April 4 in Motorsports History: Indy cars race at Daytona Beach

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be hallowed ground to the open-wheel faithful, but since 1994, the iconic oval also has played host to stock cars in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.

IMS and several other facilities have shown that both of America’s top motorsports series successfully can host races at shared venues. However, while NASCAR makes an annual visit to IndyCar’s cathedral, there never has been an IndyCar race at Daytona International Speedway — except on one occasion 61 years ago

In 1959, the 2.5-mile superspeedway had opened in Daytona Beach, Florida, and in addition to serving as a venue for his growing NASCAR series, Bill France envisioned additional races taking place at his new track, including IndyCar.

France and USAC officials (the sanctioning body for Indy racing at the time) met in 1958 and agreed upon having Daytona play host to two USAC Champ Car events in 1959; a 300-mile race on the Fourth of July and a 100-mile race to open the USAC season on April 4.

With 31-degree banking in the speedway’s corners, officials predicted incredibly high speeds in the race. But these speeds proved to be dangerous, as Marshall Teague, driving a roadster with a streamlined body and a canopy top, was killed in a crash during a test session at the new track in a Feb. 11 exhibition run at the new track.

Despite the accident, USAC decided to go on with the April 4, 1959 race. While France said he anticipated a crowd of 30,000 spectators, about 10,000 actually showed up on race day.

Qualifying was held in the week leading up to the race, with brothers Dick and Jim Rathmann qualifying first and second, respectfully.

When the green flag waved, Jim took the lead from his brother and led the first seven laps.

Rodger Ward led from laps 7-11 before Jim Rathmann used the draft to pass him and retake the lead, which he retained through the checkered flag.

With the exception of two crashes (Gary Bettenhausen on Lap 5 and Dempsey Wilson on Lap 26), the race mostly ran without incident until the lead pack reached the finish line.

But almost simultaneously, fourth-place George Amick’s car was caught by a gust of wind, causing it to slide and hit the outside guardrail on the backstretch. The car barrel-rolled 10 times down the backstretch and landed in the infield grass. Amick was killed instantly.

Immediately following the race, Daytona was determined to be too fast for Indy cars. Rathmann’s average speed was 170.261 mph – the fastest winning speed in racing history at that point – and was 25 mph faster than the winner’s pace in the previous year’s Indy 500.

Indy cars haven’t raced the oval at Daytona since and likely never will.

However, on Sept. 26-27, 2006 and Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2007, IndyCar conducted two test sessions to evaluate the track as a possible offseason testing venue. The series utilized a modified version of the 10-turn infield motorcycle course that bypasses Turns 1 and two for these tests.

For more information on the lone IndyCar race at Daytona, check out this 16-minute documentary on the race created and uploaded by the YouTube channel “nascarman history”.

Also on this date:

1970: Californian Dan Gurney led all but three laps en route to his victory in USAC’s Golden Gate 150 at Sears Point International Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway). The race was the lone occasion USAC would visit the picturesque road course. IndyCar eventually raced at the facility from 2005-2018.

1993: Mario Andretti snapped a five-year drought to earn the victory in the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win marked the 52nd and final IndyCar victory of Andretti’s legendary career. He also became the second-oldest winner in history at the age of 53 years, 1 month & 7 days. Only Louis Unser, who won the AAA-sanctioned Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1953, was older (age 57).

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994