From Sand To High Banks
The final event on the old beach course was held on Feb. 23, 1958. Michigan native Paul Goldsmith was the winner, piloting a brand new Pontiac for Daytona’s Smokey Yunick.
The highest finishing member of the Georgia Gang was Jack Smith, who drove his own ’57 Pontiac to a third place finish.
Just down the road, Bill France Sr. was getting ready for the next era for stock car racing. His mammoth new Daytona International Speedway would open one year later, and usher in the Super Speedway era of auto racing.
Lee Petty was once quoted as saying, “It scared the hell out of me” about seeing the 2.5-mile long, high banked Daytona International Speedway.
The track was unlike anything the drivers had seen before. It was a far cry from the 4.1-mile beach course that had preceded it. But it was a challenge, and one that the NASCAR set was ready to take on.
The first Daytona 500 was run on Feb. 22, 1959. Johnny Beauchamp was flagged the winner, but after a protest and three days of examining photos, Lee Petty was given the victory.
The Georgia Gang was well represented in the event. Just as he had done in the final race on the beach, Jack Smith bested the drivers from the Peach State, coming home seventh driving a Bud Moore owned Chevy sponsored by the Georgia Chevrolet Dealers.
Tim Flock finished ninth. Wilbur Rakestraw, of Dallas, Georgia, finished 21st. Rex White finished 26th. Billy Carden finished 36th. Gober Sosebee finished 49th in a 59 car field.
Jack Smith would become the first member of the Georgia Gang to break into Daytona’s victory lane one year later, when he was victorious in the second qualifying race for the 1960 Daytona 500. Driving his own Pontiac, Smith beat Bobby Johns, Jim Reed and Rex White to the flag. At that time, the Daytona qualifying races counted as points paying events, so the win was an official one for Smith.
Smith would find himself back in Daytona’s victory lane on July 4 of that year as the winner of the Firecracker 250. Smith held off Cotton Owens, the only other driver on the lead lap, to pick up the victory.
It would be six years later before another member of the Georgia Gang would park his car in Daytona’s victory lane.
On July 4, 1966, Columbus, Georgia’s Sam McQuagg led 126 of 160 laps in the Firecracker 400 to take his only NASCAR Grand National victory.
McQuagg did so piloting a Dodge Charger equipped with the first spoiler ever used on a NASCAR racecar. McQuagg’s work with Chrysler on the spoiler would usher in a whole new era of stock car racing, as the aero wars began.
The win also marked the last visit to victory lane at Daytona for a Georgia driver for almost two decades.
Over the next 19 years, several drivers from the Peach State would compete in various auto events at the track.
But it would take another driver from Dawsonville, Georgia, to bring the Georgia Gang back to prominence in the world of stock car racing at Daytona.