What If It Had Been Different Back When It All Started?
While helping someone else with a religion-themed story some years back, I asked a religious scholar about an early dispute in the Christian church where the beliefs we hold today were barely upheld in the closest of votes. I wanted to know what he thought about the possibility that the vote might have gone the other way, changing much of what Christians now believe.
He said that God meant for us to believe what we believe today, and God intended for the vote to turn out as it did, close or not.
Think about that as I play with the possibility that auto racing as we know it today might be very different if NASCAR had not come out on top of various challenges to its supremacy. Maybe what we’ve had since 1948 is indeed God’s will, but what if…
What if Curtis Turner’s deal with the Teamsters Union, which would have let him remain in charge of Charlotte Motor Speedway, had resulted in the union forcing NASCAR to put driver interests first in the sport’s growth?
What if the fiasco surrounding the first Talladega race had blown up in “Big Bill” France’s face, and the Professional Drivers Association had become a power in the sport?
Most of all, what if Bruton Smith had become the sport’s chief decision-maker?
Not sure what the occasion was for this smiling Bruton Smith photo, but it probably was NOT after he was asked about the France family running NASCAR.
I’ll let you speculate about the union-related possibilities and focus on the man we associate most with Charlotte Motor Speedway, because – more than once – history could have unfolded in a way that would have put him in a much larger role in the sport.
NASCAR, of course, was founded by “Big Bill” France, a Washington, D.C.-area native who had moved to Florida and was running a gas station and driving races before World War II. After the war, his focus turned solely to promoting, but he was only one of several promoters vying for top-dog status in the rambunctious world of early stock car racing. The 800-pound gorilla was AAA (the travel/insurance people), who sanctioned the Indy 500 and just about everything else of consequence. Fortunately for France, AAA seemingly never could make up its mind whether it really wanted to be involved in stocks, and that lack of commitment left the door open for others.
AAA frequently sanctioned races at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, one of the South’s premier tracks in the 1940s & ‘50s, but its love of open-wheel racing gave others a chance to take the lead with stock cars.
One of those others was Bruton Smith. In fact, according to Neal Thompson’s wonderful Driving with the Devil history of stock car racing’s early days and NASCAR’s beginnings, Smith’s National Stock Car Racing Association actually scheduled the first “strictly stock” race solely for post-World War II cars, only to have France counter and run his first race at Charlotte before Smith’s event. “Strictly Stock” is what became Grand National/Winston Cup and then Nextel/Sprint/Monster, so that would mean Bruton Smith actually thought of stock car racing as it has become today before Bill France did.
Smith was just 22 when he challenged Bill France for early stock car racing’s leadership, but this picture of him with Fonty Flock wasn’t taken too much later.
What if France’s counterpunch had bombed and Smith’s NSCRA had become the driving force behind the kind of racing we know and love today (or at least used to)? What might have unfolded differently? Would it have been better or worse?
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, but just over a decade later, Smith would challenge France again. Most NASCAR history buffs – at least the older ones – know that Smith was involved with Curtis Turner in the building of Charlotte Motor Speedway. However that partnership was more of a shotgun wedding, at least as it’s explained by author Robert Edelstein in his Turner biography, Full Throttle. According to Edelstein, Turner and Smith had announced separate plans for the new Charlotte track and only combined forces out of financial necessity.
If the early history of Charlotte Motor Speedway had been radically different, would Bruton Smith’s role in the sport’s leadership have been much larger?
So again: What if? Had Smith built Charlotte alone and been successful in its initial operation – an uncertain prospect, to be sure – might he have played a larger role earlier in NASCAR’s growth period, and might Speedway Motorsports somehow have ended up the dominant conglomeration of race tracks, not second fiddle to International Speedway Corp? What if?
This is all silly, like, “What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?” But with NASCAR coming off another week of plummeting TV ratings and no indication that the pumps are turning the tide for this sinking ship, it’s hard not to ask “What if?” Under different leadership, NASCAR might never have gotten as big as it got, but it also might somehow have avoided its fall. We’ll never know, but during one of those lulls in the next race you watch – and there seem to be plenty of lulls – start that conversation and see where it leads.
Could be more fun than Bud Light vs. Miller Light vs. Coors Light.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
The fascinating account of the battle for promotional supremacy in the 1940s, as told in Driving with the Devil, has a third figure who would revisit the NASCAR scene some years later. For much of that time, the face of AAA in promoting Southern races was Sam Nunis, who later would promote Trenton Speedway when it held Grand National/Winston Cup races from 1967-72. Unlike Bruton Smith though, Nunis remained a minor character in the NASCAR world during his later dealings with Bill France.
In 1969, Trenton was expanded from one mile to a mile-and-a-half, but logistics dictated the lengthening give the speedway a unique, peanut (or kidney) shape. The track was much loved by Northeastern fans and was the site of championship modified and late model races, but it closed in 1980.
Sam Nunis quickly jumped on the “strictly stock” bandwagon and promoted this non-NASCAR race at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta near the end of the 1949 season.
Here’s a story from “Driving with the Devil” that explains a lot, if you think NASCAR’s current attitude toward rules has historical precedent. Neal Thompson tells of Atlanta bootlegger Gober Sosebee running a modified race and being unable to refuel during a pit-stop because a rag got stuck in the gas tank. Sosebee’s mechanic jumped in the backseat of the car with a gas can, leaned out the rear window and managed to dislodge the rag, and then filled the tank with gas, all while Sosebee was speeding around the track. Sosebee won the race but was disqualified by France for having a passenger.
Sosebee protested, saying there was nothing in the NASCAR rulebook that said it was illegal to have a rider in the car. France promptly grabbed a rule book and a pen and wrote, “No riders shall be allowed in the back…”
And you thought things had changed.
The winner of the first-ever Strictly Stock/Grand National/Cup race in 1949 was disqualified for having an alteration to the car’s stock suspension (made because the car had been used in bootlegging). How many of the rules above would have anything to do with your “stock” car?
Last-minute addition – In my days working the Richmond Int’l Raceway Media Center on race weekends, I came to admire the writing of Liz Clarke, who covered NASCAR for the Washington Post (back when the paper actually sent someone to the race). Clarke has written her take on NASCAR’s issues and possible sale, which was published Saturday (5/19). She puts more emphasis on the possibility that the sale could include both NASCAR and ISC, which is interesting, but she also had this to say about the general situation:
“However shocking, a sale of NASCAR now may be inevitable. It may be overdue. And amid the sport’s precipitous decline, it may be the only way forward.”
That’s a thought to ponder.