The Season’s Over – Time to Start Again?
On Sunday, October 24, 1954, Hershel McGriff (who ran a race earlier this year at age 90) outran a field of 32 of NASCAR’s finest to win the Wilkes 160 and conclude the Grand National schedule for the year. In 32nd place was Lee Petty, who had fallen out after just 12 laps with wheel problems.
NASCAR in 1954 – This action was at Jacksonville Speedway in Florida
Notwithstanding the disappointing finish, though, Petty, his crew and his fans still had reason to celebrate: he had won the season’s driving championship, the first of three titles in the elder Petty’s great career. He had won at Martinsville the previous week, so at least there was a recent victory in the books.
(Actually, there would have been little celebration on anyone’s part that day, because racer Lou Figaro had been killed in an accident that caused the race to be flagged three laps from its scheduled finish.)
In 1954 there was no trip to Las Vegas for a championship banquet (and not a lot of money for the honor, either). In fact, after a weekend off, Petty and his fellow Grand National racers were back on the track – 1955 had come nearly two months early as far as NASCAR was concerned.
On November 7, 1954, the 1955 Grand National season began with a 200-lap race on the half-mile Tri-Cities Speedway in High Point, N.C., and this time Petty had his wheels in tip-top shape: he took the lead from Dick Rathmann on lap 7 and led the rest of the way to claim the win.
At High Point’s Tri-Cities Speedway, eventual winner Lee Petty starts inside of Row 2 behind pole-winner Herb Thomas.
(By the way, Buck Baker and Herb Thomas finished second and third in both the last 1954 race and the first 1955 event, two weeks later.)
Unfortunately for Lee Petty, the good start to the year did not result in a second championship. Tim Flock won 18 of 1955’s 39 races to claim the title and set a single-season victory record that would survive until Richard Petty’s 27 wins in 1967.
That relatively anonymous race in High Point began a period of 15 years during which NASCAR began the Grand National schedule in the closing months of the previous calendar year, after crowning its champion for that previous season. As many as four races were run in November/December during that period, but one or two were the norm (1965 had none). Some were in Florida or other warmer spots, but a surprising number were in North Carolina, which certainly isn’t far enough south to guarantee warm temperatures a few days before Thanksgiving.
The last such “pre-season” race was run on November 17, 1968, when the 1969 season opened with the Georgia 500 at Middle Georgia Raceway in Macon. Fittingly, the winner was Richard Petty, whose dad had won the first of these oddball events 15 years and 10 days earlier. Also somewhat fittingly, it was a Petty-Pearson finish, one of those 63 occasions when the two NASCAR greats finished one-two. James Hylton was 10 laps behind in third.
The bookends of NASCAR’s era of starting the season during the previous year: Lee Petty won the first such race, and Richard Petty won the last
The Macon 500-lapper was run twice as a November event, but most of the early season Grand National stops during that 15-year period weren’t major races. In the mid-‘50s, two somewhat larger events were held at the Willow Springs road course in California (it still exists), but in those days relatively few tour regulars ventured that far, and the fields were largely West Coast drivers.
Sadly, Middle Georgia Raceway is another track long closed and slowing fading back to dust.
In 1964, a 510-mile race was scheduled at the then-new Augusta International Raceway road course in Georgia. It was a disaster, flagged nearly 100 miles early because of darkness and never held again (the course is still commemorated but long gone). For the record, Fireball Roberts won the race over road-racing specialist and temporary Holman-Moody teammate Dave MacDonald.
The ill-fated Augusta road course
It’s hard to say why, in those days, these races were scheduled, but probably it reflected NASCAR’s desire for as many sanctioning fees as possible. The races certainly didn’t register with many people other than local fans and the diehards amongst us elsewhere. Today, though, it might be different, with television and internet coverage possible, so the question comes up:
Could we run races like this again?
The biggest challenge is squeezing anything else into today’s tour, given the complexity of building and maintaining the cars. However, if NASCAR could see the light and move back toward less expensive (and rule-strangled) STOCK car racing, it could happen, and there might be an audience, including those of us who long for the old ESPN winter series or something to do other than football between Homestead and Daytona. Maybe new fans who don’t fall into the NFL-is-everything mindset could actually learn to love what we love.
Here’s a quick idea for my off-season: Have a six-race NASCAR series that might or might not have some points relationship to the Cup Series. The races are one-day shows with TV supplying financial support, and they could be structured so that all three NASCAR “premier” traveling circuits would take part, but each driver/team would only run two or three times, since fields wouldn’t need to be large. One possible schedule (using 2018-19 dates):
December 1 – Bakersfield Speedway or Perris Auto Speedway (both California dirt tracks).
December 8 – Tucson Speedway, Ariz. (paved).
December 15 – New Smyrna Speedway, Fla. (paved).
January 12 – Five Flags Speedway, Fla. (paved).
January 19 – Circuit of the Americas, Texas (road course).
January 26 – The Bullring at Vegas, Nev. (dirt)
(Bonus Substitution: Replace one of the Florida races with an event at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, where full-sized dirt late models have already raced indoors.)
Road racing at the Circuit of the Americas already has included cars that are closer to “stock” than anything NASCAR would bring
OK, first off, all crews please accept my apologies for taking away your off-season – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it would help the overall health of a failing sport. Second, my identity will change completely before this is published, so that Bruton & Eddie can’t hunt me down for suggesting a NASCAR race at the uber-enemy Circuit of the Americas complex.
Will this happen? Of course not. Could it offer fans off-season entertainment and perhaps pick up some new fans for a sport that desperately needs them? I’ll say as I have before, my suggestions are made with the admission that I have no skin in the game and no money to lose should they actually be tried and fail, but I do believe there’s something here that could be beneficial.
I don’t think my idea’s a turkey, but I’ll wish you Happy Thanksgiving, anyway.
No “Loose Lug Nuts” this week, other than the photo below, which shows another alternative for winter racing. (I used to own a Toyota Echo and love seeing one leading this pack. If only I’d had that opportunity back then…)