50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 8
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.
Jack Roush has raised a lot of eyebrows lately with his plans for a five car team in 1998, and a lot of fans think even a three car team like Rick Hendrick’s, with all the money at their disposal , put the smaller one car teams at a distinct disadvantage. No doubt if Jeff Gordon is in a points battle going into Atlanta, a fourth car will be entered from his stable just as it has been for the last couple years to help guarantee one of Rick’s drivers a championship. But the idea of a multi-car super team is not a new idea, and in fact it dates all the way back to 1955. And a lot worse things have been done in the name of a title than simply entering an extra car and parking it on the first lap. Read on for the story of Carl Kiekhaefer and the highly controversial 1956 championship.
Kiekhaefer arrived on the scene like a supernova at the Daytona beach and road course back in 1955. He was a millionaire who had made his fortunes with his company that built Mercury outboard engines for boats, the very same brand engine that might be hanging on the back of your fishing or ski boat today. He got into racing not out of love of the sport, but simply to help sell boat engines. By that point the automobile companies had noted that success on the Grand National stock car circuit equated with the sales of automobiles. (Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.) Kiekhaefer believed by having his company logo on the side of winning stock cars who would sell more boat engines. Thus Mercury Outboards became the first big name sponsor to support a race team.
When Kiekhaefer decided to get involved with racing he dove into the sport with both feet. His entrance to the sport was so sudden he hauled his car to Daytona with no driver lined up to compete. The car was a big white Chrysler 300 letter car, which would become the trademark of the Kiekhaefer Mercury Outboard team. Carl consulted with Bill France about who the best driver he could put in his car would be, and wound up hiring Tim Flock, youngest of the three Flock brothers, retired(?) moonshiners who had already made quite a name for themselves in the early days of NASCAR racing. It was an offer Tim could not refuse. He was paid a salary of 40,000 dollars a year to drive, an unheard of sum, and a king’s ransom by the standards of the day.
But then Kiekhaefer did everything different and a cut above the rest. Hard as it may seem to be to believe, those Chrysler 300′s were the hottest car of the day, though they were so expensive very few people raced them. In a time where a lot of racers still hand painted their numbers on the side of the car with a brush, and maybe added the name of the local filling station in exchange for a free set of tires, all Kiekhafer’s cars were immaculately prepared and professionally lettered. In a time when many race cars were still driven to the track, and even the hot teams flat towed their cars behind ratty old pickups that looked a few miles away from becoming lawn ornaments in someone’s backyard, Kiekhaefer had a fleet of enclosed transport trucks carefully lettered to look just like the race cars. ( Well, almost enclosed. Those Chryslers were so long the tail end stuck a foot out the back door of the trucks.) At a time a wreck in practice sent most drivers home, Carl had those trucks of his loaded with spare engines, body panels, suspension parts and even frames. In a time when the pit crew and mechanic for most teams were a driver’s buddies and family, Kiekhaefer hired and paid a princely salary to the best in the business. At times the team fielded six race cars in a single day.
His driver’s were expected to conduct themselves as professionals as well. Drivers and crews wore immaculate white driving suits with their sponsors logos on them. They were not to drink in public, cuss, or engage in horseplay. Each driver had to fill out a detailed report on how the car was set up, how it ran, tire wear, finishing position and suggestions on how to improve the team after each event and submit it directly to Carl . This was in a day more than a few drivers were illiterate. To aid in preparing the reports, a weatherman traveled with the team to measure temperature, wind speed and humidity at the track. Soil samples were taken and analyzed at dirt tracks by scientists to study how the cars responded to certain types of dirt.
Kiekhaefer’s most notorious demand on his drivers came the night before the race. He would rent out an entire motel, and insist that driver’s sleep in one wing, and their wives or girlfriends sleep in the other, as sex the night before the race was not permitted. There was a curfew, bed checks, and spies peeping through the curtains to be sure everyone behaved.
Insane as that might sound there was no arguing with success. Tim Flock won 18 races, every lap of 11 of those races, and the championship. Other Kiekhaefer drivers won four more for the team, and team cars finished one-two four times. That’s not a bad record. But Carl was just getting warmed up. His stated goal for 1956 was to win every race.
Towards that end, Kiekhaefer hired the one driver who seemed to be able to beat his team, Buck Baker, Buddy’s dad. Greg Fielden, noted NASCAR historian, records Carl’s unusual job offer as being phrased, “If you’re as big a son of a bitch as everyone says you are, I’m curious. Would you like to drive for me?” At a 40,000 dollar salary an employer could afford to be rude in those days. Baker signed on the dotted line.
