Anything Less Than First Is . . .
It doesn’t get the universal response it did back in the day, because people today play action video/computer games instead of Monopoly, but in my youth, you could always get a laugh with the line from that Community Chest card, “You have won second prize in a beauty contest. Collect $10.”
I suspect the term “second banana” likewise has fallen from favor, and I’m not sure what, if anything, has taken its place, but the sentiment remains the same: in a competitive arena, being anything other than “best” just doesn’t cut it.
That’s been NASCAR’s challenge for all but a handful of its 70+ years. These days the challenge manifests itself in the struggle to make the Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoor Truck Series worth paying to attend or even watch. There’s great action in both, but when it’s not a preferred destination for the drivers themselves – they’re there to move up – how can it be a preferred destination for us?
Tommy Houston was a regular for what is now Xfinity in its first 15 years (and he was 37 when the series and that streak began). Nobody does that anymore.
Back in the 1960s, when the Grand American Division was created for Mustangs, Camaros and similar cars, I absolutely loved it, but eventually it failed, because it was only #2. A decade earlier, the same fate had befallen the Convertible Division. NASCAR has never given up on having a fully successful second division, but it has yet to reach and sustain that goal.
I was reminded of that when I was doing some racing history research recently and came across promotion for and results of a NASCAR Short Track Division race. The Short Track Division was NASCAR’s first #2, and unless you count Big Bill France’s brief-but-disastrous effort at running Indy-type cars, it was the first “second banana” to spoil and hit the trash.
It’s hard to find Short Track Division results these days. NASCAR seems not to have held onto them – why be reminded of your failures? – so history buffs have had to find them elsewhere, like in the local paper, the way I found the one that took place on September 11, 1951, at Royall Speedway in Richmond (the slightly smaller predecessor of the still-racing Southside Speedway).
In case your ancient NASCAR history is lacking, the Short Track Division was the twin of the Grand National Division we now know as Cup. The major difference was that GN races were run on tracks of ½ mile or larger, while ST events were on tracks less than ½ mile in length, like the quarter-mile Royall.
More important was the difference between then and now. As in the NASCAR ad I shared last week said, NASCAR was promoting these divisions as showroom stock cars (GN was originally called Strictly Stock), and part of the pitch was for fans to come out and find out just how fast the car they were driving would go.
That meant that there was nothing stopping you from entering a race in your own car, if it was pretty new, so the early stars of NASCAR had to be willing and able to take on all comers. Sad to say, I wouldn’t have been much of a threat, regardless of my car, but lots of top local racers were, and the 22-car lineup that night in Richmond was full of them.
There was Runt Harris, a great local racer in the immortal Junie Donlavey’s car. He dominated much of the first half of the race before blowing a tire. Cal Johnson (whose son Eddie still races, as I believe does his grandson) finished fourth, and Eddie Crouse (driving a Crosley) was sixth.
The regulars included the eventual 1951 champion, Pappy Hough of Paterson, N.J., race runner-up Jimmy Delaney, also from Jersey, and Lee Petty, about whom you probably know a bit already.
They also included the winner, Jim Reed of White Plains, N.Y. (more frequently listed as from Peekskill), who would go on to win the Short Track Division championship five times (in its less than 10-year existence) and win about 50 features. We also know Reed as winner of the 1959 Southern 500.
Jim Reed (not with the car he drove to victory at Royall Speedway)
Reed won at Royall the same way Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500 – by not blowing tires. Most of the other front-runners blew at least one, and Norfolk’s Bill Champion lost five. Reed knew how to be fast and nurse his car, and he drove the 400 laps without making a pit stop.
Besides his racing skill, Reed was no slouch at public relations, either. As a Yankee racing just outside the capital of the Confederacy, he flew a Confederate flag on his car (so did two other Northern competitors), and his win seems to have been popular.
For his trouble, Reed took home $1,000, plus $200 for being the second-fastest qualifier.
A record crowd of 7,348 turned out, but things must not have been quite as good as they appeared, because the next year’s race was cut to 200 laps – Reed won it, too – and after a pair of events in 1953 – Reed finished second and fourth – Royall was gone. Resurrected in 1959 as the one-third mile Southside Speedway, it returned to run four Grand National events in 1961-63 (with the demise of the Short Track Division, GN events were held on tracks smaller than one-half mile until the “modern era” began with Winston Cup in 1972).
Lots to think about from that little bit of history: You’ve got Jim Reed, a particularly under-appreciated early star of NASCAR. You’ve got an approach to racing that welcomes all comers (not just those with charters) and depends on being the best to come out on top. Finally, you’ve got the Short Track Division, the first of NASCAR’s efforts to make a second-tier division successful.
I’d like to be able to say some of that highlights where NASCAR lost its way over the decades, but for all its troubles today, it’s still much more popular than it was in 1951, so setting that clock back would be risky if not foolish.
Nevertheless, those of us who kind of liked the less predictable racing of the early days (not that I was following racing in 1951; I’m old, but not THAT old) can dream that maybe today’s stars might have to think of pit strategy the way Jim Reed did, or drive like that left front was likely to give out in five laps, or manage your team like you needed to keep it running until the next race on $1,200.
I think it would still make for an interesting day/night at the races.
If you’d like to “read all about it” as the Royall Speedway 1951 Short Track Division race was written back then, here you go:
One more thing. If you want to really relive the good-old-days at Royall, this ought to help. It’s a film of a race there (not one for the Short Track Division) in 1953: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a18V4sZ_I4M
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
I guess the lug nuts are strewn across the shop floor this week, since they’re not at the track, sadly.
Just a note about Jim Reed and his era. While he was dominating the Short Track Division, Reed also was taking whatever other opportunities to race that presented themselves, such were the economies of the day.
In 1956, the poor records mean we don’t know just how many of the 38 Short Track Division races he ran, but he won 14, so one would presume he was present for most. While he was doing that, he also found time to compete in 11 Grand National/Cup races and one Convertible event, and he also ventured a bit farther west and ran with the MARC series (now ARCA) in yet another dozen races. One would guess an unsanctioned event also slipped in occasionally.
Reed had backing from both Ford and Chevy on occasion, but when GM cut back in the early ‘60s, he decided it was time to get out, settling instead for life as a New York truck dealer. He passed away last year at age 93.