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Daytona finds a lost treasure

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Like the Smokey Yunick-owned 1960 Pontiac he drove to victory in the 1961 Daytona 500, Marvin Panch, it seems, has been restored as one of the event's lost treasures. Next Saturday, track officials at Daytona International Speedway will honor Panch, 79, as the oldest living winner of the Daytona 500.

''I guess that means I'm over the hill, doesn't it?" said Panch, self-deprecatingly. ''I'm an antique."

Hardly. Panch, who now resides in Port Orange, some five minutes south of Daytona's 2 1/2-mile trioval, remains a living link to NASCAR's glorious past. Panch, who was voted one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998, will return to the track next weekend and display his winning No. 20 Pontiac Catalina, the first Pontiac to visit Victory Lane at Daytona.

''I've been very fortunate," said Panch, whose 12-year career produced 17 wins in 216 starts and spanned two distinct epochs of NASCAR's history with races on Daytona's famed beach course as well as its high-banked, paved superspeedway. ''I've had some good car owners."

He drove for the late Yunick, the Wood brothers (Glen and Leonard), and the late Lee Petty.

But it was Yunick, the mechanical wizard who owned and operated Daytona's ''Best Damn Garage in Town," who gave Panch his big break in 1961. After Ford pulled its factory support from his race team midway through the 1957 season, Panch's Grand National career seemed to stall when he competed in only 24 races over the next three seasons.

Fireball Roberts paved the way for Panch to come aboard when Yunick expanded to two teams in 1961. Problem was, Panch would have to campaign a year-old Pontiac that Roberts drove and crashed four times the previous season. The Roberts-Panch tandem proved fast at Daytona when they finished 1-2 in their respective 125-mile qualifying heat.

''After we came in, Smokey came to me and said, 'I don't want you doing that during the race,' " Panch said. ''I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'If Fireball blows or wrecks, I don't want you in the same accident.' "

During the 500, Panch stopped for fuel and fell a half-lap behind Roberts, who dropped out of the lead when his engine seized. ''When he uncorked it, they gave me the signal to go," Panch said. ''I had a few '61 Pontiacs that I had outrun, but Smokey had that year-old Pontiac running so good that I came up and ended up winning the race."

Panch said Pontiac's factory bosses were less than thrilled with his victory. ''They wanted to see a 1961 Pontiac win the race rather than a year-old car," Panch said. ''But I needed the money and no one held up a [pit board] sign that said, 'Run second.' "

Yunick was so impressed with Panch's victory, he sweetened the driver's cut of the prize money. ''I had a 40 percent deal to drive the car and when I went to settle up, Smokey said, 'Tell you what. Anybody good enough to win the race is worth 50 percent to me.' "

Panch said the sponsorship and prize money that's thrown around the sport these days boggles his mind.

''Actually, I'm jealous as heck," said Panch, who earned $21,050 for winning the Daytona 500, a paltry sum compared with the $1.497 million Jeff Gordon pocketed for winning last year's race. ''They make more now just to make the race, or to run the 125s. They make more finishing that race to get into the big race than I did winning the race."

Panch isn't far off the mark. Morgan Shepherd started 27th and finished 28th and last in the first heat of last year's Gatorade Duel at Daytona, pocketing $21,113 after completing 60 laps. Bobby Labonte earned $276,444 for finishing last in last year's 500, easily surpassing Panch's career earnings of $262,966.

''I tell all my friends, if they paid the money back then like they do now, then I wouldn't even have to be nice to 'em," Panch said. ''But I've been fortunate."

Panch's greatest stroke of good fortune came in 1963, when he was at Daytona trying to set a closed-course speed record in a Maserati sports car before the 24-hour race. He wrecked, the car became airborne, and landed on its roof before becoming engulfed in flames. The way the story goes, Tiny Lund was standing nearby when the accident happened and rushed to the scene to pull Panch from the burning wreckage.

''Tiny wasn't the only one, but he got the credit for it," Panch said.

With Panch laid up in the hospital with severe burns over 60 percent of his body, the Wood brothers decided to give Lund an opportunity to fill their vacant seat for the Daytona 500. Lund reciprocated by winning the 1963 race. As a result of her husband's accident, Bettie G. Panch founded in 1964 what is now known as the Women's Auxiliary of Motorsports, a nonprofit group that raises funds and offers support to the wives and families of injured NASCAR drivers.

''Actually what happened was, when the car was upside-down and on fire, I couldn't get out of the thing because the door opened on the top," Panch said. ''But there were guys by the name of Bill Wimble and Ernie Gayham and Jerry Raven and Steve Petrasek from Firestone and they actually lifted the car up. When they lifted the car up, I kicked the door open and got about halfway out and the [fuel] tank blew up.

''When they lifted it up, Tiny grabbed me by the legs and pulled me the rest of the way out. But those guys [Wimble, Gayham, Raven, and Petrasek] really were the ones who were in the fire. I mean, I appreciate what Tiny did, too, but it if it wasn't for those guys I wouldn't be here."

Sneak peek

Tonight's Budweiser Shootout, a 70-lap dash for cash among the 2005 Bud Pole Award winners and former Shootout winners, likely will provide an interesting glimpse into what the camps at Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge have been working on all winter in preparation for the Daytona 500 and the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season. Ken Schrader, making his 16th career Shootout appearance, will start from the pole after landing the coveted starting position in a blind draw. He will drive the No. 21 Ford Fusion, which will be making its debut. ''We had a good test down here and I was happy with it, especially in the draft," Schrader said. ''The Fusion looks like it's going to be a really good little racecar." . . . Erin Crocker, a 24-year-old rookie driver from Wilbraham, Mass., will start 10th in today's ARCA 200 at Daytona. Crocker, who will run the 2006 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for Evernham Motorsports in the No. 98 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge Ram, will have busy Speedweeks, competing not only in today's ARCA Series opener in the No. 98 Hamburger Helper Dodge Charger but also in next Friday night's Truck Series opener. ''The ARCA Series is a great way for me to get seat time and experience on a lot of tracks that NASCAR runs on," Crocker said. ''I am looking to get more experience in the draft since I have only raced one other superspeedway [Talladega]" -- where she finished fourth in an ARCA race last year . . . Scott Sharp, the former Indy Racing League champion from Norwalk, Conn., will return to the roster of drivers who will compete in the 30th anniversary of the Crown Royal International Race of Champions, a four-race series that will stage its opener next Friday at Daytona. The rest of the roster includes Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Steve Kinser, Ted Musgrave, Frank Kimmel, Max Angelelli, Wayne Taylor, Max Papis, Ryan Newman, Sam Hornish Jr., and Matt Kenseth.

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