#17 - In the Beginning...
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
In 1998, NASCAR is pulling out the stops to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, and a fine party it should be too, with the sport having reached unprecedented heights of popularity. With NASCAR having become such a giant corporate entity, and the explosion of interest in our sport, it is sometimes difficult to recall the sanctioning body's rather humble roots, and that it was one man's dream that began it all, fifty long years ago.
The roots of NASCAR can be traced back to December 14th, 1947 when Bill France convened a meeting of thirty-five race promoters in the Ebony Bar located atop the Streamline Motel in Daytona Beach, Florida. There he shared the dream he had been kicking around a few years, to organize an auto racing series where strictly stock passenger cars would compete against one another, with drivers vying for a national title. France was a persuasive man and most of the crowd went along with the idea. Red Vogt is said to have come up with the name “National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing" and the resulting acronym "NASCAR." France's idea "Stock Car Auto Racing Society" was shot down because the organization would have been called SCARS. Bill France is credited with scribbling the NASCAR logo, that strange looking car with an uncanny resemblance to the 90's movie version of the Batmobile, on a cocktail napkin while discussing his idea with Clay Earles of the Martinsville track among others.
The actual date that NASCAR is celebrating its 50th birthday is February 21st, as on that date in 1948, NASCAR was officially incorporated, with a lawyer who was a customer at the gas station Bill France owned, Lou Ossinsky, handling the paperwork. No, there was no race that day, and yes, it's a bit tough to get all excited about a bunch of guys sitting around a lawyer's office signing a stack of paperwork, but it's NASCAR's party and they get to pick the date. Heck, if they say so, I bet we all have to wear funny hats too.
A little background seems in order. William Henry Getty France was born on September 26, 1909, the son of a Virginia farmer. Early in life he developed a fascination with automobiles and by high school was building race cars. That led to a job as a mechanic in Washington D.C., but France decided in 1934 that if twisting wrenches was to be his trade there had to be a warmer, more pleasant place to do it than Washington. He packed his wife Ann, their son Bill Junior, and all their possessions in the family Hupmobile and headed south. There's an old story that is probably apocryphal, that the family stopped one day in Daytona Beach, Florida to take a dip in the ocean, fell in love with the place, and decided to settle down there. Less romantic versions say Bill Senior was nearly broke and needed to earn some money. Either way, Daytona Beach is where the family settled, and Bill Senior took a job as a house painter before returning to his craft as a mechanic at a Buick-Pontiac-Cadillac agency in Daytona Beach. They lived in a house they rented for $15 a month; France saved his money and opened his own Pure Oil service station on Main Street, which became a hangout for the local racers. France did a bit of racing himself, driving a 37 Ford coupe owned by local restaurateur Charlie Reese.
Daytona Beach had a long history of racing, with teams using the town's long flat beaches as a place to set land speed records. As the speeds got higher, the beach was no longer a suitable course and the action moved to the Bonneville Salt Flats where it continues to this day. The local Chamber of Commerce was desperate to keep the racing tourists and their dollars, and a 4.1-mile course was set up that used the beach and a long stretch of highway A-1-A alongside it. Bill France raced in the inaugural beach race in 1936, which was a disaster. Cars got stuck in the sand. Cars rolled over in the ruts. The scoring got hopelessly confused. The tide came in and blocked the course. Spectators neglected to pay for tickets, preferring to just wander on in away from the turnstiles and the course was too large to police. The race had to be called early and it took four days to decide the winner. The resulting disputes were never settled. The local Elks tried to organize a 50-mile race the next year, and it too was a big money loser. In 1938, the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce approached France about organizing the event, and with financial backing from his car owner, Charlie Reese, France ran the show, attracting a large group of drivers, carefully keeping tabs of the laps each driver completed and selling 4500 tickets at the princely sum of fifty cents apiece. The event was judged a big success and Bill France became the race promoter for the prestigious annual February beach race.
