its air suspension could help keep the 2-ton cars on track as they raced over the tricky course. Lee Petty – the father of legendary driver Richard Petty – piloted the Air Lift Special ’57 Oldsmobile that set a speed record of over 144 mph. Though his son would later drive Plymouths to fame, Lee Petty raced Oldsmobiles for a number of years and won with them.

Lee Petty Daytona 500
Near finish photo with Petty in the middle.

In 1959, the first Daytona 500 was held on Feb. 22. Lee Petty won it with an Oldsmobile 88, but he was not declared the winner. At the end of the race, there was a neck-and-neck finish with Petty’s Olds, Johnny Beauchamp’s Thunderbird, and Joe Weatherly’s Chevy all seeming to be in contention.

Beauchamp was declared the winner and actually went into victory lane, but Petty filed a protest. It took NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. three days to decide which driver won. There was even speculation that France created the controversy on purpose to generate added publicity for his organization. In the end, with the help of national newsreels, Petty was named the official winner. But, of course, the real winner was Air Lift, which had proven its product.

About John Gunnell 104 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.
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