Speeds Were Slower, Drivers Still Came and Went, and NASCAR Survived
If all goes as expected, somebody will take the pole for Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega with a speed of around 190 mph (rules changes have made pole speeds at most tracks slightly slower than last year). Just so you know, when this thing we now call the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series began 68 years ago, the fastest pole speed at one of the original series tracks was about half that.
But of course that was on a track that was more than half SAND, so maybe pole-sitter Gober Sosebee had reason to be proud of his fast time on the old Daytona beach-road course. For the record, Sosebee lead most of the race but ended up eighth behind winner Red Byron.
It’s worth reflecting on that race winner, who also was the first champion of what was initially called the Strictly Stock series. Red Byron was all NASCAR needed in a star. He was a war hero, badly injured and still suffering from his wounds. He had won the initial championship in NASCAR’s first series, the Modifieds. I would say Byron had rugged good looks. He drove for a marquee car owner, Atlanta’s Raymond Parks, who owned and serviced vending and gaming machines and ran a moonshining empire on the side (or in the dark).
NASCAR didn’t have a contingent of public relations and marketing people then to help build followings for its drivers, but if there had been such a thing, Byron would have been great material.
Unfortunately, the work would have come to naught. Byron’s health began to fail - the war injury - and he drove just a handful of Grand National races in 1950 and ‘51, retiring after that to manage sports car teams. He was doing that when he died of a heart attack in 1960 at age 45.
It might not have been the blow to NASCAR that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement stands to be, but it had to hurt for NASCAR to lose Red Byron. (Car owner Parks never ran for the championship again, either.)
Even worse, the next year’s champion, Bill Rexford (a New Yorker without that much name recognition at many of NASCAR’s tracks, anyway), also failed to defend his championship and quickly faded from sight.
Fortunately, NASCAR had other names winning races in 1949 and ‘50, like Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, the Flock brothers, and the guy who would top them all to win the title in 1951, Herb Thomas.
Roberts, Turner and the Flocks were already “big names,” at least regionally, when Bill France started the Strictly Stock class. Petty and Thomas were getting noticed in the new division. They represented different parts of the South, which was good for drawing more fans.
As long as the “hot shoe” at every short track in the Southeast (and elsewhere) stood a chance of realizing his dream to compete in NASCAR, the star system would continue to replenish itself nicely.
So what’s happened? Why is the prospect of Alex Bowman (to use one oft-mentioned name) replacing Junior so depressing to those who see it pushing NASCAR farther and farther toward the exit from big-time sports (following Chase Elliott replacing Jeff Gordon and Daniel Suarez taking Carl Edwards’ seat)?
I’ll offer two reasons. The first is the “developmental driver” programs that move relative unknowns into major visibility before they’ve had time to build the fan base that Roberts, Turner or the Flocks would have had “back when.” If some guy wins a couple of track championships and a couple of major short-track races (Martinsville, Nashville, Pensacola or Oxford, Maine, just to name a few), why should he stare at a closed door when it was opened for an unproven but well-connected teenager who looks good and knows how to distribute a news release?
The second reason is that, in those days, Bill France might have feuded with a lot of drivers from time to time, but he also promoted them and kept them - as opposed to himself - in front of the fans and media before race day. Roberts, Turner and the Flocks had more of an opportunity to attract fans because there wasn’t as much competition for the attention.
In the last 20 years, the period during which this writer watched NASCAR become too enamored with its own standing, drivers had to play second fiddle to the rule-change-of-the-week and to cars that minimized the difference a driver could make.
There are other reasons - don’t get me started on the charter system - but it’s pretty plain that the talent pool to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a lot slimmer (in fan appeal, at least) than was the case in 1950, when somebody had to step up and take Red Byron’s place.
I’m not sure that’s something that can be fixed, either.
Frank’s Odds ‘n’ Ends (all historical)
Ironically for the timing of this story, Red Byron - according to one account - enjoyed early career success running at a short track in Talladega.
There might have been totally unrelated factors at work, but not having its champion try to defend his title didn’t seem to hurt NASCAR early on. The Strictly Stock/Grand National Division (now Monster) went from eight races in 1949 to 17 in 1950 and 41 in 1951. BTW, while Darlington and Martinsville are the only tracks that ran that year and remain on the Monster/Cup schedule, there were other tracks in Charlotte, Atlanta, Daytona and Phoenix, as well as a track in the Los Angeles area (Carrell’s Speedway in Gardena, not that far from Fontana) and one in Pennsylvania (Langhorne) that wasn’t that far from Pocono. A lot of fans are still in the same places.
That 1951 season had something else we don’t have today: seven different makes of car scored victories. Think maybe if we had more than Chevy, Ford and Toyota, fans of those other makes might also spend some of their cash with NASCAR?
(Editor’s Note: Ironically, there were no wins for either Chevy or Ford in 1951. The winning makes were Studebaker, Hudson, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Plymouth and a single win each for Chrysler and Nash. Of all those makes, only Chrysler survives today)
Bad ideas know no timeframe. In 1952, no doubt flush with the success of the Southern 500, Darlington held a spring race, but it was only 100 miles long and paid about the minimum purse for those days. Only 24 cars showed up, versus 66 for the 500 in September. The race wasn’t held the next year. (A later spring race began for the Convertible Series and then became a Grand National event . . . until NASCAR decided a not-too-glitzy track in a small South Carolina town didn’t need two races.)
Information and images for this story came from lots of online sources, but as usual, Racing-Reference.info and Wikipedia were the most heavily used. I’m glad both are readily available.