SpeedWeeks Spotlight – Why Two Qualifying Races?
Back in 1959, the year Daytona International Speedway opened, the two top series of NASCAR competition were the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Division and the Convertible Division. Both series ran virtually the same cars. In fact, many of them were known as “zipper top” cars, meaning a driver could race a car without a roof in the Convertible event on Saturday, bolt on a roof and compete in the Grand National race the next day. Sometimes NASCAR would hold what was called “Sweepstakes” races, meaning that the field was made up of both Grand National cars with roofs and Convertible Division machines without. By 1960, the Convertible Division had been discontinued by NASCAR.
The first Daytona 500 was such an event. On the big 2.5 mile speedway, the convertibles had a distinct disadvantage due to “going topless.” In order to make qualifying fair for both divisions, Bill France Sr., president of Daytona Speedway, determined that a separate qualifying race for each division was in order. Bob Welborn was the king of the Convertible Division, winning three consecutive championships in 1956, 57, and 58, but when he came to Daytona in 1959, he drove a new Chevy in the Grand National Division. Welborn won his qualifier and sat on the pole for the first 500. Shorty Rollins won the Convertible qualifier and started on the outside of the front row. The Grand Nationals lined up on the inside and the “ragtops”, as they were known, lined up on the outside. Future superstar Richard Petty came to Daytona in ’59 with a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible. It was the first time he drove a race car with a number 43 on the side. He only lasted a few laps before his engine blew.
The qualifiers began as 100 mile affairs and were points-paying races until 1972. No points have been included in these events since then. They were lengthened to 125 miles in 1969 in order to force teams to make a pit stop, thus adding to the excitement of the races. By 1960, the Convertible Division had been discontinued by NASCAR, but the twin races were so popular with the fans, they were continued and have become an important part of Daytona’s annual Speedweeks program. The races have been extended to 150 miles each and today they are known as the Gatorade Duels. And they still are among the most exciting races of the season, points or not.