Home: Anoka, MN
Vista resident has fond memories of first
---- It was 1959 when a young Bernie Hentges,
barely out of his teens but already a terror on the dirt track near his
hometown in suburban Minneapolis, drove a Chrysler DeSoto off the
showroom floor and headed south for Florida ---- and drove straight into
A prodigy both behind the wheel and under the hood, Hentges was 22 when
he parked his boat-sized racing machine on the starting grid for the
inaugural Daytona 500.
One of 59 drivers to qualify for that famous first
race and among the 16 or so of those pioneering daredevils still alive,
Hentges, now 71 and living in Vista, remembers being blown away by the
new 2 1/2-mile superspeedway.
"It's the most awesome thing when you see the enormity of that
racetrack," said Hentges, who plans to watch today's 50th running of The
Great American Race. "You see those high banks and you say 'Wow. What am
I doing here?' "
Hentges was thousands of miles from home, operating on a nonexistent
budget, racing on an asphalt track for the first time and aided by a pit
crew that consisted of a few friends merely along for the ride.
Still, he posted the 12th-fastest qualifying time, then finished 12th
again in a qualifying race. Cheering Hentges on was his childhood
sweetheart and future wife. "I was just a lil' old girl from Minnesota,"
said Rita Hentges, who has been married to Bernie for 48 years.
"We knew nothing about the track before we got there. But compared to
the little Twin City Speedway ... you couldn't even imagine it. "It was
kind of like ... breathtaking."
lineup for that first Daytona 500 included 17 models of hardtops and
convertibles. There were Studebakers and Edsels and Thunderbirds, but
the DeSoto ---- which Hentges bought for $3,500 after convincing his
mother to co-sign the loan ---- proved to be quite the conversation
piece. Hentges made his surprisingly fast initial qualifying run on
tires designed for dirt-track racing (tall and skinny with deep treads
compared to wider and less-grooved asphalt tires) and no sleep after a
treacherous drive through a Midwest ice storm.
Afterward, a group of drivers gathered around his car in the garage area
to try to figure out how the Minnesota kid was so darn fast. Among the
onlookers were the legendary Lee Petty
and his son, Richard, a NASCAR
rookie who would go on to become the sport's undisputed king.
Hentges' unique ride also attracted the attention of
Bill France, the visionary who built
the enormous racetrack ---- twice the size of any other NASCAR oval at
the time ---- on a patch of sand and scrub brush that was a haven for
rattlesnakes but seemingly suited for little else. "He liked it because
I had the only new Chrysler product in the field," Hentges said about
France's admiration of his race car. "It was something nobody else was
running, and I had no sponsorship of any kind."
Wearing a racing suit that consisted of nothing more than work pants and
a long-sleeved shirt, Hentges never finished the race. He pitted to fix
a faulty fan belt but otherwise stayed with the leaders for about 350
miles before his engine blew. He finished 37th, ahead of such racing
luminaries as Fireball Roberts
(45th) and Richard Petty (57th). "We
had no fire suits, no safety nets, nothing," Henges said. Navigating the
the steep, high banks in the corners was unlike anything Hentges had
"That's a really funny sensation," he said. "You feel like you are going
to get sucked right through the floor of the car, the G-forces are so
strong." After being knocked out of the race, Hentges found himself in
perfect position to witness what is still widely considered to be the
greatest finish in stock car racing history.
Johnny Beauchamp, an Iowa dirt-track
phenom making only his sixth NASCAR start, and
Lee Petty, a two-time national champion, streaked across the
finish line side by side in an ending that not even the detail-consumed
France could have anticipated. Unlike the standard setup in horse racing
at the time, there were no official finish-line cameras positioned to
determine the winner, who France and the track's flagman first declared
to be Beauchamp. Hentges saw it that way, too. "My pit area was right
across from the finish line, and I was there when I saw them go by,"
Hentges said. "I said to myself, 'Johnny got it.' "
irate Petty and others protested. France took three days to make an
official ruling. Petty was awarded the win. "They really didn't want
Yankees coming in there and winning," Hentges said. "It was a good old
Southern boys racetrack." Lines were drawn even in the garage area.
Through constant trail-and-error mechanical tinkering, Hentges had
confounded his competitors in Minnesota with cars that went faster than
the laws of physics and logic said they should. So he was thrilled to
discover a new trick in Daytona. Hentges saw that his neighbor was using
a system for cooling the brakes ---- slots in the drum to redirect air
flow ---- and commented on the innovation.
"Mind your own car," was Richard Petty's
response. "Put it this way," Hentges said about Petty, who would go on
to win the race a record seven times, "he wasn't overly friendly."
