#22 - The Day the Music Almost Died
(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
Through the years, NASCAR has faced a lot of challenges to its popularity and continued growth, but were you aware there were times the government tried to pass laws making auto racing of any sort illegal in the United States? Indeed, those same well intentioned, if occasionally shortsighted elected officials that are trying to run Winston out of advertising through NASCAR, mandated cars be equipped with pyrotechnic devices that explode in your face in a frontal collision, and want to limit what can be said on the Internet, on more than one occasion considered bills that would have saved society from the evil carnage of auto racing. RPM Tonight sure wouldn't be much fun to watch had they succeeded, would it?
The first such challenge I can find record of, was in 1951. Recall at that point there was an explosion of interest in the hobby of hot-rodding, starting out in Southern California, with backyard mechanics stripping down old Ford Model A's and T's, installing hopped up flathead Ford motors, and as little muffler as they could get away with. Naturally, once they were done with their creations, the hot-rodders felt a need to see whose car was faster. I subscribe to the theory that the first drag race probably occurred the first time two automobiles pulled alongside one another, unless there were politicians at the wheels of those cars, in which case they probably hopped out of their rides and started writing bills to make the other fellow's type of car illegal. Street racing was rampant; the salt flats and dry lakes were overwhelmed with rodders wishing to check out their creation's top speed, and the first few organized drag races were being held, typically on airport runways. Hollywood responded eventually, with such even-handed and insightful films as "Hot Rod to Hell!" and "Hot Rod Rumble", portraying the hot-rodders as criminally insane delinquents out to destroy American society. Meanwhile, down south, stock car racing was becoming all the rage and the politicians knew it was the same scofflaws who had run moonshine behind the madness. There were no real safety standards in that day, a situation NASCAR was still trying to correct, but a lot of the unsanctioned "outlaw" tracks were still dangerous places to race, and occasionally dangerous places to even be a spectator. Bills were quickly proposed in New Jersey, California, and even the cradle of stock car racing, North Carolina, to "prohibit and curtail all forms of auto racing". The sentiment had widespread support and a bill even reached the United States Congress. Sensing his fledgling sanctioning body was at risk, Bill France quickly immersed himself in politics of the smoky back room sort of the day, and arguably even today, to keep the legislation from ever reaching the floor for debate. While no state ever banned auto racing entirely, some municipalities did, and interestingly enough, the opposition to a proposed new track in New Jersey is citing even today, a law passed in the '50s, banning auto racing from that township.
The next concerted attempt to drive auto racing from our fair shores came in 1955. Admittedly, the year had taken a terrible human toll in the sport and the carnage was being broadcast on those newfangled televisions as well as the print media. Auto racing is undeniably an inherently dangerous sport and even with the safety precautions Bill France adopted, NASCAR Grand National racing had suffered fatalities. Three drivers, Larry Mann, Frank Arford and Lou Figaro had died racing in NASCAR's top division. Many other drivers had been hurt. I won't go extensively into the physics of an auto wreck, but I'm sure you've seen the commercials for modern day cars, showing "crumple zones" engineered into cars intended to dissipate the energy of a hard impact before it reaches the drivers. Cars of the fifties had no such crumple zones and by the time the railroad beam frames and heavy sheet-metal bent up, there was often a seriously injured driver or a corpse at the wheel. 1955 was a bad year. Two AAA IndyCar drivers had died in violent wrecks at Langhorne, and six were destined to die that year in IndyCar type competition. But nothing compared with the horror of the Memorial Day weekend of 1955. At Indianapolis, two time winner and fan favorite Bill Vukovich was killed in a fiery crash along the back-straight. A few days later during the 39th running of the 24 hours of Le Mans, there was an even worse wreck. The driver who has been vilified all these years as the cause of the wreck may not have been the cause, recent evidence shows, so I won't go into the events that led up to the tragedy. Either way the outcome was gruesome. After contact along the pit straight, a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh hit the pit wall and bounced across the track, hit an embankment and launched into the crowded grandstands in a fiery shower of shrapnel. The engine and rear axle assembly cut separate paths of destruction and before the horror ended over 100 people lay dead or fatally injured, and hundreds more were seriously injured. Almost immediately the media took up the cry that the barbarous sport of auto racing needed to be banned, including photos of decapitated and badly burned victims of the Le Mans tragedy to illustrate their point.
Soon thereafter, Richard Nueberger, Democratic senator from Oregon, gave an incendiary speech before the Senate, urging President Eisenhower to ban auto racing. His dramatic conclusion went as follows: "I believe the time has come for the United States to be a civilized nation and to stop carnage on racetracks, which are staged for profits and for the delight of thousands of screeching spectators." Fortunately, France and others were able to convince Congress in that election year that those "thousands of screeching spectators" were also voters that wouldn't take too kindly to their favorite sport being banned. While France took the high road, stressing that auto racing improved the safety of passenger cars, and that NASCAR was committed to making auto racing as safe as possible, the AAA, which sanctioned the IndyCars (Yes, the same folks that send out the tow trucks to jump start granny's Chrysler K Car on cold winter mornings) announced that at the end of the season they would no longer sanction any form of automobile racing. At that point, the AAA was the premiere sanctioning body in the United States, not NASCAR, and the announcement sent shock waves through the racing community. That bastion of public righteousness, the New York Daily News, loudly applauded the AAA decision, with the editor writing, "Auto racing in these times attracts a lot of people who morbidly expect to see somebody killed or injured, and often do. Why should the AAA cater to that morbidity any longer?" Fortunately, Tony Hulman and USAC would step in to take over running the IndyCar league and save open-wheel racing in America.
