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.
Smokey Yunick split the $21,050 Daytona 500 Grand Prize right down the middle with Marvin
HPP: Did you have a regimen that you followed to prepare physically for the race?
MP: While driving to out-of-state tracks, I used to unhook the power steering belt on my personal car, roll up the windows and turn off the air conditioner. I'd drive around like that trying to get used to the heat that always built up in the race cars. When I'd sit at home watching TV, I'd sit in a bucket seat that had a steering wheel hooked to a stiff shock. I would watch TV in the chair, cranking the steering wheel back and forth to strengthen up my arms. Other than that, I didn't really have any regimen for the race.
HPP: What was your top speed during qualifying?
MP: Straightaway speeds were in the high 170's...178, 179 mph. I believe my qualifying speed (average lap speed) was 174 mph.
HPP: Was your cam changed after qualifying, but before the race?
MP: No, we used the same engine all through practice, qualifying and the race.
HPP: What other changes did Smokey make in the Pontiac between qualifying and the race?
MP: He didn't mention a word to me-hefigured I would find out if he made any changes when the race started.
The 1961 Daytona 500 Winner celebrates with his children.
HPP: Did you know in your mind before the Daytona 500 that Victory Circle was already yours?
MP: Definitely not! Remember, I was driving a year-old Pontiac. All those '61 Pontiacs were probably given a better chance at winning than me. All I knew is that I had a job to do-to stay out of trouble and win the race, and that's what I did.
HPP: What was the first thing you remember at the Daytona track on the morning of the race?
MP: That was a long time ago but I still remember all of the shortcuts into the track to avoid traffic. I'm sure I spent the first part of the morning totally focused on how I would approach the race.
HPP: What was Smokey Yunick like the day of the race? Can you remember what he said to you to prepare you for the race?
MP: Smokey was Smokey ... his personality never changed for race day. I do remember him telling me not to draft on Fireball. He wanted me to hang back a half lap or so. If there was a mishap, he did not want both his cars involved. Let me tell you what kind of a man Smokey was. After I won the Daytona 500 and got with Smokey to settle up, he told me that anyone who could win the Daytona 500 deserved 50 percent of the purse (instead of the original 40 percent). Smokey was a first-class gentleman.
Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen was responsible for supplying the furiously fast Pontiacs that 1
HPP: What were your thoughts when the '61 Bonneville convertible pace car finished lapping and the green flag was brought out?
MP: Step on the throttle and stay out of trouble-it's a long race.
HPP: What did you think about the competition? What did you think about their cars?
MP: Competition was fast and furious; the field was full of tough competitors like Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Darel Dieringer and a lot of new '61 Pontiacs. They were alldriving new models and I was driving a year-old Pontiac that Fireball campaigned last season. Smokey thought the '60 Catalina wouldn't go through the air like the '61, he thought it was too boxy. But after the qualifying races, I knew it would run with the '61s because Smokey's engine was super strong.
HPP: How did your Pontiac feel the first 10 laps; the first 100 laps?
MP: Same as it did on the last lap...fast.
Marvin Panch, Cotton Owens, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts and Joe Weatherly at the November 16,
HPP: Please tell us about your pit stops. Were they routine?
MP: We only made a couple of pit stops, primarily for fuel and once for a new set of tires.
HPP: What were the toughest laps in the race?
MP: The last 10 laps while I was trying to keep all the '61 Pontiacs behind me.
HPP: Did you know you had won when you crossed the checkered flag?
MP: Oh yeah, that's a moment I will always remember. I saw the checkered flag waving and I knew that I had won the biggest race of my career.
HPP: Please tell us how you felt in the Victory Circle.
MP: We didn't have an official Victory Lane in 1961, so NASCAR just made a spot on the grass. I remember driving through the grass and looking out the windshield and seeing Smokey, or actually the first thing I saw was Smokey's black hat. As I drove to the Victory Circle, I remember Smokey being on the right side of the car and Bill France Sr. standing on the left. As I got out, both of them were there to congratulate me. Soon after, my wife, Bettie, and my children, Marvette and Richie, joined in the celebration. Naturally, it was a super good feeling knowing I won the race. In winning the 1961 Daytona 500, I was the first driver to set a closed-course world 500-mile record in a stock car (with an average speed for the race of 149.601 mph). I also set a new Daytona 500 average speed record by just over 14 mph. In fact, our record speed was also better than the pole speed, fastest race lap speed and average race speed of the Indianapolis 500 for the same year. That Smokey Yunick Pontiac was fast.
