Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28, 1963 - Fearless Freddy Bests Bristol

NASCAR's Grand National drivers migrated south to Bristol TN for the third Volunteer 500 on July 28, 1963. A week earlier, the cars had raced the road course in Bridgehampton, New York.

Fred Lorenzen won the pole in his #28 Holman Moody Ford. Fireball Roberts won Bristol's spring Southeastern 500 and took the outside spot on the front row for the Volunteer 500 in his #22 HM Ford.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
On the second day of qualifying, Jim Paschal was quickest in the #42 Plymouth as a teammate to Richard Petty. G.C. Spencer - who eventually settled in nearby Johnson City, TN - had to win a 20-lap hooligan race to make the race at his home track.

During a practice session the same day as the second round of time trials, Fireball just about lost his weekend. As he attempted a high-side pass of another car, he started to spin and clipped the guardrail with his right rear quarterpanel. He successfully righted the car and lived to see raceday - though his crew did have some body work to repair before Sunday's event.

It's hard to visualize Bristol in its early years compared to what it seats today. But for year 3, the race drew a great crowd.


Lorenzen led the opening lap as the green was dropped. Junior Johnson then went from his third place starting position to the lead on lap 2 and stayed there for 160 circuits. A faulty alternator and bad battery then took its toll on Junior's Holly Farms Chevrolet. He ended up finishing 22nd, 93 laps down to the winner.

Lorenzen's car began trailing smoke from the start of the race. As it turns out, the 28 had a broken piston. Many thought the Ford's engine would blow at any time. Instead, Fast Freddy rode his steed all. day. long. As Junior faded, Lorenzen went up front and led 154 of the next 155 laps.

The one lap during that stretch he didn't lead was claimed by Paschal. But right after taking the lead, Paschal hit pit road. He was suffering from heat exhaustion and needed an assist. Lee Petty, whose driving career was reduced to a handful of starts following a near-fatal accident at Daytona in 1961, took over in relief.  Lee served in the same role in April when Paschal needed relief during the Virginia 500 at Martinsville. Lee spelled Paschal for about 100 laps before Jim went back into the car. Amazingly, the 42 finished third just one lap down to the top two finishers - even with 2 driver changes!

The race had seven cautions. The most significant one of the day involved Fireball. Though he saved his car during Saturday's practice session, the same couldn't be said for the race itself. He popped the guardrail and went for a series of flips. Fortunately, a sprained back was his only notable injury.



Source: National Speed Sport News
With each lap Lorenzen led, the 43 of Richard Petty kept pace. The Plymouth driver hounded Lorenzen, but he couldn't (or wouldn't) make the pass. With just under 200 laps to go, the future King did get the lead - but only for 3 laps. Lorenzen retook the lead and decided he may as well keep it.

As the lap count hit 450, Petty decided it was go-time. He intensified the pressure on Lorenzen. The blue Plymouth pulled even with the white Ford - but again, he simply couldn't make the pass.

The duo battled for the final 20 laps. In the end, however, Lorenzen pulled ahead of Petty by several yards to notch his first of three consecutive Bristol wins. Petty's close-but-no-cigar P2 was his first of several moral victories at Bristol.

Petty likely couldn't complain too much though. With wins at Bridgehampton a week earlier and another win at Greenville-Pickens two days later, a second place at Bristol probably wasn't viewed as all that bad an effort.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive

TMC

Monday, July 27, 2015

July 26, 1958 - Bob Welborn Wins Myrtle Beach

In 1961, Bill France, Sr. banned driver and fan favorite Curtis Turner from NASCAR "for life". Turner had been kicked to the curb by the board of Charlotte Motor Speedway after he'd worked to build it. CMS was completed only after Turner joined forces with businessman Bruton Smith (a France competitor) after Smith's own plans to build a superspeedway fell on hard times. After his ouster, Pop met with leadership of the Teamsters Union to help secure a financing arrangement so he could buy his way back in to the track. In exchange, Turner was alleged to have agreed to help organize a drivers' union.

Which sin was biggest in the eyes of France - the deal with Bruton, the Teamsters financing plan, or a proposed drivers' union - isn't truly known. Either way, the lifetime ban went into effect though it lasted only until 1965.