If there's anything more dangerous than enemies with an ax to grind, it's fickle friends, as France and NASCAR found out in 1957. By that point, the auto companies were heavily involved with stock car racing. It wasn't a matter of pride; it was pure marketing. Cars that ran well in NASCAR tended to sell well too. The factories had begun providing "severe service" packages to help the race cars they sponsored endure the rigors of competition in those days, and many of those heavy duty parts filtered their way into passenger cars of the day, making them not only faster but more reliable. The auto companies proudly advertised their brand's achievements in NASCAR racing in their advertising. Unfortunately, that advertising was sometimes less than truthful. For 1957, Chevy had stepped to the plate with a fleet of black and white 57 Chevys equipped with the factory fuel pioneered in the Corvette. Ford responded with a fleet of their cars carrying Paxton style superchargers atop the Y engine 312. Chrysler, who had won the previous two championships, was back with their "take no prisoners" Hemi engines.
The Automobile Manufacturing Association, a group comprised of the heads of most major car companies, took a rather dim view of the horsepower wars and the increased reliance of automobile advertising on sometimes bogus claims of horsepower and performance ratings. To help appease their concerns, Bill France banned the use of superchargers and fuel injection. In a rather surprising move, he also banned the car companies from using race results in their advertising, with a rule enacted that any manufacturer that defied the ban would be stripped of all manufacturer points towards the championship awarded to that date. Both Ford and Chevy defied the advertising ban, apparently having decided that the worth of the advertising, as far as selling cars, was greater than the largely symbolic championship.
But the automobile companies that had so loved the sport, disappeared overnight. May 19, 1957, there was a 250-mile Grand National event run at the Martinsville Speedway. Billy Myers was leading the race in his Mercury when he collided with a lapped car driven by Tom Pistone. Myers' Mercury was sent spinning and cannonballed through the guard rail and a fence, becoming airborne. It never should have happened. There was a big sign right there that clearly read "NO Spectators." But there were people gathered around that area to enjoy an up close view of the race and Myers' car struck seven of them. Four people were seriously injured, including an eight year old boy who suffered critical head injuries. The race was red flagged to let the medics attend to the injured, and never resumed because of rain. The wire services and other media quickly broadcast the tragedy in time for the evening news and morning papers. Most accounts included a note that Myers was driving a Mercury, and that's not the sort of publicity the auto maker needed. In retrospect, it seems difficult to lay blame at the feet of Myers or Mercury, and fault lays with whatever adult bought the little boy into such a dangerous area, but the car companies were horrified, and even those besides Mercury knew that the next such incident might involve one of their cars.
A few weeks later the AMA met, and on June 6th, 1957 they reached an accord. All the major auto manufacturers agreed that they would no longer have any association with or support auto racing of any sort. Overnight, all that factory support money dried up. There was real concern if stock car racing could survive without that factory money, because even then, as today, the race purses alone just weren't enough to support a team, even if they ran well. That complaint seems to have been around as long as NASCAR. But at that critical juncture, with the future of his sanctioning body at stake, Bill France stepped into the void and immediately convinced promoters that they needed to increase their purses if the sport wanted to survive, and NASCAR itself guaranteed that any team that came to a race would earn at least $300. $300, "Travel money" as it was called, may not sound like much but racing was much cheaper then. The payment of Travel money cost NASCAR a good chunk of its profits, but Bill France had enough foresight to see he was investing in the future of his sport, and that investment eased the transition of the sport after the factories packed up their fat wallets and went home.
One of the reasons that NASCAR continues to mandate the unpopular restrictor plate rules is a fear once again a race car could go into the crowd, which once again could put the future of auto racing at stake. A horrific accident would no doubt once again set the short-sighted politicians and gloom and doom safety advocates scrambling for a seat on the bandwagon to ban auto racing, and the media into a feeding frenzy of lop-sided reporting with lurid footage of the accident. The ability to participate in and watch the sport we love may seem a freedom guaranteed to us all, but the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance.
AFTERMATH- It didn't take long for Ford and Chrysler to return to racing, first secretively and finally quite openly. In 1962, Ford Motor Company's president, Henry Ford II, wrote to the AMA to say that Ford would no longer honor the 1957 agreement and would police its involvement with auto racing internally. Chrysler was a bit coyer about its announcement, saying that if Ford wasn't going to abide by the pact, Chrysler felt the agreement was no longer valid. General Motors announced it would continue to honor the AMA ban on auto racing, despite some very quick Pontiacs on the track that year, with no visible means of support. But the powers that be at General Motors continued to insist they were adhering to the AMA policy of 1957, and the only support Chevrolet was able to give its teams for over a decade was strictly back door cloak and dagger stuff. That policy explains why Chevrolet all but disappeared from the stage and is sadly lacking in the results columns from 1964-1970, the Golden Age of factory involvement in NASCAR racing.
*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.