50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 39
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin’s “50 Years of NASCAR Racing”, written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR ‘s 50th Anniversary celebration that year. In keeping with the RacersReunion mission of passing the history of our sport down to younger fans, Matt has kindly granted us permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Take a trip back in time to the days when television and divorce were still rarities, motorcycles were dangerous and sex was safe, and stock cars were…well stock, to the early days of NASCAR. It was a very different time and place, where seemingly anything could happen, and occasionally did, and hopefully these tales and trivial tidbits will help highlight just how different the sport was in its infancy.
· Back in the early days the Modified class, not the Grand Nationals were actually NASCAR’s bread and butter, and the sanctioning body came into existence promoting these races not the “new cars”. Typically these race cars were mid to late ’30s Fords with hopped up flathead engines, running on dirt short tracks. Buddy Shuman won the biggest Modified race in 1953, run under the lights on the one-mile paved oval in Raleigh, North Carolina. The event was marred by the tragic deaths of two drivers in a first lap crash, after the starter failed to notice a car was stalled in the racing groove on the backstretch and dropped the green flag. Just like these days, Shuman was quick to give credit for his pit crew in victory lane, claiming it was their lightning quick pit stop that gave him the lead. After all, the crew had managed to change two tires and fill the car’s fuel tank in only one minute and forty seven seconds, incredibly quick by the standard of the day.
· Lee Petty was one of the early superstars in Grand National racing. He won the Grand National Title in 1954, 1958 and 1959, and was in the top four in points every year from the inaugural 1949 season until 1959. He would have won the 1950 championship as well, handily, but in those days there were a lot of sanctioning bodies sponsoring races, and Bill France Sr. was trying to lock in the big name drivers to NASCAR. Any driver who competed in a non-NASCAR sanctioned event lost all the grand National points he had accumulated to that date, and Petty lost 809 points for running a rival league race during an off weekend in July. Lee also had the dubious honor of being the first driver to wreck in NASCAR’s Strictly Stock division (which became the Grand National Division, which in turn became the Winston Cup division.) The incident took place at the very first Strictly Stock race June 19, 1949. Petty had borrowed a neighbor’s ’46 Buick, and rolled it on the 107th lap. Of course, like his son after him, Lee Petty made his name driving Mopars, particularly Plymouths, and won the first Grand National victories for both Plymouth and Dodge. When we think of Mopar racecars back in the fifties, the ancient 241 Hemi (Granddaddy of the 426 Hemi) comes to mind, but Lee scored his first victories not with a bellowing Hemi, but with a flatulent flathead in line six cylinder capable of cranking out a mere 94 horsepower. The Plymouths didn’t get Hemi engines until much later, because they were considered entry-level, basic transportation in those days, much like a Hyundai today. Petty had learned his lesson when he put that elephantine Buick on its lid, and guessed correctly a lighter car would be faster on the deeply rutted dirt tracks that made up the Grand National race schedule of the day… tracks with ruts so deep that even one of those behemoth big cars of the day would roll over if they hit the ruts sideways, while the lighter Plymouth scooted across them like a bass boat on a choppy lake. Lee Petty was known to have a bit of a temper and he showed it August 4,1956 at a race in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The dust got so bad none of the drivers could see where they were going, so Lee pulled into the pits, climbed up on the starters tower, and red flagged the race after 32 laps. How aggressive a driver was Lee Petty? At the July 18th, 1958 race Lee got annoyed with a driver he was trying to lap and rammed him from the rear putting the other car hard into the wall. That driver was his son Richard, starting his first Grand National race. Lee went onto win the race. Richard finished 17th in a field of 19 cars.
· The shortest in Grand National history race in terms of distance was run July 19, 1958 at the Civic stadium in Buffalo New York. The 25 mile race, 100 laps around a quarter mile paved oval, was won in a tick under 32 minutes by Jim Reed. Pole speed that day was set by Rex White at a sizzling 38.6 miles per hour. 7,750 fans were on hand to watch the epic battle.
· In the early days of NASCAR racing, the race cars were shod with passenger cars tires just like the ones that came off the racks at Sears or the local filling station. Jim Roper won the first Strictly Stock race in a Lincoln equipped with wide whitewall tires. Image is everything after all, I suppose. Indy car legend Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500 (the longest stock car in history to that point) at Darlington on September 4th , 1950. He did so without having to change tires, as he had equipped the Plymouth he co-owned with Bill France with truck tires. Red Bryon suffered 24 flat tires that day on standard passenger car tires, and wound up third. Besides winning the race, that little Plymouth was used all week before the race to run errands around Darlington. The tires were promptly banned after the race….by car owner Bill France. The first legal “specialty” racing tire, featuring an all nylon cord construction to dissipate heat, was introduced by the Pure Oil Company in 1952. A lot of the smaller teams had a tough time affording those race special tires, which cost a princely $37.90 a piece including FET and delivery. A relative bargain by comparison was the first pair of flame retardant overalls introduced that same year by Treesdale Labs, which cost $9.25 according to a racing accessory catalogue of the day.
