|Richard Petty dominated the best field In Daytona 500 history to win in 1964|
The best field in Daytona 500 history? It would be hard to top the 46 drivers and cars that started the race fifty years ago in 1964.
In addition to the NASCAR regulars, the starting lineup included Indy car regulars A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman, Johnny Rutherford and Jim McElreath; Dan Gurney from Formula One and Dave MacDonald, winner of the ’63 national road racing championship. There was even one of the leading European sports car drivers of the day and a favorite of Carroll Shelby, Jo Schlesser, making his one and only NASCAR start.
Even in an era when drivers often jumped from one series and to another, and one type of car to another, the ’64 Daytona 500 stands out as one of the best fields in history – and arguably – the best ever.
The battle for performance leadership between the Big Three car companies had shifted to a one-on-one competition between Ford and Chrysler, General Motors withdrawing from direct racing sponsorships following the ’63 season. There was a few independent Chevrolet and Pontiac teams entered at Daytona, but the real battle was between Ford and Mercury vs. Plymouth and Dodge. And while Chrysler relied primarily on its NASCAR regulars, Ford recruited drivers from throughout its vast motorsports empire.
Petty Enterprises, Plymouth’s top team, was back with Richard Petty, joined by Buck Baker. Ray Nichels had shifted from Pontiac to Plymouth and had three cars for former motorcycle champion Paul Goldsmith, Larry Thomas and Bobby Issac, making his first Daytona 500 start. Jimmy Pardue was in a single car entry. The Dodge boys had Jim Paschal and David Pearson driving for Cotton Owners, while Junior Johnson and car owner Ray Fox had made the switch from Chevrolet to Dodge.
Ford pulled out all the stops for its namesake brand. It had all of its big guns back for ’64, led by Holman-Moody, where Fred Lorenzen and Larry Frank were joined by joined by Fireball Roberts (moving over from Pontiac) and Marshman, who had spent most of the off-season testing a Lotus-Ford and developing the company’s new Indy car engine. Marvin Panch, recovered from burns suffered the year before, was back in the Wood Brothers Ford, along with Dan Gurney, who had won early for the team at Riverside. Bondy Long fielded cars for Ned Jarrett and Schlesser, while Foyt drove for Banjo Mathews’ one car team.
The Ford driver lineup was so strong, ’63 500 winner, Tiny Lund, who had driven for Holman-Moody as a substitute for Panch after pulling him from the burning car, was relegated to a private Blue Oval team.
The Mercury lineup was nearly as impressive, with Bill Stroppe entering cars for regular Darrel Dieringer along with Jones, McElreath and MacDonald. Bud Moore entered a pair of Mercs, for Billy Wade and Rutherford.
Among the independent drivers, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough were both back for their second start in the 500 after missing the race in ’63. On the other end of his career, Ralph Earnhardt was making his last start in the race.
Tragically missing from the field was Joe Weatherly, two-time defending Cup champion. He’d been killed earlier in the year in a crash at Riverside.
Unfortunately the great field didn’t lead to a great race. Chrysler, anxious to avenge Ford's 1-5 Ford finish in 1963, stunned the racing world with the introduction of the Hemi engine. Richard Petty dominated the race, lapping the field and leading a one-two-three Plymouth finish.
There was no repeat of the impressive field in ’65. Pardue, Marshman and MacDonald had all been killed in racing accidents. Chrysler ordered its Plymouth and Dodge teams to boycott NASCAR events after rule changes outlawed the hemi engine. As a result, Ford saw little need to import additional drivers as it swept the top 11 positions. The manufacturer wars would be renewed in '66, but the Speedway never again saw the likes of the field in the ’64 race.