Turner was more, however, than just a driver in NASCAR-sanctioned races or a thorn in France's side. He was also a businessman away from the track - as well as within the sport. In 1958 for instance, he and France worked together to promote races at Starkey Speedway in Roanoke, VA. However, as Greg Fielden notes in his book, Rumblin' Ragtops: The History of NASCAR's Fabulous Convertible Division:
The event at Roanoke was scrapped when Curtis Turner, who was co-promoting the event with Bill France and Alvin Hawkins, was seriously injured in a crash at the Charlotte Fairgrounds. While attempting to qualify for a July 6 Modified-Sportsman race, the throttle on Turner's Ford coupe hung open and he crashed through the guard rail. The popular driver suffered seven broken ribs in the mishap. While he was confined to his bed, Turner felt it would be best to cancel the Roanoke race. ~ p. 103
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The cancellation at Starkey became an opportunity for the owners of a new track in Myrtle Beach, SC. Rambi Speedway was built in 1958 as a replacement for Coastal Speedway. The owners gleefully seized the opportunity to have Rambi's debut be a NASCAR convertible event to replace Turner's cancelled one.

A 200-lap race was slated for Saturday night, July 26th.

Source: Wilmington Morning Star via Google News Archive
Tootle Estes from Knoxville, TN started from the pole in his second of four career NASCAR convertible races - all in 1958.


Tiny Lund started on the front row with Estes. Larry Frank and Bob Welborn in Julian Petty's #49 Chevy comprised the second row. Ken Rush started 16th in the 19-car field in a second #44 Julian Petty Chevrolet. Starting shotgun on the field was a driver with one of the most unfortunate names not just in racing but life in general: Richard Spittle.

As was so often the case in 1958, Welborn was first to receive the checkered flag. The victory was Welborn's sixth convertible division win of the season and third in a row - all in Julian Petty's cars. Rush rallied from his poor starting spot to finish 4th in Julian's second car behind Lund and Frank. And poor Mr. Spittle? He finished where he started: 19th and dead last in car #0.

Most records indicate the date of the race as July 27, 1958. Because of its blue laws, NASCAR didn't race on Sundays in South Carolina. The race was held on Saturday night. It's likely the race ended a bit after midnight. NASCAR's scoring officials likely dated the race based on its conclusion rather than its beginning.

Rambi's debut set itself up for a successful run. Though the convertible division did not return after its one and only race, the track was host to many NASCAR-sanctioned races in the decades to follow - including nine Grand National races from 1958-1965. The track was sold to a new owner in 1968, converted from dirt to asphalt in 1974 and re-branded as Myrtle Beach Speedway.


TMC

Sunday, July 26, 2015

July 26, 1964 - Oh so close in the Volunteer 500

Richard Petty finished second to Fred Lorenzen in the 1963 Volunteer 500 at Bristol. On that particular day, it was all Lorenzen all day. Except for an early stretch of 180 laps led by Junior Johnson and a smidgen led by others, Fast Freddy led the rest of 'em.

When the Grand National drivers returned the next March for Bristol's Southeastern 500, Lorenzen again showed the way. His domination was even more complete than the previous summer. He led a staggering 494 laps yielding only the first six to Marvin Panch who had started from the pole. Petty finished a pedestrian 8th in that race.

The circuit was back in East Tennessee on July 26, 1964, for the fourth annual Volunteer 500.

Lorenzen was obviously eligible to three-peat, but an element of doubt finally existed for him and those trying to de-throne him. During a July 2nd 50-mile qualifying race at Daytona for the Firecracker 400, Lorenzen was involved in a pretty significant wreck. Paul Goldsmith lost it during the event and spun. Several cars spun behind him, and one tagged Lorenzen hard into the driver's side "door".

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Lorenzen was able to pull himself from the car, but he had to miss the Firecracker. He was hospitalized with seriously bruised ribs and a severed wrist tendon. After a couple of weeks of recovery, Bristol was slated as his first race back following the accident.

Country and pop singer Brenda Lee performed a pre-race show in the Tri-Cities. And by pre-race, it means she performed the Night before vs. Right before the race.

Source: Kingsport Post via Google News Archive
After finishing second to Lorenzen a year earlier and being a non-factor in March 1964, Petty got off to a good start by laying down the top qualifying speed in his Plymouth.


When the green flag dropped, the 43 put a hurtin' on the field as Lorenzen had done the previous two races at Bristol. Paul Goldsmith was back from his Daytona accident, qualified second, got the jump on Petty at the start, and led the first twelve laps.

