NASCAR and Speed - A Little History
A funny thing about next weekend’s Talladega race is that, for all the drafting/sleeves/”Big One” undercurrent to the event, it may not even be the fastest track on the circuit – at least it wasn’t last year.
The pecking order this year likely will be affected by the rules changes. Texas posted a pole speed almost 12 miles per hour slower than 2018, so who knows what will happen at either ‘Dega or last year’s raw speed champ, Michigan, where Kurt Busch ran the season’s fastest qualifying lap at 203.361.
Here’s hoping both the racing and the crowd are good for Talladega this year
I guess it will keep people watching Sunday.
Before Talladega opened 50 years ago, we looked at speed differently, so I thought that might be worth a quick review. Hope you’re up for a little ancient history.
In the NASCAR Strictly Stock/Grand National/(fill-in-the-blank) Cup division’s first season, 1949, qualifying times are only available for four of the eight races, and the fastest recorded was on the Langhorne, Pa., dirt mile, where Red Byron ran a lap at 77.482 mph. However, the RACE speed for the Daytona Beach-Road Course event was 80.883, so it’s safe to assume that was the fastest track, and so it remained for the rest of its existence.
That was hardly a surprise, with cars running a two-mile drag race at top highway speeds, then plowing through a sandy turn to run another two mile drag down the hard-packed sand beach. I just can’t imagine the feeling of slowing for and getting through those turns lap after lap.
The incredible Daytona Beach Road Course. Look at how close the cars are to the water in this photo!
By 1950, we have an actual qualifying time for the Beach-Road Course, and it is 98.840 mph, run by Tim Flock. For comparison, by 1950 we also had Darlington, then a 1.25-mile track, where the pole speed was just 82.034 – on all pavement, with banking. A respectable third in the speed standings was Hillsboro, N.C.’s Occoneechee Speedway, then considered a one-mile dirt track, where the top speed was 85.898 (faster than Darlington!).
The speeds started picking up pretty quickly at Daytona, topping 102 in 1951, nearly 111 in ’52, over 115 in ’53, and up to 135.747 in ’56. That was Tim Flock again with the top speed, and my hat is off to that man for going that fast on sand and a two-lane highway.
Darlington was lengthened to 1.375 miles in 1953, and its speeds quickly jumped over 100 mph then, making it to 119.659 in ’56. Tip your hat to Speedy Thompson for that lap; like Flock, he was in a Carl Kiekhaefer Chrysler.
One other area deserving of praise was that of speeding on dirt. I mentioned earlier the 1949 speed at Langhorne and Hillsboro (the latter community later added “ugh” to the end of its name, by the way), and there was some competition between them for fastest dirt time, until they were joined by the incredible, 1.5-mile Memphis-Arkansas Speedway in LeHi, Ark. In 1955, that track became the first dirt oval in Grand National NASCAR to see a pole speed over 100 mph, 100.390 to be exact, by Fonty Flock in another Kiekhaefer Chrysler (he lasted only five laps in the race itself).
Racing on the 1.5-mile dirt track at LeHi, Arkansas
In the two years left in the life of the giant LeHi track, that mark would not be matched.
The thing about dirt tracks, though, is that the qualifying conditions can change considerably from race to race, depending on temperature, humidity and lots of conditions besides how fast the cars are. A major change evidently occurred the next year at Langhorne, and it gave NASCAR its fastest one-lap speed ever on a dirt track.
Up until April 22, 1956, the fastest qualifying lap for a Grand National race at Langhorne had been just over 92 mph, and most years the pole speed was in the eighties. Somehow, though, on that day Buck Baker (in a Kiekhaefer Chrysler) turned a qualifying lap of 104.590; he went on to win the 150-mile event.
The next year’s pole speed was nearly 10 mph slower, and it never again came close to Baker’s 104-plus – he was hauling.
Times were changing, though. LeHi was soon gone, as was the mile paved track in Raleigh, N.C., which never had speeds to challenge any of the bigger boys. But the big change was that the Beach-Road Course’s days were numbered.
In 1958, Paul Goldsmith won the pole for the last Grand National race on the old “track,” running 140.570 (again, divided between sand and a two-lane highway). By the next February, Big Bill France’s dream, Daytona International Speedway had opened. Oddly, the first pole speed there – even with that high-banked asphalt – was barely quicker than Goldsmith’s time: Bob Welborn ran 140.581 for a qualifying race two days prior to the 500. For comparison, Darlington’s pole speed in 1959 was 123.734.
The year after Daytona opened, the age of the superspeedway really began when both Charlotte and Atlanta joined the circuit. The two mile-and-a-half tracks traded places as fastest several times, with speeds gradually moving up through the 130s.
Paul Goldsmith, who knew his way around both the Beach Road Course and the superspeedway, leads Richard Petty in 1964 at Daytona
Once tires and engineering caught up with Daytona, speeds soared, and by 1964, the pole speed (by Goldsmith, again) was 174.910. That same season, by the way, David Pearson ran a lap of 99.784 at Hillsborough; NASCAR would not again see a speed that fast on dirt.
By 1969, Daytona’s pole speed was up to 190.706, a cause for some nervousness, but nowhere nearly as much as at the new monster (small “m”) track at Talladega, where in September Bobby Isaac turned a lap of 196.386. You probably know the rest of that story: safety concerns, a driver boycott (containing shades of the dreaded unionization of drivers), a cobbled-together field for the race, and the beginnings of NASCAR manipulation of speeds via engine size, carburetors and – those dreaded words – restrictor plates. The next season Isaac ran 199.658 for the spring Talladega race, before rules changes dropped his pole speed in the fall by nearly 13 mph.
Richard Brickhouse takes the checkered flag for Talladega’s controversial first race in 1969
(One final dirt track note: 1969 also was the last year for Grand National racing on dirt, and the last event, at the Raleigh fairgrounds half-mile saw a pole speed of 71.380 mph by the now largely forgotten “independent” racer, Big John Sears.)
In the decades since then, ‘Dega speeds have regularly climbed back to (and sometimes a little over) 200 mph, only to have another rules change slow them down. The permanent implementation of restrictor plates came after Bobby Allison’s scary crash in 1987, bringing pack racing with it.
It’s hard to believe that NASCAR’s regular manipulation of speeds via rule changes has been going on for nearly half a century, which means it was present both for NASCAR’s exhilarating rise and depressing fall – Aric Almirola’s 195.804 lap last season, the fastest for either ‘Dega race, was nearly a mile slower than Bobby Isaac’s run 49 years earlier.
So now we have a new rule change, which might eventually turn out to be more of a philosophical change than a manipulation, if the next generation cars continue to move toward less aero and less speed. There’s no telling what that will do at Talladega and Daytona, which have thrived on restrictor place racing despite the degree to which it is hated by some fans. I hope it works out for everybody, because I’d love to look forward to ‘Dega races instead of dreading them.
Other race fans might disagree, but I’m hoping the newest rules changes mean that we’ve seen the last of this nonsense at Talladega and can have great, close racing without packs and “big ones.”
(No Loose Lug Nuts this week, just a wish that you all have a wonderful Easter.)