Daytona Speed Weeks (www.DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com) will take place Feb. 9-17, 2019. This annual auto racing ritual dates back to the era when Henry Ford I came to Daytona Beach, Fla., to see how fast some of his early racing cars would go. The wide, flat sands at the Atlantic Ocean’s edge bore the tire tracks of many of the great land-speed-record cars of the past.
Starting in 1949, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (www.nascar.com) staged a three-day event for cars that were mostly Detroit production models. It became known as Speed Weeks and came to encompass top speed and acceleration runs on the sands for a variety of cars. Tuned to run like thoroughbreds with open exhausts, the cars streaked along beside the ocean on the 4.1-mile beach and road course.
The event gained more national notoriety in June of 1957, when the Automobile Manufacturers’ Assoc. got American carmakers to agree to a racing ban and an end to the “horsepower race” that had been going on for a few years. Legislators in Washington, D.C. had threatened laws that could hurt automakers, so they decided that a self-imposed reining in of high-performance efforts might be a better option. Officially, Detroit was “out of racing,” but everyone knew that Sunday wins meant Monday sales, so under the table, factory support continued.
At Daytona, the name Speed Weeks was changed to International Safety and Performance Trials. National Association for Stock Car Advancement was considered as a replacement for NASCAR and some non-racing tests linked to safe city and highway driving were conducted. In addition, the pace car for the 1958 Speed Weeks was a Jaguar 3.4 sedan to play down Detroit’s participation.
Pontiac was one company that took heavy advantage of the wind down with under-the-table support of racing. Why? Because starting in 1955, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became the general manager of Pontiac Motor Div. He was the youngest GM general manager in history up to that point and he was determined to change Pontiac’s image from that of an old man’s car to that of a young man’s car. Racing was a way to get that done, and Knudsen liked racing.
Several teams raced Pontiacs at Daytona in 1958-1959. John Zink, who also sponsored a team of Indy Cars, brought Pontiacs to Daytona. Bob Pemberton — the son of one of the founders of Air Lift Company — was also a Pontiac driver. Paul Goldsmith of St. Clair Shores, Mich. won the main stock car racing event on the Beach Road Course event. That was a 160-mile race for late-model closed cars, and Goldsmith’s 1958 Pontiac took the flag at 101.18 mph.
Dr. Ludson Delroy Morris, a general practitioner from Mt. Carmel, Ill., was one of the more interesting Pontiac drivers. Dr. Morris told Sports Illustrated magazine that nobody in Wabash County had a faster car than he did. His black-and-yellow 1958 Pontiac Chieftain did the Flying Mile at 144.346 mph downwind and 131.627 returning north against the wind for a two-way average of 137.693 mph. He was the fastest man on the beach in the official passenger car trials.
Morris’ Pontiac had the 370-cubic-inch engine equipped with Tri-Power. The car was sponsored by Robison Pontiac of Princeton, Ind. and tuned by Mechanic Eddie Oldert. Morris told Sports Illustrated that he started racing at 12 years old. His father was also a doctor, and had a pretty fast 1920 Overland that beat a 15-year-old friend driving his parent’s Model T Ford.
“Everybody in Fort Branch, Ind. was betting on us,” Morris said. “Everybody but our parents, that is. They didn’t know about it. The course was a half-mile stretch of road between the town and the old iron bridge over Pigeon Creek. We were even coming up to the bridge, and I won because I didn’t shut off. You see, there was only room for one car on the bridge.”
Later in the ‘20s, Morris drove stock cars at Evansville, Ind., until his father said: “You have to decide if you want to be a race driver or a doctor.” He became a doctor, but fast cars always remained his hobby. Morris sponsored cars at Indianapolis from 1950-1955 and then started drag racing in super stock classes.
Other Pontiacs at Daytona in 1958 swept the second through sixth places in the Class Seven competition for cars of more than 350-cu. in.. However, it was also the last year for stock car racing on the beach, as the new Daytona Super Speedway opened in time for 1959 Speed Weeks.
The traditional Speed Weeks straightaway competition continued on the beach. In 1960, Bob Pemberton’s Air Lift sponsored Class 6 Pontiac averaged 93.8 mph. The next fastest Pontiac recorded 84.5 mph, or 9 mph slower. In 1961, Pemberton turned 87.8 mph in a Pontiac, 6 mph slower than 1960.