Petty got by Goldsmith on lap 13 and then led just about the next 300 laps. Near the end of that stretch, Lorenzen was just about worn out in his first race since Daytona. He'd started eighth and hung around, but he was hurting. At lap 276, he hit pit road and let fellow Ford driver Ned Jarrett take over for a while.

Lorenzen wasn't the only one struggling to stay in the car. Jim Paschal won the 1962 Southeastern 500 driving for Petty Enterprises, and he was back in the #41 Petty Plymouth as a teammate to the King in the 1964 races. Around the mid-point of the race, Paschal could take no more. The summer heat combined with only one caution early in the race drained Paschal.

Billy Wade took over in relief to the surprise of many. Wade was riding the wave of a four-race winning streak in Bud Moore's Mercury. He was a FoMoCo guy. But after falling out of the race with engine woes, Wade didn't get hung up on manufacturer loyalties. He went to Paschal's pit, belted in, and drove the second half of the race.

After Petty's nearly 300-lap butt kickin' on the field, Junior Johnson then went to the point for 45 laps - presumably during a series of pit stops. But it wasn't as if Junior could stay there. It was Petty's day.

The King then went back out front for another almost 150 laps to end the race. The key modifier here is "almost". With a dominating day, a multi-lap lead on the second place runner and the the race well in hand, it was just a formality for the 43 to take the checkers.

But then it happened.

With four laps to go, Petty's Hemi soured. He limped around for three more laps in an effort to win the race. A broken power plant and declining inertia slowed the car. Finally, Petty brought the car to pit road on lap 499.


Lorenzen got a second wind and had taken back his #28 Holman Moody Ford from Jarrett with about 50 laps to go. Somehow even with two driver swaps, Lorenzen found himself in second place - though he had to make additional circuits to unlap himself. And then with the 43 sitting silently on pit road, he took the checkered flag for his third consecutive Bristol victory.

In somewhat of a statistical anomaly, Petty was credited with second even though he did not finish. Paschal was credited with third in the second Petty car and with Wade at the wheel.

Source: Free Lance-Star via Google News Archive
I believe one reason among many why Richard Petty won so many races over his career is that he didn't dwell on the races that he lost. When his driving career was complete, the King had raced sixty times at Bristol. Yet, he only had three wins in the bank in all those starts. A fourth one was his for the taking in 1964 but simply wasn't meant to be.

TMC

Friday, July 24, 2015

July 24, 1966 - Bristol's Golden Volunteer 500

Richard Petty raced in 60 Grand National / Cup races at Bristol from its opening in 1961 through the King's retirement in 1992. Sixty! Many might suggest Bristol wasn't of Petty's better tracks because he didn't rack up as many wins as he did at places such as Wilkesboro, Martinsville and Daytona.

Yet from 1961 through 1965, he averaged an 8th place finish. Excluding a couple of DNFs, he averaged about a 4th place finish. The 43 just had a tough time in the early to mid 60s finding victory lane at the East Tennessee half-mile.

Petty and the rest of the GN crowd got another shot at a Bristol win in the Volunteer 500 on July 24, 1966.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
When Bristol opened in 1961, Curtis Turner had recently been sentenced to a lifetime ban from NASCAR by Bill France, Sr. Interestingly, the lifetime punishment lasted only about four years (a different story for a different post). Turner raced a few times in late 1965 after he was reinstated plus a few more times in 1966. As a Bristol rookie, Turner claimed the pole in first round qualifying.

Source: Free Lance Star via Google News Archive
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Turner was a Ford man in NASCAR's Grand National and Convertible divisions. When he returned, he drove a little bit of everything - Ford, Mercury, Plymouth and even Chevrolet.

Just because Pops won the pole didn't mean all doubt was erased by those in and around the garage area. No one was quite certain who owned Turner's Chevy. The records suggest owner Toy Bolton entered the car. Bolton was the owner of record for a number of drivers for about 125 races from the early to mid 1960s. The car was also believed to have been previously owned by Smoky Yunick - which raised the eyebrows of many.

Adding to the intrigue was the work on the car done by Turkey Minton, one of Junior Johnson's mechanics. Junior and his right-hand man, Herb Nab, lurked near the car during the weekend leading many to believe Junior actually owned the car. Imagine if such a scenario arose today in an era of Twitter and too much cable TV pre-race coverage.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
David Pearson, in Cotton Owens' #6 Dodge, qualified second alongside Turner. Petty and Paul Goldsmith made up row 2. Former Petty driver Jim Paschal and Sam McQuagg qualified fifth and sixth, respectively.


