Make This a Christmas to Remember! Celebrate With Some Racing
How about this: My Christmas wish for you is a holiday vacation in Savannah, Georgia, including a race in NASCAR’s top touring series. Season’s Greetings!
Farfetched? Not at all. Savannah is a wonderful city, featuring a big, beautiful historic district with cobblestone streets and ancient oaks draped in Spanish moss. Great food and drink. Wonderful place to celebrate.
But how about the racing? Easy - just bring along your time machine, and we’ll watch King Richard show ‘em how it’s done, 1963-style.
Since I last wrote about the need for offseason racing to keep us diehards stoked until February, I thought I’d take a look back and find the Grand National (now Monster Energy/Cup Series) race run closest to Christmas, and this is it: the Sunshine 200 at Savannah Speedway, run on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1963, right in the middle of your Christmas dinner rounds with the extended family.
An aerial photo of Savannah, Ga., Speedway (watch it; there are/were Savannah Speedways elsewhere).
This, for instance, is the former Savannah Speedway in North Queensland, Australia.
According to the Sultan of Schaefer, TMC Chase, the Savannah race originally was the Turkey 200, but its initial date around Thanksgiving was rained out, as were two reschedulings, leading to the week-after-Christmas running. And per NASCAR’s oddball policy of counting races run late in the calendar year toward the next season’s championship, this race officially was part of the 1964 Grand National schedule.
Petty got the win over a 22-car field that included his brother Maurice, who finished fourth. Jack Smith was the runner-up, a lap down, with Tiny Lund third and Curtis Crider fifth. According to RacingReference.info, a crowd of 3,500 watched.
Here’s Petty pitting on his way to victory. Below is National Speed Sport News’ cover headlining the race results.
Ned Jarrett won the pole and led the first 67 laps before his engine reacted to having eaten too much fruitcake, and Petty was in charge from there. Eleven cars finished the race, including Ed Livingston’s #68 Ford, driven by Mitch Walker. Let’s see… my RFF colleague Mitch Walker might not have been quite old enough to drive then, but could it be?????
(Editor’s Note: Our Mitch Walker would have been about 3-years old at the time of this race. I don’t believe he was racing against the King at that age)
Just for fun, here’s a little more about the venue… and RFF’s Mitch Walker probably could add more or correct a lot of this, since, while not exactly from Savannah, he knows Georgia racing. Savannah Speedway hosted a total of 10 Grand National races between 1962 (when the track apparently was new) and 1970. All were 200-lappers, and none of the others was in December. Petty won three, Jarrett won two, and single wins went to Jack Smith, Joe Weatherly, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby Allison and Bobby Isaac.
The track started as dirt but was paved for the last two races. One account I read said it later reverted to dirt and was bought by the owner of rival Oglethorpe Speedway and closed around 1981. A dragway next door operated for a couple more decades.
Oglethorpe, according to Racing-Reference.info, actually held a couple of Grand National races in 1954 and ‘55 (one was won by Lee Petty), and it remains an active late model track to this day, although - at least this year - no races were scheduled in December.
Here’s Oglethorpe Speedway - future Monster/Cup “holiday” venue?
Here’s Al Keller after winning one of the Grand National events at Oglethorpe.
I think Savannah would be a great place to resume running Christmas-season Cup races. We could add some seats at Oglethorpe - these days you wouldn’t need that many - create a template that allows for Spanish moss on the splitter, watch the races, and then adjourn to the Riverfront for bench racing and drinks.