Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Panch wins 500 with a hand-me-down, then returns favor
By GOWIN KELLY
DAYTONA BEACH — Marvin Panch became an instant celebrity when he won the 1961 Daytona 500 driving a hand-me-down Pontiac owned by Smokey Yunick.
Just two years later, Panch was nearly killed in a freak accident during a sportscar tire test.
Panch took the money from his Daytona 500 victory and bought a big piece of property west of Port Orange where he and wife Bettie built Pancho´s Rancho.
During his racing career, Panch won 17 races, which ties him for 36th on the all-time list with current Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton.
Marvin and Bettie Panch celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Jan. 1 at Daytona International Speedway. They renewed their wedding vows in Victory Lane and then drove to a reception in the 1960 Pontiac that had carried Panch to his big win in ´61.
“In 1961 I was down and out with no money or anything when I showed up in Daytona Beach. Smokey Yunick still had the car he ran in the 1960 Daytona 500 and he had the new ´61.
These mechanics I knew approached Smokey about using that ´60 Pontiac in the 500. They said ‘Smokey, let´s run that old ´60 model car.’ He said, ‘You really don´t want to fool with that, but if you want to fool with it, dig it out and run it.’
Those guys dug it out of Smokey´s garage. It was crashed in and a little busted up. Fireball Roberts had crashed it off the wall someplace. They straightened it all up. Smokey asked Fireball who should drive the car. Fireball said, ‘Panch is hurting and he needs a job. Let´s put him in.’ And that´s how I got that ride that year.
You know I drove for Smokey in that race and I had a 40 percent deal to drive for him. I got 40 percent of what we won from the purse and Smokey got 60 percent.
After the race, Smokey said ‘Anybody good enough to win the race is worth 50 percent to me.’ He gave me half the prize money. That was something car owners didn´t do every day. Smokey was a little different than anybody else.
We moved here in 1956, but then we went back to Charlotte, N.C., for a short span, then came back in 1961 and stayed. I wanted to live here because of the Speedway. I did a lot of side jobs at the Speedway. I was on the Buick mileage run and other different situations. I just like it here. I like the weather here. I like the people here. The Speedway was the big draw for me.
After I won the 1961 Daytona 500, I used the money to buy land out in the woods. It was nothing but wilderness out there.
Fireball and I had to put on snake boots to walk around back there to see what I bought. The road out here was dirt and Bettie used to get stuck in the dirt just about every day when she´d go into town.
We got a real history in Daytona. We moved to Deltona for a short time. It was a house on a lake. We thought we´d like it, but we didn´t. We couldn´t wait until we got back here because we know so many people here.
I used to fuss at Smokey for puffing that pipe when we were together. When we were towing a race car up to Charlotte for the race, I always fussed about that pipe. Well, when we got in the car, he threw an old military gas mask at me and said, ‘Put it on and shut up.’
After I won the 1961 Daytona 500, it became a lot easier for me to get good rides. It made a big difference in my career. That´s when I started getting something of a regular income.
I was doing pretty good up to 1963, when I had a bad crash. A sportscar I was driving crashed over there in the east banking at Daytona. There were five guys, including Tiny Lund, who came to my rescue.
The car caught on fire. It was what they call a Birdcage Maserati. I tried to kick the doors open and it was sitting upside down and burning. Because the door went to the roof line, I couldn´t kick it open because it was pinned to the ground.
I heard one of those guys trying to rescue me say, ‘I hear him still kicking. Let´s go get him.’ They lifted the car and one of them grabbed me by the leg and pulled me out. They all grabbed the car and I kicked the door out and got out.
They got me out and we started running and the gas tank blew up. The fire came right across my back. One of those men went temporarily blind because of the flash. They all burned their hands. If it wasn´t for those guys, I wouldn´t be here today.
I was hurt and I couldn´t drive in the Daytona 500 that year, and boy did I have a good ride. I was driving for the Wood Brothers in 1963. It was Glen and Leonard Wood´s car. Glen came over to Halifax Hospital to see me and he asked me, ‘What do you think if we put Tiny Lund in the car for the Daytona 500?’ I told him I agreed with that choice.
I´m glad he did. That turned out like a fairy tale. Tiny went out and won the race because the Woods used a higher gear and didn´t have to stop for fuel as often as the other cars.
Daytona Beach is home, but We´re in the motor home all the time now. We do have a place in North Carolina. We spend time in summer up there. We travel all around with the motor home.
Bettie is president of the Alpine Motor Coach Association, and we have to go to all those functions. She has family out in California, and we make a trip out West every year. This past year we went up to Pennsylvania, and Canada the year before.
We´re not getting any younger. I´m 76 now and Bettie is 70. You got to get out there and do it while you still can. We´re just kind of on the go all the time.
I go out to the Speedway during Speed Weeks, but I don´t go out for the race. I´m just getting too old to fight the crowds. I don´t know too many people in the garage anymore.
Sure, I know the old crew like the Woods and Pettys, but you lose track. By not going, you miss out. Some of the guys I know who still go every week say they don´t know anybody anymore.
I liked Bill France Sr. very much. I knew Bill for a long time. Bill was always a first-class gentleman and he told it like it was and wouldn´t let anybody walk over him. He was fair and the same to everybody.” -- Marvin Panch