The first time I went to Hickory, NC, 1963 or '64, it was a sleepy little town with a race track. The next time I went to Hickory in the mid Seventies (several times) it was a slightly larger sleepy town. The last time I went to Hickory, in the mid 90s, it was a larger town and not quite as sleepy. Through it all Hickory Race Track, Hickory Motor Speedway, or whatever the name, was there. A .4 mile dirt track, like most in the early days of NASCAR, which became a fast and competitive asphalt track as "progress" updated the sport.
Today we are returning to the days of the dirt track, May 2, 1959, when 21 cars showed up for a 100 mile/250 lapsrace on the dirt track. As is the norm, excitement at Hickory is a given. This time it started in practice when Junior Johnson rolled his 1957 Ford. The car landed back on its wheels and Junior drove it into the pits, climbed out, surveyed the damage and commented only that "it just skinned it up a little". Junior went out and qualified that Ford on the pole! Those '57 Fords were tough!
Starting on Junior's right was Lee Petty in a 1957 Oldsmobile. As was his style, when the green flag waved, Junior bolted into the lead he would hold until lap 26 when Speedy Thompson nosed to the inside off turn four and took the lead. Joe Weatherly and Buck Baker had followed Speedy through the door he opened inside Junior and the three of them, Joe, Buck, and Speedy, would battle nose to tail and side by side . Joe Weatherly is credited with leading laps 51-100, Buck Baker with laps 101-124. On lap 125, Speedy Thompson muscled his way back into the lead, and although he couldn't pull away from his pursuers, he held the lead through lap 237.
By lap 237, Junior Johnson had moved his "skinned up" Ford into second place, but he was having no luck running down the quick Chevy of Thompson. With 13 laps remaining, Thompson lost oil pressure in the Chevy and had to park it. This put Junior in the lead by two laps over Joe Weatherly and Junior motored his way to the checkers. My reference doesn't say whether or not Junior backed off when Speedy fell out, but recalling the Junior of those days, it is unlikely he slowed his pace any.
A crowd of 5,000 watched Junior complete the 250 laps in 1 hour, 36, minutes and 31 seconds as the race was slowed by four caution flags, none for serious incidents.
Top five finishers were:
1. Junior Johnson, Paul Spaulding Ford, winning $800.00
2. Joe Weatherly, Delta Auto Sales Ford T-Bird, winninb $525.00
3. Lee Petty, Petty Engineering Plymouth, winning $350.00
4. Ken Rush, Chevroler, winning $250.00
5. Cotton Owens, W.H. Watson Pontiac, winning $225.00
Sixth through tenth were Speedy Thompson (although no running at the finish), Shep Langdon, L.D. Austin, Ned Jarrett, and Herman Beam. Many of you may remember Herman Beam as the driver who came with an immaculately prepared race car which he drove cautiously each race to finish in the money. In this particular race, although he finished 10th, he was 36 laps down. A personal memory of Herman Beam is from Myrtle Beach Speedway, July, 1963. He had hired Cale Yarborough to drive his Ford in the race that afternoon. Cale brought the number 19 red and white Ford to the pits after a slight altercation denting the fender. I actually watched Herman take a white handkerchief out of his pocket and rub away the dirt to inspect the scrape. Google Herman Beam and read all about his NASCAR exploits. He is quite a story.
Other finishers of note were Jim Reed 13th, G.C. Spencer 14th, Buck Back 15th, Jimmy Pardue 19th and Rex White 21st.
So, these days I would image Hickory is a larger town, maybe even known as a city now, made famous, in part, by Ned Jarrett living there, put forever enshrined in the history of NASCAR racing. Even as I sit here now, I can envision what it must have been like to watch those pioneers battle it out on that track.When you run 250 laps on a track slightly smaller than a half mile, and dirt to boot, you know you have raced. When you compete against Buck, Joe, Speedy, Rex, Junior you have an event to remember. Probably, somewhere out in the vastness of space, there is a dust molecule floating around that was kicked up by the tires of those race cars. If that molecule could only tell us the story!
Honor the past, embrace the present, dream for the future.
updated by @tim-leeming: 12/05/16 04:00:58PM