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Bernie Hentges
Born:                        Home: Anoka, MN

Vista resident has fond memories of first Daytona

Bernie Hentges, 71, of Vista was one of 59 drivers in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. Hentges was a 22-year-old from Minneapolis when he made the drive to Florida in his Chrysler DeSoto. VISTA ---- 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 racing lore.

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."

Bernie Hentges is seen being carted away on a stretcher after a racing crash in 1957. The 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 experienced.

"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.' "

Bernie Hentges is shown during his stock car racing years in the 1950s. An 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 that happy."

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 lnelson@nctimes.com.

Bernie Hentges

Age: 71
Family: Wife, Rita, of 48 years and five children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren
Residence: Johnsville, Minn., native has lived in Vista since the mid-1970's
Occupation: Owner of a small construction company that specializes in remodeling homes.

Racing career

  • Started as a 15-year-old driving stock cars on suburban Minneapolis dirt track.
     

  • Dominated Twin 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.
     

  • Competed in 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

    Qualifiers: 59

    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 seven times.

    ---- Loren Nelson

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    Bernie Hentges Grand National Driver Statistics

    Year Age Races Win T5 T10 Pole Laps Led Earnings Rank AvSt AvFn
    1957   1 of 53 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 187 48.0 51.0
    1959   2 of 44 0 0 0 0 176 0 210 78 25.5 24.5
    2 years 3 0 0 0 0 176 0 210   33.0 33.3
    Date  Place

    Division 

    Start

    Finish Owner

    #

    Car Laps Money Status Laps Led
     Feb 17 1957   Daytona Beach Road Course   NASCAR Grand National  48 51    81   1956 Dodge        
     Feb 20 1959   Daytona International Speedway   NASCAR Grand National  28 12  Bernie Hentges   81   1959 DeSoto  38   110   running 
     Feb 22 1959   Daytona International Speedway   NASCAR Grand National/Convertible  23 37  Bernie Hentges   81   1959 DeSoto  138   100   engine 


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