Buddy Baker started the race in Emory Gilliam's #00 Dodge. He had interesting sponsorship from a Tennessee gubernatorial candidate - not a lady of the evening. John Jay Hooker was a lawyer, a businessman, and a career political gadfly. Hooker was running for Tennessee governor in 1966. Baker didn't win the race - nor did Hooker win his.

Turner put his top starting spot to good use. He may have been a track rookie and a bit rusty from a few years away from NASCAR Grand National racing. But he adapted quickly to Bristol's asphalt and led the first 80  laps.

Goldsmith then went to the point to nearly match the number of laps led by Turner.

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
Richard Petty then got by Goldsmith and settled into a dominating rhythm. He led lap after lap, and he put the field one or more laps down. But all was not well inside the 43. Petty began developing some significant pain with his neck, but he stayed on the track and in the lead.

Paschal fell out of the race a few laps shy of 300 when the engine in his Plymouth went south. He stuck around the track, and the Petty crew brought him to their pit stall about 100 laps later. Petty was able to pit for the driver swap, and Paschal was able to belt in and return to the action without losing the 43's lead.

When Lee Petty was critically injured in February 1961, his racing career essentially ended. Richard was not yet an established winner though he did pick up a few wins along the way in 1961 through 1964. Jim Paschal was hired by the Pettys in 1962, and my opinion is his multiple wins over the next three seasons helped keep the team in business. Consequently, Paschal was the logical choice to put in Richard's car when his neck discomfort became too much to handle.

Paschal kept the lead, but the 43 Plymouth started giving up a little bit each lap as the race near its conclusion. Goldsmith's Plymouth was the only other car in the lead lap with the 43. He was hauling the mail and began chipping away at the lead lap by lap over the last 50 laps of the race.

With five laps to go, Goldsmith got the opportunity he needed. He made the pass on Paschal and led the final laps to take the checkers.


Goldsmith picked up his ninth and final career GN win. It was also his 3rd win of the season across a wide variety of tracks - Daytona, Rockingham and Bristol.



For the second time in three years, Petty watched helplessly as a Bristol victory slipped through his grasp with just a few laps to go. Lee Petty was mad at the loss. He wasn't mad at Goldsmith for winning or Paschal for bringing home the 43 in second. Instead, he was angry at RICHARD for having exited the car.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The King finally did notch a Bristol victory in the 1967 Volunteer 500. He nabbed two more in 1975 when he swept the Southeastern 500 in March and the Volunteer 500 in November.

TMC

Sunday, July 19, 2015

July 19, 1958 - Bob Welborn Grabs Greenville

NASCAR's convertible division raced at Greenville-Pickens Speedway on July 19, 1958. The 200-lap, 100-mile race was the third of four ragtop races at the track from 1956-1959 in the short-lived series.

Greenville-Pickens (web | Twitter) continues to operate today with a full slate of late model hot shoes.

Car owner Julian Petty fielded three cars in the 1958 race. Two-time convertible division champion Bob Welborn drove his customary #49. Ken Rush belted into a #44 Chevy, and Jim Paschal - who later raced and won for Petty Enterprises in the 1960s - started 9th in #49A.

The race was held the day after Julian's brother Lee and nephew Richard raced north of the border in Toronto Canada. Lee won the race which frankly is better remembered as the King's first career Grand National / Cup start.

In looking at the finishing order, one might think the race was uneventful. The top 10 starters finished in the same order except for the third and fourth place finishers who swapped spots from where they began the race.

The race, however, did have some late race drama. Knoxville, TN's Tootle Estes made a late race pit stop with about a dozen laps to go.


Ken Rush - NASCAR's 1957 Grand National Rookie of the Year - was leading and headed towards the win. Instead of taking the checkers, however, Rush clipped Estes' car as he pulled back onto the racing surface after completing his stop. The collision caused Rush to hit a dirt bank, and the hit negated his chances for victory.

Welborn assumed the lead and led the remaining laps to claim his fifth convertible win of the season. Teammate Rush recovered from his late race encounter with Estes to finish 3rd - albeit 3 laps down to the winner.

