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NASCAR Driver Wisconsin Native
March 9th 2009 - Originally published in the "Progress" Edition of the Dunn County News...

Racing legend
Menomonie’s Marvin Panch won Daytona 500


Now that the NASCAR season is underway — and with Wisconsin driver, Matt Kenseth, winning the 2009 Daytona 500 — thoughts turn to racing and warmer days to come. Menomonie has a rich dirt track heritage with the Red Cedar Speedway. Just mention the Red Cedar to any race fan in the upper-Midwest, and it is sure to conjure up images of Jimmy Mars in his number 28 late model, or Knapp’s own Craig Thatcher, who regularly slings the mud in his number 91 modified on a WISSOTA Friday Night Feature.

Most race fans also know of the Menomonie link to the Indy 500, with the mechanical genius of native son, Harry A. Miller. Miller’s engines and cars won the Indy 500 — 12 times. A mechanical wizard with engines, transmissions and exhaust technology, Miller was truly an engineering visionary. His early success came with innovative spark plugs and carburetors, which eventually found their way into passenger cars.

Fast times
But did you ever hear of Menomonie native, Marvin Panch? Born on May 28, 1926, Marvin is the NASCAR link to Menomonie. He was the son August and Ella Punk (the family name was later changed to Panch) of rural Rusk. August died when Marvin was three years old, and he ended up living with various aunts and uncles. One aunt he lived with in Menomonie was Martha Chapman. Menomonie may be better known for the lumber barons of the late 1800s, but this town has produced some pretty exclusive race wins. Panch was the winner of the 1961 Daytona 500.

He traveled to California in the 40’s with a friend, and eventually settled in the Oakland area. He started in the racing world as a car owner in California. In 1949, when his driver didn’t show up, Marvin ended up racing his own car to a third place finish. He continued to race his own cars and had his first big win that same year on July 4 at the Balboa Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in San Diego. And for the next six years Panch raced in California, winning several races and a championship.

Petty power
In 1953, he traveled to South Carolina for the race at Darlington Raceway, finishing 28th. Based on his performance, Lee Petty invited him back to Darlington in 1954 to race a Petty car. Panch finished third, capturing the attention of a Pennsylvania Oldsmobile dealer named Tom Horbison who asked him to remain on the east coast and drive for him during the 1955 race season.
During the season, Panch ran extremely well, outqualifying and outrunning the Ford factory cars. As a result, Panch was offered a Ford ride in 1956 by Pete DePaolo and won his first Grand National race on July 20, 1956 at Montgomery, Ala. — winning the pole and dominating the 100-mile event.

Hard times
Panch began the 1957 season by winning the first two races of the year. He posted a third victory in April. After Ford pulled out of racing in mid-1957, Panch drove the remainder of the year for Holman-Moody, winning an additional three races and finishing second in the points championship. Despite the six wins and 22 top-five finishes in his 42 starts that year, Panch’s career took a major step backward, following the departure of the Ford factory team. In the next three seasons, he only competed in a total of 24 races. “We just didn’t have the money to run our own team, and I was just never able to get back into a good car until Smokey called,” says Panch. “Those were some hard times.”

Back in the winner’s circle
Smokey Yunick offered Panch a ride in a year-old 1960 Pontiac for the 1961 Daytona 500. Panch won the Daytona 500 — putting both himself and his career back on track. A little more than a year after his Daytona 500 win, Panch was hired by the Woods Brothers to drive their Ford. This partnership would eventually yield eight wins, 11 second and 11 third-place finishes in 69 starts during the 1962-1966 seasons.
“We had a lot of success together,” says Panch. “We won some races and always finished up good when we didn’t win. It was like having money in the bank.”
The relationship came to an end on March 27, 1966 when Ford Motor Company again pulled out of NASCAR due to a rules dispute.

“Cornered the market”
Lee Petty offered Panch a ride for the 1966 Charlotte 600 in a year-old Plymouth. Marvin captured the Charlotte 600 for his 17th and last career victory. He continued driving for Petty until his retirement after the National 500 at Charlotte in October 1966.
Through his racing career, Panch drove for top car builders such as Smokey Yunick, the Woods Brothers, Ray Fox Holman-Moody and Petty Enterprises.
“I feel that I cornered the market when it comes to driving for some of the best car builders in the business. I rate them all very highly,” says Panch.
Marvin Panch was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1987 and was named one of the top 50 drivers by NASCAR in 1998.
I a recent phone interview, Marvin stated that, ‘the current NASCAR Stock Car is anything but stock. In fact, they all look the same, but what they are, is very safe. NASCAR has always been on the cutting edge of safety.” When asked what his greatest NASCAR moment was, he replied, “The 1961 Dayton 500, and the 1966 Charlotte 600, those both rank up there at the top of my 17 wins.”
After retiring from racing, Marvin worked as a field engineer for Grey Rock Brake Lining. He commented without question, “The biggest difference in racing now, is money. The current drivers make a real good living. Look at me, I had to keep on working until I retired.” Marvin currently resides in Port Orange, Florida, and expressed some interest in coming to see some, “racing at the Red Cedar some Friday night.”
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