50 Years of nascar racing ~ Hickory: The Birthplace Of Legends (Post 48)
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. Matt has kindly granted me 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.
Many of you watched the Busch race held at Hickory Speedway last weekend, but did you know for some 18 years the Grand National (now Winston Cup) circuit used to visit Hickory twice a year as well? Nestled as it is, in the heart of stock car country, in an area infamous for the late night exploits of bootleggers, Hickory has also served as the birthplace for many a rising young driver working his way up to NASCAR's top ranks. While the list is too long to recount completely, some of those drivers included Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and all three generations of the Earnhardts; Ralph, Dale, and more recently Dale Junior. The list of winners at Hickory Grand National events reads like a Who's Who of stock car racing, and includes Lee and Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Tim Flock, and David Pearson.
Hickory first entered the Grand National circuit in May of 1953. It was a simpler and more innocent time in our sport's history. In the rural South, the arrival of the Grand National drivers was a welcome relief from the day to day monotony of life, and men in white starched shirts would bring out the whole family to see the excitement. Five dollars paid for a ticket in those days, and they were available at the gate. Tim Flock won that first event at Hickory driving a '53 Hudson owned by Ted Chester. While already a legend of the sport, Tim was off to a slow start that season, and the race was his first victory that year. The fall race at Hickory in 1953, also marked Tim's return to racing, after devastating head injuries he suffered when he was run over while sleeping in the infield. While Flock did not win that day, he did earn the pole and lead early in the race, to the delight of the crowd.
No discussion of Hickory could be complete without recounting the exploits of another local boy made good, Junior Johnson. During his career, Junior won seven times at Hickory, more than any other Grand National driver. Junior had a reputation for being a hard charger, who either bought home the trophy, or bought home a wrecked car. Sometimes he did both. The tough little track suited Junior's style just fine, and the fans loved the bootlegger turned race legend and his wide open style. Johnson scored the first Grand National win of his career at Hickory in May of 1955, and he did it the hard way. Junior led the early parts of the race, but got overly aggressive and spun out after making contact with Tim Flock in Carl Kiekhaefer's Chrysler. Taking the bit between his teeth, he began charging back towards the front, only to make contact with another car, and spin out yet again. Despite having damaged his Oldsmobile in that incident, Junior once again started making up ground, and on lap 172 he passed Tim Flock for the lead and never looked back. The win was somewhat of an upset victory, because the Kiekhaefer team was so dominant in NASCAR at that time. In fact, in four start's Carl's cars won three events. (Tim Flock in the Fall of 55 and Speedy Thompson in both Hickory races of 1956 were Kiekhaefer's winning drivers.) At the May race at Hickory in 1959, Junior won the pole. During a practice, he flipped his pole-winning Ford. The car came down on all four wheels, so Junior calmly drove back to the pits. The team did some sledgehammer surgery to get the car back race-ready, and hours later Johnson went out and won the race in his thoroughly battered car. Junior's cars were usually pretty battered up after a race, but that day he started the race in one too. As hard as it may seem to believe, Junior pulled off the same stunt in the September race of 1963. He rolled his Chevy during practice, but hasty repairs were made to get the car fixed well enough to race, and if it had four wheels under it, Junior was always a threat to win. He and another hometown hero, Ned Jarrett, treated the fans to a hard fought battle on the dirt bull ring, until Jarrett's Ford began overheating and fell off the pace. Johnson went on to win the race by four laps over G C Spencer. Johnson also won at Hickory in 1965, a year he won 13 races. At the end of that season Junior retired. But while he never drove a full season again, Junior did come out of retirement many times, and one of those times was at the September race at Hickory in 1966. Junior had grown tired of Curtis Turner, his driver at that point, for blowing up or wrecking cars, so he fired Curtis and announced he was coming out of retirement. To the great delight of the crowd, Junior stormed into the lead. Contact with a lapped car flattened one of Johnson's tires while he was on a lap to himself. His luck just kept getting worse. Junior tried to pit to get the tire replaced, but found his pit stall blocked by the track fire engine, while the fire crew was trying to extinguish Buddy Baker's Ford, which had gone up in flames during a fuel stop. Junior lost two laps getting a new tire, and promptly decided to retire again. He handed his car over to Dick Hutcherson, who had been in the infield watching the race. Hutcherson managed to work his way back to fourth place, before rolling the car. Junior promptly fired Dick, and announced he was un-retiring again.
Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson were complete opposites. Ned was tall and lanky, while Junior was overweight. Junior's family was in the moonshine business, while the Jarrett's were devout Christians. Junior had a reputation as a headstrong driver, while Jarrett was known for being a smart and calculating racer. But they had some things in common as well. Both drivers retired early, while still at the top of their game, within a year of each other. Both scored 50 wins during their careers... and both were hometown heroes at Hickory. Despite his reputation as a quiet and cerebral racer, Jarrett was one of the best ever at driving short dirt tracks. His trademark was to throw his car hard into the corner and let the rear bumper guide him along the outside wall, while Ned kept his foot hard to the floor. Jarrett's first Grand National start took place at Hickory in 1953. While he won countless races at the track in other divisions, it was not until May of 1964 he finally won a Grand National race there. That day, he battled most of the race with David Pearson, another master of Hickory. A flat tire late in the going thwarted Pearson's efforts, and Jarrett went on to win, to the enthusiastic applause of 10,000 fans in the stands.
Richard Petty, another native of North Carolina, seemed snake bit early in his career at Hickory. It wasn't until September of 1965 that Richard scored his first victory at the track, following in the footsteps of his father Lee, a two time winner at the track. Apparently that day Richard figured out how to get around Hickory because he went on to win four more races there over the years. NASCAR hadn't seen a team as dominant as Petty Engineering in 1967 since the Carl Kiekhaefer dynasty. Richard won both Hickory races that year. The win at the fall race was one of ten in a row for the King, a record that may never be broken. Hickory was paved between the Spring and Fall races of that season, but as dominant as Richard was that year, it didn't matter to him if the track was dirt or paved. He won almost everywhere. Petty also won the spring '68 Hickory race, to make it three in a row. Newer fans may be surprised to learn that the King had to sit out the June 1970 Hickory event. He had thoroughly destroyed the team's short track car in a savage crash at Darlington early that May, and the car wasn't repaired in time for him to race. In this era where teams have a fleet of cars at their disposal, and almost all bring a backup car to each event, it is hard to imagine that in those days even a well funded team like the Pettys made do with two or three cars. Most of the independent drivers only had one. Richard's final victory at Hickory came in March of 1971. To earn the trophy, he had to hold off a determined charge by independent car owner Dave Marcis (Yes, that Dave Marcis. He's been at this game awhile.) Marcis actually led much of that race, until engines problems relegated him to tenth place.
The final Grand National race at Hickory took place on August 28th, 1971. The days of Hickory, and the other bull rings, were numbered. Winston had come aboard as NASCAR's title sponsor, and they didn't want to sanction any events of less than 250 miles. That would have been more than 600 laps at Hickory and it's doubtful that any cars would have been running at the end of an enduro that grueling. Tiny Lund is credited with winning that final race at the track. NASCAR was struggling that year, in the wake of the auto manufacturers curtailing their involvement in the sport. With the factory money gone, a lot of drivers and teams had quit the sport. To help fill out the starting grids at short tracks, NASCAR allowed the smaller Grand American cars to compete with the Grand National taxi cabs. Lund drove a Chevy Camaro to victory that day, edging out Elmo Langley and Richard Petty in Grand National entries.
Not all the heroes of Hickory had their names inscribed on Grand National trophies there. One of the most memorable races at the track took place in July of 1957. The action on the track was just as hot as the weather that day. Speedy Thompson, and the indomitable Curtis Turner engaged in a spirited scrap for the lead early in the race. Curtis repeatedly put a bumper to the rear of Speedy's car, trying to convince him to get out of the way. Finally on lap 47 Curtis was able to make the pass, but it seems he was a bit annoyed by Thompson's refusal to yield. No sooner had he passed his rival than Curtis slammed on the brakes to show his displeasure. Thompson rammed into the back of Turner's Ford and split his radiator. Thompson headed to the pits for repairs, but not to try to win the race. He wanted revenge. Turner was still leading the race when Thompson returned to the track, slowed up waiting for Curtis, then cut in front of him and slammed on the brakes. Both cars were destroyed. After the race, Speedy and Curtis had to be physically separated from one another in the pits.
Ralph Earnhardt made his first Grand National start at Hickory in November of 1956. While a rookie to the Grand National circuit, Earnhardt knew his way around Hickory from sportsman races (He was track champion five times at Hickory), and he managed to finish second that day to Speedy Thompson. In fact, there was some debate after the race as to who had actually won, and the partisan crowd, by and large, thought Ralph had won. NASCAR quickly rechecked their scoring with both drivers looking on. When it was decided that Speedy had indeed won, the promoters asked Earnhardt to make an announcement he was satisfied the results were correct, to keep his fans from tearing the place down. Those fans who attended races at Hickory in the early '70s, might also recall Ralph's son Dale running pretty well there, in an old white Camaro.
Hickory no longer holds races in NASCAR's top division, and it is unlikely the Winton Cup stars will ever race there again. Despite that, the track still continues to thrive. In addition to the Busch race, Hickory hosts a lot of exciting Late Model racing each week. If you're in the area, you might want to stop by and have a look. Who knows? Perhaps you'll get a look at a star of the future, some young driver rocking the cradle of legends in Hickory, North Carolina.
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