NASCAR on July 4 –
Set the Time Machine for Oswego or Spartanburg or Raleigh or...
I grew up thinking that NASCAR always raced on July 4 (first the exact date, then the closest weekend) at Daytona. If you’re old enough, you remember the races starting at 10:00 so fans could be on the beach by 2:00.
Well guess what? It hasn’t always been that way. Here’s the scoop.
As we’ve noted before, NASCAR’s inaugural Strictly Stock/Grand National/Sponsor-Cup season didn’t begin until mid-June of 1949, and while the second race was on the Daytona Beach-Road Course on July 10, it’s hard to count that as a July 4 event, since the Fourth was Monday nearly a week earlier.
Besides, the Beach-Road Course race moved to its soon-to-become traditional February slot the next season, and in 1950, NASCAR headed north for its firecracker fix. On Sunday, July 2, Curtis Turner whipped a field of 25 at the Monroe County Fairgrounds in Rochester, N.Y. to become NASCAR’s first Fourth-of-July-Weekend winner.
That race was the last of a four-event run above the Mason-Dixon Line. Bill France was trying hard to make NASCAR a national (or at least multi-regional) series, and 10 of 1950’s 19 races were held outside the Southeast.
This is a previous Monroe County Fairgrounds location, and I have no idea what these folks are about to watch, but it definitely drew a boatload of fans, who didn’t seem at all worried about their safety.
(BTW, any idea of a “throwback” event here can be banished quickly. The fair has moved from the location where the former race was held, and the track itself was demolished and replaced more than a decade ago. If you’d like to relive the fair’s history, though, check out this Rochester newspaper article.)
Things were largely the same in 1951, when – like this year – July 4 was on a Wednesday. Races were held the weekend before at Grand Rapids, Mich. (at an old fairgrounds site where racing was held as early as 1903 and continued until the mid-‘60s, when a new expressway needed the land) and the weekend afterward at Bainbridge, Ohio (at a one-mile fairgrounds dirt track that later raced horses but has been gone for more than half a century).
Then, in 1952, NASCAR raced on July 4 for the first time, and it happened at a track that has survived and holds a high profile today: Oswego Speedway in New York, “Home of the Supermodifieds.” In those days the place was known as Wine Creek Race Track and was dirt – this seems to have been the last race run on the dirt surface.
For the uninitiated, a supermodified looks kind of like an Indy Car that was built down at Randy’s Speed Shop. It’s wicked fast, and there aren’t many places you can see them race.
Tim Flock outran Herb Thomas to win that race, with Dick Rathmann finishing third in the 26-car field. Oddly, 6 of the 10 cars that failed to finish listed “tires” as their reason out of the race, which might explain why they paved the joint.
As you can see in the photo above, Oswego is a pretty big place, and it’s gotten bigger over the past couple of years, when in late October they’ve covered the pavement with clay and run Super DIRT Week, headlined by a huge 200-lap event for big-block modifieds. This race was run for years at the one-mile Syracuse Fairgrounds track until the politicians decided “progress” meant that facility had to go.
Given that Oswego also runs what I think is the biggest supermodified race anywhere on Labor Day Weekend, this place might even be able to handle a Cup race, if another short track would help bring our sport back from the brink.
Here’s Oswego as a dirt track. Maybe NASCAR could run BOTH a paved short-track event and a dirt race there.
Back to history: In 1953, NASCAR finally ran on July 4 in the South, specifically at Spartanburg’s Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds, but that race was somewhat hampered by one of Bill France’s oddball scheduling stunts that were fairly common back then: the day before the Spartanburg race, the Grand National Series ran again at the Monroe County Fairgrounds in New York. Not surprisingly, only three drivers competed in both events: Herb Thomas (who won in New York), Lee Petty (who won in South Carolina) and Dick Rathmann.
Here’s a later Grand National race at Spartanburg. Sadly, all that’s left of the track today are crumbling remains – Google says it’s called “Fairfield Park.”
The next season, Spartanburg ran on July 3 (a Saturday), and Asheville-Weaverville Speedway picked up the July 4 date. Fortunately for the drivers, these tracks were a lot closer together, so the holiday weekend was pretty much racing as usual, especially for Herb Thomas, who won both events.
Herb Thomas – the Fourth of July Weekend was good to him, but then so were most of the others.
Spartanburg continued to run on July 4 weekend, but by 1956, there was a new kid in town with more pull, the one-mile paved Raleigh Speedway, one of NASCAR’s premier tracks, and it wanted – and got – the July 4 date.
Raleigh had been running Grand National events since 1953, its second year of operation, trying Memorial Day Weekend, late August and late September. Apparently still seeking the perfect date for fans, it decided to try for July 4
Poor Spartanburg didn’t stand a chance when money was waved in the general direction of Daytona. For two years it tried to run close to the Fourth, but its date moved to April the following season and was never settled after that. For a track in what many considered the true heart of stock car racing, it certainly didn’t get any respect.
Raleigh held the July 4 date for three seasons before it closed after the 1958 season, mostly because of community opposition to a track located in a fairly heavily populated suburban area.
(For more information on the Raleigh track, check out: http://www.raleighspeedway.org/home )
A photo said to be from the 1956 Grand National race at Raleigh Speedway. Note the slightly smaller “war wagon” for the pit crew and the obviously not-quite-fireproof uniforms.
More from Raleigh: a view of the press box and a good effort to make sure you knew who was driving #11.
Raleigh’s demise, of course, coincided with the rise of Bill France’s Daytona International Speedway, which assumed the July 4 date and has held it (or its post-1987 successor, the closest Saturday to the Fourth) ever since. At first there was grousing about the purse, and in 1961 only 30 drivers started the lowest-paying superspeedway event of the year (less than half the purse of the Daytona 500, World 600 or Southern 500), with Richard Petty, Jim Paschal, Jim Reed and others choosing to race a non-Grand National NASCAR event at Lincoln Speedway in New Oxford, Pa., a couple of days before and skipping Daytona. Still, the race grew with NASCAR, got solid sponsors and a longer distance (250 to 400 miles) and remains solidly on the schedule.
Except for Oswego, all the other tracks running on or nearly on the Fourth are gone. Even if Daytona won’t give up the holiday date for a year, it would be awesome to return to NASCAR’s roots and run a race at “The Home of the Supermodifieds,” and I’ll bet it would be a good show, better than some current alternatives (you’ll notice that I’m not writing about Chicago this week).
to see the action there:
No Loose Lug Nuts this week, due to time constraints – I’m headed out to the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing and the Latimore Valley Fairgrounds for the Latimore Valley Fair, which includes both track time for dozens of antique race cars and a recreated vintage auto thrill show, all free of charge (although you’ll be encouraged by a certain announcer to play games of chance and eat a lot in support of this awesome organization). Support this or some other racing-related endeavor this weekend – our sport needs every one of us.
(Besides the websites mentioned in this article, it benefitted from the resources at Racing-Reference.info and Allan Brown’s indispensable “History of America’s Speedways, Past & Present.”)