Panch pulls into the makeshift Victory Circle with Pontiac's first Daytona 500 win. He was
While it's true that Pontiac was engaged in racing at Daytona as early as 1956, the courtship between the Detroit auto manufacturer and the blossoming Florida race scene was not always passionate. Like a proud, doting father, Pontiac's new General Manager, Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, wanted to ensure that his division would not die an old maid. So he created a NASCAR race program, sent her down south and put her in the hands of every promising young man who vowed to go fast, live hard, and take Pontiac to the altar.
The newly-built Daytona International Speedway was the altar that Knudsen had in mind. While Pontiac won consistently on the Daytona Beach course in 1956 and 1957, it was the Daytona International Speedway and its biggest race, the Daytona 500, which called out to Knudsen. Why wasn't Pontiac in the Victory Circle? Knudsen knew that the Pontiac was one of America's best performing road cars and race cars, but in 1959 and 1960, Plymouth and Chevrolet consecutively beat Pontiac at the newest and largest super speedway in the United States.
All that changed on February 26, 1961, when Daytona Beach local Marvin Panch buckled in behind the wheel of a '60 Pontiac Catalina and piloted the 2-door hardtop to Pontiac's very first Daytona 500 win.
He was not the favorite to win, however. Certainly, Panch himself was very popular, the NASCAR fans called him "Pancho," but Panch's #20 race car was a year old and most of the other Pontiac drivers had brand new, more aero-dynamic '61s.
Panch's win was not exactly what Bunkie Knudsen had intended. Knudsen's grand plan was to fill Daytona wall-to-wall with brand new Pontiacs during 1961 Speed Week and take home the win and the Harley Earl trophy in a '61. Thirteen race teams were given new Pontiacs at Knudsen's direction. At least 150 additional new Pontiacs were brought fresh from the factory for media guests, dignitaries and other VIPs. Even the Daytona 500 pace car was a new '61 Bonneville convertible. Knudsen wanted to let America know that the Daytona 500 was Pontiac's romance and Knudsen himself held the wedding ring. It was imperative that Pontiac take the win, and that winning in a '61 model meant the division's model year sales would increase mightily at every dealer across America.
A vintage Daytona 500 news bulletin confirms Marvin Panch was up against 13 '61 Pontiacs at the 1961 Daytona 500 race. These were driven by the biggest names in NASCAR including Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Paul Goldsmith, Cotton Owens, Jack Smith, Tom Pistone, Bob Welborn, Charlie Glotzbach, Darel Dieringer, and David Pearson. Fellow competitors Elmo Langley, Bob Roeber, Marshall Sargent and Junior Johnson were in '59 and '60 model Pontiacs; it was not an easy contest.
Marvin Panch qualifies in the #20 Pontiac following closely behind Fireball Roberts in #22
Getting to the Daytona 500 was a rough road for Marvin Panch. Fireball Roberts had proposed taking on Panch as his teammate and having him race the year-old '60 Catalina that Roberts ran the previous season. Yunick, however, was focused on making Fireball Roberts' '61 Pontiac the Daytona 500 winner, so he wouldn't allow his mechanics to work on Panch's #20 race car in the premium space inside the "Best Damn Garage in Town." Yunick told them, "If you think that much about [the '60 Pontiac], take it outside." Mechanics Karl Stairs, Chuck Warren, Vernon Blank and Junior Robbins followed Yunick's orders and prepped the race car outside the shop. According to Panch, "Smokey supplied the body parts and the engine, but the mechanics were on their own. They weren't even paid for their labor."
Underneath Yunick's hardened exterior, however, he had a place in his heart for Marvin Panch. "If you win, you get 40 percent," Yunick told Panch, and the stage was set for Panch to drive in the 1961 Daytona 500.
Yunick arrived at Daytona with the new '61 Pontiac he received from Knudsen, which was prepared for Fireball Roberts, and teammate Panch was provided with the '60 Pontiac to run the 500 miles. Panch was glad he was there but he still knew the Pontiac was a hand-me-down. Yunick was glad he held two hands in the high-stakes contest, but he still knew it was a gamble. There was no way that a year-old '60 Pontiac could win the Daytona 500 against the brand new '61 Pontiacs.
After 200 laps, 500 miles, and 3 hours, 20 minutes, and 22 seconds, Marvin Panch upset the competition and infuriated Pontiac when he conquered the Daytona 500 in Yunick's '60 Catalina. In the final 13 laps of the race, after Roberts left due to mechanical issues, Panch was given the sign by Yunick to "go." Never looking back, Panch passed Joe Weatherly and held the lead and the win. The headlines read worldwide: "Marvin Panch wins Daytona 500"-a day that he will never forget.
Now 81 years old, Panch enjoys showing off his restored '60 Catalina, which features many components from the same car in which he won the 1961 Daytona 500. This year he released an autobiography, two volumes of a three-volume set, that highlights his NASCAR career and the days he raced behind the wheel of the world's fastest Pontiacs. It is exciting reading for fans and historians of Pontiac and stock car racing.
Smokey Yunick (left) and Panch pose with the Pontiac that won the 1961 Daytona 500.
High Performance Pontiac asked Marvin Panch to tell us about the most important day in his racing career. Here's what he had to say.
High Performance Pontiac: Please tell us about the day in 1961 when you won the Daytona 500. How early did you get up? What did you do the night before? What preparation was there the morning of the race?
Marvin Panch: Wow, that's been over 45 years. The best I can recall, I got up at my normal time, pretty early so I could get to the track before the crowd. It was really the same routine I used for any race. The night before, I had my usual hot dog and went to bed early-I sure couldn't afford a steak dinner back then.