NASCAR was hardly alone as a sanctioning body when it started out. There were at least a dozen major rivals, and any well-meaning individual or shyster who chose, could start up another at will and advertise his series as a "National Stock Car Racing Championship." A lot of race promoters were a lot less than scrupulously honest, advertising huge purses they never intended to pay out and in some cases disappearing with the ticket money while the race was being run, leaving the track owner holding the bag and disgruntled race car drivers in his wake. Safety was unheard of, and it wasn't uncommon for a race track to be surrounded by a rickety wooden fence that couldn't possibly contain an out of control race car, and cars exiting through those fences might end up being wrapped around a tree, in a swamp, over a cliff, or in one notable if chilling case, in a grave yard, plowing down headstones. Fatalities and crippling injuries were an all too common part of racing. There was also a lack of adherence to the rules in those days that made the playing field very unequal. Favored drivers were allowed to blatantly cheat, particularly in races that pitted local favorites against out-of-towners. France wanted to promote fair races that paid the advertised purse, increase safety at the tracks his series ran at, and to have a strict rule book all drivers would have to adhere to. Toward that end, NASCAR hired "Cannonball" Baker as National Commissioner of the League. Baker was an American hero, a racer of no little accomplishment and holder of coast to coast trip records both aboard motorcycles and in cars, at a time when merely surviving a cross country trip, much less doing it quickly, was quite an accomplishment. (And thus the name for Brock Yates' infamous coast to coast race was the "Cannonball Run" in Baker's honor.) Baker knew cars, so he could enforce the rules, had a reputation as a straight shooter, and was an early pioneer of racing safety.
Curiously, while the hallmark of NASCAR's new league was to be the "Strictly Stock" class for late model passenger cars, no such races were run in the sanctioning body's first year of existence. Instead, NASCAR held 52 "Modified" races, for prewar cars modified for racing, much like all the other sanctioning bodies ran. Red Bryon was the first NASCAR crowned champion in this division. NASCAR also tried running a "roadster" class for open wheel type hot rods similar to the ones running out in California on ovals and at the salt flats, but that series never caught on.
The reason NASCAR staged no "Strictly Stock" races was largely a case of public relations. Recall, at that time this nation, and indeed the world had just endured World War II. When the United States was drawn into the conflict by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the mighty industrial machine that was Detroit, put aside manufacturing passenger cars to build tanks, planes, ships, jeeps and other military vehicles. Even Bill France had joined in the effort, leaving his gas station to work in a shipyard. During the war, all auto racing was suspended, there was rationing of gasoline and tires, and no passenger cars produced. The war took a hideous toll in human lives, both disrupted and lost, but in its aftermath there was a feeling of great optimism in the United States. Fascism had been conquered and Democracy had been saved. The United States had emerged as the world's greatest superpower and there was a general feeling that America and Americans could do anything we put our minds to. Returning GI's were in a mood to celebrate, and what better way to celebrate freedom than behind the wheel of a spanking new car? The longer, wider and faster the better, all the better to roll down the highways on a hot summer afternoon with the family, windows down, enjoying the cooling breeze, the King of the Road. While Detroit hastily switched gears from a wartime to a peacetime economy, the car companies simply couldn't keep up with the demand for new cars and the waiting lists were miles long. France and other NASCAR officials were worried all those people still patiently awaiting the delivery of their new cars, might not take too kindly to seeing fellows already so blessed, beating the tar out of and the fenders off them on short dirt tracks. For comparison sake, imagine the NRA having staged a trap shooting contest with "Tickle Me Elmo" dolls instead of clay pigeons just before last Christmas.
The first "Strictly Stock" race actually ran as a support event to a Roadster and Sports car race on February 27th 1949, a couple weeks over a year after NASCAR's first birthday. The event was run at Broward Speedway in Florida, a massive paved two mile oval. The event was to last all of five laps or ten miles. Bob Flock, one of the trio of Flock brothers who would become legends of NASCAR's early days, won the event in a Buick.