Hentges never raced in Florida again. A mandatory stint in the National
Guard, his marriage to Rita, the birth of their children and a lack of
finances all contributed to the gradual end of a brilliant, if
short-lived, racing career. Hentges attended his first race when he was
a teenager and immediately was hooked. He was just 15 when he converted
a junkyard heap into what loosely could be described as a race car, then
hauled it to the local track. Told he was too young to race, Hentges
authored some bogus consent papers supposedly signed by his mother and
returned. A star was born.
He was winning races as a 16-year-old and, during the height of his
dominance, racked up 19 straight feature wins. During a two-year span he
amassed 144 victories and was described by a local newspaper as "the
hottest commodity Twin City Speedway ever has developed." With relatives
and work as a mechanic lined up in California, Bernie and Rita packed up
their five kids and whatever belongings they could stuff into the bus
Bernie converted into a motor home and left Minnesota in 1968. By the
early '70s, they had settled in the hills north of Vista. A skilled
carpenter and mechanic, Bernie built the family home in which he and
Rita raised their children and still live.
"He's got more energy than people half his age," said Chuck Spiteri, who
lives down the street from the Hentgeses. "He keeps a low profile about
his racing days, although the word has started getting around a little
bit. He's got some great stories." Bernie works eight to 10 hours a day,
six days a week, remodeling homes in his neighborhood. He said he has
jobs lined up more than two years in advance. Asked when he plans to
stop working, Hentges replies without hesitation, "Never, I love what
I'm doing," said the spry, gray-haired Hentges. "I've met some wonderful
people. And I never have to go more than a mile when I go to work."
A few months ago Hentges revived his racing career for one glorious day
in Irwindale. Inspired by a conversation with Hentges, a Valley View
Casino manager organized an outing to L.A. Racing at Irwindale Speedway.
More than a dozen casino regulars took part. Among them was Hentges, who
climbed into a bona fide stock car and roared back to his glory days.
"I knew we had a guy coming in that had raced at Daytona," L.A. Racing
President Jim Cohan said. "But I didn't know which car he was in.
I saw someone out there passing everyone and said, 'Who the hell is in
that car?' "One of our instructors told me, 'That's the guy, that's the
guy.' (Hentges) blew us away." Ignoring the white stripe painted in the
center of the track the newbies are supposed to follow so they don't
slam into the walls, Hentges was zigging and zagging and swooping down
from the top of the track and into the corners to gain speed.
"It felt so natural," Hentges said. "Like I had never got out of a race
car." Before that day in Irwindale, none of the Hentgeses' children had
seen their father race. All they had were photos of their slender,
dark-haired dad working on cars, hoisting trophies and, after one
horrific crash, being carted away on a stretcher. "He was smiling from
ear to ear from the moment he got to the track," said Maria Chieruzzi,
one of Hentges' daughters who "wouldn't have missed" the chance to
finally see her father in action. "I don't know if I've ever seen him
Indeed, racing always has been Hentges' passion. "I would still be doing
it today if I could," Hentges said. "I would race for nothing, I loved
the sport so much." Of course, that was the problem back in those early
days. Drivers, most of them anyway, did race for what amounted to
nothing. Hentges said he earned $800 for his finish at that first
Daytona 500. And he was glad to have it. "We were lucky to have enough
money to buy gas for the ride home," he said.
The memories, though, there is no way to place a value on those. Hentges
recalls pulling into that Daytona International Speedway infield for the
first time and staring up at track unlike anything he had ever seen. "It
makes you shudder a little bit," he said.
Sports Editor Loren Nelson can be reached at (760) 740-3551 or
Family: Wife, Rita, of 48 years and five children, 13 grandchildren and
Residence: Johnsville, Minn., native has lived in Vista since the
Occupation: Owner of a small construction company that specializes in
Started as a
15-year-old driving stock cars on suburban Minneapolis dirt track.
City Speedway during the late 1950s, winning 144 races and two track
titles in a two-year span.
Raced on the beach
at Daytona in 1957 as a 20-year-old.
the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, finishing 37th and earning $800 after
exiting with a blown engine.
The First Daytona 500
Facts and figures from the inaugural running of the Great American Race
at the 2 1/2-mile Daytona International Speedway
Date: Feb. 22, 1959
Average speed: 135.521 mph
Caution flags: None
Winning time: 3 hours, 41 minutes, 22 seconds
Winning driver: An estimated two-feet separated Johnny Beauchamp and Lee
Petty at the finish. The win originally was awarded to Beauchamp and
then, three days later, NASCAR founder Bill France officially declared
Petty the winner.
Prize money: Petty collected $19,050 for the win; last-place finisher
Ken Marriott pocketed $100.
Fans: The reported attendance was 41,92; Only 23,000 could sit in the
stands, so the rest were relegated to the infield.
Did you know: Convertibles raced in the first Daytona 500, including one
driven by a rookie named Richard Petty,
Lee's son who finished 57th but would go on to win the event a record
---- Loren Nelson