· As NASCAR tried to gain respectability, the sanctioning body sometimes resorted to some strange measures. There was a big race held June 21st, 1953 at the old Langhorne Speedway, a one mile dirt oval which was circular in shape and had no straightaways. That day foreign cars were allowed to enter, in an attempt to show American cars were as fast and reliable as those foreign exotic jobs. Dick Rathmann upheld American honor by winning the race in his Hudson, and American Iron claimed the top five positions. Also in the top ten was a Jaguar and a pair of Porsches. A bit further back , finishing 19th in the 38 car field, but still running, was Dick Hagey in a Volkswagen Beetle. He took home $40 for this epic achievement, which probably kept his cockroach cult item in gas for a year in those days.
· Drivers sometimes got bored during long caution flag periods during a race. Curtis Turner once crashed out of a race under the caution flag while looking down to light a cigarette. Even those qualifying laps can get boring, and what better way to pass the time then to have a passenger handy to chat with? Retired racer and race promoter Joe Littlejohn hopped in the passenger seat of Herb Thomas’ Hudson when Herb went out to qualify for Fourth of July 1954 race at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. Thomas took the pole and went on to win the race…without a passenger of course.
· The first Chevy ever to race in a NASCAR Strictly Stock event, raced in the third race of the schedule in Hillsboro, North Carolina, driven by Bill Snowden. By coincidence, it carried the number 3 which Dale Earnhardt has made synonymous with Chevys in NASCAR, and it of course finished….well fifth. I just report em; I don’t make em up. The first win for a Chevy came in the 182nd race in NASCAR’s top rank, when Fonty Flock won the March 26th,1955 race at Columbia, South Carolina.
· Glenn Dunaway was flagged the winner of the very first NASCAR Strictly Stock race that day in June, 1949 where it all began, but his claim to history was done away with when the car was disqualified. NASCAR inspectors discovered a grievous violation of the rules, a small wedge of wood driven between the leaf springs in the left rear of the car. Those blocks of wood were an old moonshiner’s trick to stiffen up the spring so the rear of the car wouldn’t sag under the load, and Dunaway’s car was still active hauling shine when it won the race. The NASCAR rules allowed for absolutely no modifications to the car, other than a plate welded to the right front wheel to keep the lug nuts from pulling through the rims. Incidentally, those small wedges of wood used to stiffen the spring pack were a popular tuning trick in those days. Nowadays tightening down on the coil springs in the rear of the car has the same effect, and thus it is still called, ” putting a round of wedge in it.”
· How long has Ned Jarrett been a part of NASCAR? He ran his first Grand National race at Hickory Speedway August 29th,1953. Jarrett finished 11th, which sounds pretty good, but there were only 12 cars entered in the event. Having such a small number of cars entered in an event was common in that day. In fact, a race planned for July 1952 in Akron Ohio had to be cancelled because no drivers entered. On the other hand, 82 cars started the 1951 Southern 500 at Darlington. 24 were listed as still running when Herb Thomas took the checkered flag, six and a half hours later.
· NASCAR has become synonymous with stock cars, but in 1952, Bill France Senior attempted to start a class running open wheel Indy style cars to compete with the AAA, which sponsored Indianapolis and other such events on the equivalent of the CART or IRL schedule today. (All ovals in those days, mainly dirt tracks, and the cars were front engined, looking more like sprint cars than what most people think of when they think of Indy Cars today.) The big difference between the two was that NASCAR’s rules called for strictly stock American built V8 engines, as opposed to the racing Offenhausers that dominated Indy car racing of that day. The first NASCAR “Speedway” event was not an oval or a road course but a top speed run over a mile course on three consecutive days, with the best average winning. Buck Baker took the prize in a Cadillac- sponsored entry. The series was never very popular, either with entrants or the fans, and ran only seven races before France pulled the plug claiming it was because of a nationwide steel strike that made building Speedway cars impossible. Buck Baker was awarded the championship in that Cadillac- powered entry.
· While there was a lot of rough driving in those early days, there was also a spirit of Sportsmanship that seems sadly lacking today. Future NASCAR legend, two time Grand National champion, and retired motorcycle racer Joe Weatherly engaged in a spirited duel with Sam DiRusso in a 25 lap NASCAR modified race at Richmond back in 1952. On the last lap, Weatherly got into DiRusso’s car and spun him out. After the race Weatherly declined the win, telling NASCAR he was at fault in the wreck, and asking them to give DiRusso the win. DiRusso was allowed to go to winner’s circle and collect the trophy and check for the win, but the biggest applause of the day went to Weatherly. After Glenn Dunaway was disqualified from the first Strictly Stock race, a number of his fellow drivers felt he had been treated unfairly and donated a portion of their winnings to him. Dunaway walked away with more money in his pocket than if he had won the race.
At present, Matt is not taking email correspondence at RacersReunion. If you have comments, please leave them below and he will read them at his leisure.
If you’ve enjoyed your visit so far, we invite you to check out the Stock Car RacersReunion site by clicking here. By simply creating a log-in you will have access to over 100,000 vintage racing photos and thousands of articles, stories and conversations, some with legendary participants whose names you will recognize. As part of our racing family, you are free to enjoy the Chat Room and all Forums will be open for discussing your passion for racing with others of like mind. RacersReunion truly is where legends and fans unite.