For the Nichels Engineering Pontiac 24-Hour Speed and Endurance Runs, team owner Ray Niche
HPP: Did any dignitaries personally congratulate you?
MP: I'm afraid not-back then racing wasn't as popular in the mainstream as it is today. I did receive numerous telegrams from the racing and automotive industries. This was the first time Pontiac earned a Daytona 500 victory.
HPP: How did the Daytona 500 change your life?
MP: That race really got my career going again-it was one of the highlights. It opened the doors for me in racing and offered business opportunities. It also allowed me to buy Pancho's Rancho, a little farm south of Daytona, which we still own today.
HPP: What was your first Pontiac win?
MP: I got my first Pontiac win on July 14, 1957, at Memphis-Arkansas Speedway. Herb Thomas had been out most of the season with injuries. I was running second in points and had mechanical issues with my Ford, so Herb let me borrow his Pontiac. Dust conditions were so bad that the cars thundered down the straightaways at 110 mph and simply disappeared going into the turns in a storm of dust.
HPP: After your Daytona 500 win, what other Pontiacs did you run?
MP: I drove a '61 Pontiac No. 3 for Ray Fox at Atlanta International Raceway in March. I won the pole with an average speed of 135.975 mph and set a new track record with a one-lap speed of 136.304 mph. Ray built a dominating Pontiac and we led 116 laps. We were leading with 42 laps to go and it broke a rear axle, though I still managed a sixth place finish after replacing the axle.
HPP: Do you have specific memories of other great times racing Pontiacs?
MP: In November 1962, I was a member of a team of hand-selected drivers and mechanics to run two 24-hour endurance runs for Pontiac-one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the other at Darlington Raceway. Ray Nichels Engineering built the Pontiacs, a '62 Catalina and a '62 Police Enforcer. Other drivers included Paul Goldsmith, Fireball Roberts, Len Sutton, Roger Ward and Joe Weatherly. Mechanics involved included Bud Moore, Cotton Owens, Tiny Worley and Smokey Yunick. We successfully set endurance records for each run.
Len Sutton, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, Paul Goldsmith, unknown award presenter, Ray Nichels
HPP: Looking back, what are your thoughts on Bunkie Knudsen and his plan to form a performance image through racing out of what he called the "boring Pontiacs?"
MP: Bunkie had a knack for forming Pontiac race teams that would perform day in and day out, and he did so by recruiting first-class mechanics and crews. He then supplied the teams with the fastest, most reliable Pontiacs available. His leadership resulted in Pontiac's successful record in NASCAR racing. In 1960, Pontiac offered the first Super-Duty performance package for sale as an option, enabling racing enthusiasts to outfit their vehicles with the same performance components as the race cars.
HPP: Did you ever have a Pontiac street car, and if so, please tell us about your favorite?
MP: I had a '37 Pontiac at one time and a '60 Pontiac Catalina-wish I still had them both, especially the Catalina. Pontiac's always made great cars-reliable and fast ... easy on the eyes, too.
HPP: You say you have a soft spot for Pontiacs. Please tell us how you enjoy the Pontiac events you attend each year.
MP: I have nothing but praise for the folks in all of the Pontiac groups and have met some very nice, super people in both POCI and the Sixty Owners Society.
HPP: You say you were born 40 years too early. How would you feel about racing in NASCAR currently?
MP: I would feel great-they pay money now. Finishing well in one race today would exceed the total race winnings from my career.
Marvin Panch was inducted into the NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) Hall of F
HPP: NASCAR has changed tremend-ously in 50 years. If you could define the Daytona 500 for its 100th anniversary, how would it look, what would the cars be capable of, and how would the drivers race for the win?
MP: I am involved in the 50th anniversary, but I don't quite think I'll make it to the 100th anniversary so I haven't given it much thought. Hopefully they'll still have fast cars, great drivers and one of the best fan bases a sport could ask for.
HPP: How can people learn more about your Daytona 500 win and your racing career?
MP: I'm glad you asked that. My daughter Marvette has just released my autobiography, Marvin Panch-Racing Memories From A NASCAR Legend. It's currently a two-volume set that does a great job covering my racing career. There is quite a bit on the 1961 Daytona 500. We've got a third volume slated for release in early 2008 that will cover my post-racing days, along with my son Richie's racing career. You can order the book through our Web site at www.marvinpanch.com or come see me at one of my appearances.