No further events were scheduled until Bill France caught wind of another promoter starting a rival sanctioning body to NASCAR running "Strictly Stock" type cars. The promoter was from the same area, and talking to the same track owners and drivers, and could very easily have become the King of stock car racing in France's place. His name was Bruton Smith, the same fellow who owns Charlotte, Sonoma, Texas, Bristol and Atlanta these days, and is still rumored to be trying to start a rival league. Like NASCAR, the animosity between Smith and the France family has been going on some 50 years now.
Bill France hastily began arranging a race for June 19th of that year. Some members of the NASCAR hierarchy were still concerned that with cars so hard to come by, and a rule limiting the field to 1946 or newer vehicles they wouldn't have enough entrants to hold a decent race. But Bill France had faith in his vision and was determined to beat Bruton Smith to the punch. As history shows us, he was right. Thirty three entrants showed up the day of that historic event. They entered Fords, Hudsons, Buicks and Kaisers. There was a fleet of Lincolns on hand and no less than six of the brand new Oldsmobile Rocket 88's, arguably the first postwar performance car, and Granddaddy to the 64 GTO. Frank Mundy even showed up ready to race a 1949 Cadillac. The drivers included a lot of Modified stars, including the three Flock Brothers, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Red Bryon, and Curtis Turner. The drivers on hand that day would account for all but one Grand National title for the rest of the decade. Most were from the Southeast, but Jim Roper was from Grand Bend, Kansas, who had heard about the race in an unusual way. Race fan and cartoonist Zack Mosely had mentioned the upcoming event in his popular "Smiling Jack" cartoon, and Roper decided to go have a go at the big prize. Another notable entrant was Sara Christian, NASCAR's first female driver in the sanctioning body's very first race. The race was staged at a rough little ¾ mile dirt oval in Charlotte, not to be confused with the palatial current Charlotte Motor Speedway. The distance was advertised at 150 miles, short by today's standards but a real challenge to unmodified production cars of the day. Recall, in that era even a 150-mile round trip to the beach or lake was quite adventuresome in the family car. Tires went flat a lot more often, cars of the era tended to overheat in traffic or lose a clutch, and fan belts snapped like rubber bands. Automatic transmissions, power steering, air conditioning and power brakes still weren't standard equipment or in some cases even available. Rough roads in those pre-Interstate days blew tires and snapped suspension pieces with alarming frequency. But stock production cars were slated to run 150 miles wide open around the heavily rutted dirt track, and having a car that survived, much less won, was going to be a major selling point for that car's manufacturer. The purse was advertised at $5000, a fortune in those days, and everyone on hand wanted his share.
The fans showed up as well, fascinated by the chance to see their favorite make of car, just like the one Dad had in the driveway (or more likely on order) and how it stacked up to the competition. Well before race time, the traffic got so bad heading towards the fairgrounds that the gates had to open early to accommodate the crowd, proving some things haven't changed. Crowd estimates of the day were notoriously overstated, so the 22,500 fans NASCAR claimed in their press release should be taken with a grain of salt, but even a more realistic estimate of 14,000-15,000 was an incredibly good turnout for a race. When the green flag dropped, those fans watched as the field of Strictly Stock cars headed toward the first turn, fenders crunching, suspensions banging and engines howling as the cars dove into the turn door handle to door handle, kicking up a thick cloud of dust. And through that thick dust, the folks on hand were not only seeing a race, they were seeing history in the making as NASCAR stock car racing was born.
Glenn Dunaway was flagged the winner that day, having beat out Kansan Jim Roper by three laps, but Dunaway was later disqualified for a wedge of wood found in the rear leaf spring and Roper was awarded the win and the $2000 first prize money. Only five of the 33 cars were officially listed as running when the event ended, with a great many of the DNF's caused by overheating. Rather than the terrible carnage some had predicted, there was only one major wreck, when Lee Petty rolled the borrowed Buick he was driving, and he suffered only a cut cheek. (And presumably the wrath of his neighbor.)
That race and those race cars were very different from those we see on NASCAR race tracks here in the '90s, and dirt tracks are a thing of the past in Winston Cup racing. But the Winston Cup Series we all enjoy today exists, because through that thick dust on an afternoon in June of 1949, Bill France Senior saw the future of stock car racing in this country, and he remained true to that vision.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.