The early part of the season went phenomenally well. Kiekhaefer-owned cars won 21 out of 25 races and finished second in 11 more. From the race at the Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta until the one run at the Redwood Speedway in Eureka California, Carl’s cars won every race, 16 in all. Making that achievement all that much more remarkable was the fact in those days, NASCAR often sanctioned two events the same day, one on the east coast and the other in the west. Kiekhaefer would enter drivers at both. That year the infamous Chrysler 300B was powered by a 354 Hemi good for 355 horsepower, when equipped with the mechanical lifter cam and a pair of Holley carbs. The combination was simply unbeatable.
But all was not peaches and cream. NASCAR wasn’t happy one team was dominating so many races. They tried, but failed to find illegal parts. Once again quoting Mr. Fielden, “Not once did we find anything illegal on one of Carl’s cars.” remembered Bill France “And brother did we try!” Race fans disliked seeing one team so dominant as well and loudly booed the team drivers, much as they have been doing to Jeff Gordon since he started winning so many races, and throwing beer bottles at the Kiekhaefer cars on the tracks. Attendance started to fall off at many tracks as well. Kiekhaefer was shocked at the way fans were reacting, having thought dominance would be appreciated, and as a businessman he started worrying that sponsoring the team would hurt, not help, sales of his boat engines. But Carl was a proud and determined man, and he had set his mind to winning that title, and planned to so. At any cost.
Tim Flock finally had enough of Kiekhaefer’s demanding ways and citing both health reasons and the unreasonable demands of his sponsor as far as appearances, he quit the team in early April, while in victory circle at North Wilkesboro. Stunned, but undeterred, Carl promoted Baker to his lead driver and hired on Herb Thomas, the winningest driver in the sport to that point. Thomas, a two time Grand National champion, was still making a comeback after horrific injuries he suffered at the dirt track in Charlotte the previous May, when his car rolled five times and he was ejected from the vehicle somewhere in the midst of the wreck. (At that point NASCAR didn’t require seatbelts.) It didn’t take Thomas long to quit as well. He was the driver who had to do the west coast races, and he resented both his third string status and all the travel. He quit and started his own team, fielding Chevys. Kiekhaefer was enraged at Thomas, especially after things fell apart for the once seemingly unstoppable Chrysler team and Thomas took the points lead at Langhorne in September.
Wanting Baker to take the title at any cost, and with only a few races left, Kiekhaefer took the unusual step of buying a race track, the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Shelby, North Carolina, and posting the required money to have a NASCAR sanctioned points race held there, hastily added to the schedule. (Yes, Bruton, in those days it was a whole lot easier to obtain a race date.) That might seem dirty pool, but it was nothing compared to what went on in the race. Baker was winning the event in one of Kiekhaefer’s Chrysler’s, but Herb Thomas was mounting a determined charge in his Chevy. He had made his way to third place, but Speedy Thomas in another Kiekhaefer Chrysler was in second and blocking for his teammate so Baker could win the race. When Thomas finally got along side Thompson, Thompson cut the wheel hard right putting his front bumper into the rear quarter of the Thomas Chevy. Thomas went sideways and went into the wall a ton. In fact his car broke through the guardrail and was pinned in place. Four more cars plowed hard into his Chevy, including Lee Petty. Thomas was taken from the car in a coma, with a badly fractured skull, head lacerations, internal injuries and a ruptured ear drum. While Herb Thomas survived those injuries, his racing career was for all intents and purposes over. He would try to make a comeback twice, posting three more starts, but he was never the same after that terrible wreck. In Thompson’s defense, he probably had no idea how severe the wreck was going to be, but every source I have ever read says the same thing. It was no accident. And more importantly, the fans of the day believed it was a dirty hit ordered by team strategists to win Baker the title.
Baker had been good friends with Thomas, and originally announced he would not run the last three races of the year to allow Thomas to take the title. Mutual friends of Baker and Thomas voiced their support, saying Buck had not been in on the deal and he should continue running. Baker took the title that year, by a comfortable margin, but to this day, the circumstances around it cast a cloud on that championship. To this day, when asked about that fateful day in Shelby County, Baker replies, “I don’t know what exactly happened. I didn’t see it.” Kiekhaefer quit the sport at the end of the season, never to return. It would be years until the same concepts he pioneered were used again, and some folks will look back at that fateful October day in 1956, and insist NASCAR needs to limit the amounts of teams one person can own. Certainly if such a travesty could happen during the simpler and purer days of the sport, the temptation is going to be all that much the greater with the big money and prestige the Winston Cup championship carries with it today, for a car owner willing to win at any cost.
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