Fin St # Driver
1 1 49 Bob Welborn
2 2 76 Larry Frank
3 4 44 Ken Rush
4 3 87 Buck Baker
5 5 21 Glen Wood
6 6 36 Tootle Estes
7 7 41 Whitey Norman
8 8 66 Roy Tyner
9 9 49A Jim Paschal
10 10 999 Wilbur Rakestraw

Source: Star-News via Google News Archive

TMC

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July 14, 1966: Pearson, Petty and Putney the Putz

Fonda Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Grand National race in 1955. Junior Johnson split the laps led with Tim Flock about 50/50. Flock led the first half of the race, and Junior led the second half to claim the win.

After that race, the Grand National division didn't return to Fonda for eleven years until July 14, 1966. The track became part of the "northern tour" along with tracks such as Trenton Speedway in New Jersey; Islip Speedway on Long Island; Oxford Plains in Maine; Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, NY; and Bridgehampton Raceway's road course in New York.

The half-mile, dirt Fonda Speedway - just shy of an hour west of Albany NY - was built along the banks of the Mohawk River. A 2011 Hemmings.coms article described the track as such:
...Fonda is a profoundly quirky place. The backstretch, once a canal towpath, was aligned to miss a cemetery (whose graves proved to be empty when they were later moved). That gave the track an odd elliptical shape, with one end cramped and the other no-lift wide. Errant cars have plunged into the Mohawk River, and still do. The grandstand was thrown up in three old sections. It's weirdly wonderful.

The "garage area" was least green in July 1966 rather than 10 acres of dusty dirt or muddy slop. Plus, crews had little time to do much tweaking of their cars. The teams' tight schedule over that mid-July stretch was:
  • July 7 - Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, VA
  • July 10 - Bridgehampton Raceway in New York
  • July 12 - Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine
  • July 14 - Fonda
  • July 16 - Islip Speedway on Long Island
Tiger Tom Pistone made his one and only Fonda start in 1966. He is shown sporting a grin for a couple of reasons:
  • He qualified fifth (though an engine issue relegated him to a 20th place DNF).
  • He was wearing an epic Batman t-shirt - presumably for the Adam West-led TV series that debuted in January 1966.
Credit: John Grady
Another driver with a big smile on his face was Bobby Allison. He had won his first GN race two days earlier at Oxford Plains Speedway in his trusty Chevelle.

Source: Bobby Winnett at Randy Ayers Modeling Forum
Richard Petty claimed the pole in his Hemi-powered #43 Plymouth. Independent driver J.T. Putney timed second. Tiny Lund, 1965 GN champion Ned Jarrett and Tiger Tom rounded out the top five starters.

When the green flag waved, Putney took advantage of the rare occasion of starting up front. He went toe-to-toe with Petty, led the first lap, and settled into an early groove to lead the first 30 laps or so. Then on lap 35 - after losing the lead to Petty - things didn't go quite so well for Putney. One writer went so far as to say Putney pulled one of the ten dumbest moves in racing. Ever. With all the dumb things racers have done, that is saying something to be in the Top 10.

From the 2011 Hemmings.com article:
J.T. Putney started the #19 car ... on the front row alongside Richard Petty and took the lead. I had been standing in turn two with my camera and shot this photo when Putney hit the backstretch fence. I would say he was driving over his head because you could see him coming off two and hitting the fence with his back end, lap after lap, until Putney finally went so high he was forced to take the lower tow road, which was kind of an escape road. There was quite a drop down to the tow road, probably 10 feet. Putney stayed on it and roared back up on the track right in front of Tiny Lund, who hit him and caused a pileup. Putney and Lund were two huge guys who then confronted each other in the infield. Supposedly, Tiny punched Putney and knocked him unconscious. NASCAR fined Tiny for doing it, but I still think that Putney just fainted.
Source: Hemmings.com. Credit: Frank Simek.
Bobby Allison started the race with a smile on his face. But the smile quickly turned to a look of concern when he realized his Chevelle had been shortened on both ends - simply because of a bone-headed, reckless move. Lyle Stetler had to be furious as well. He had two cars taken out in the avoidable accident - one driven by him and the other by Tiny who settled matters with Putney for both of them.

Source: The Leader-Herald
Buddy Baker in #00 was making his second of five consecutive starts for car owner Emory Gilliam. Though he started sixth, a faulty axle relegated him to 19th place finish in the 31-car field.

Source: Hemmings.com. Credit: Frank Simek.
A couple of weeks after the Fonda race, Baker and Gilliam signed a unique sponsor for Bristol's Volunteer 500. John Jay Hooker - lawyer, political gadfly, and CEO of STP Corporation in the mid-1970s - ran for governor of Tennessee in 1966. He incorporated his name into the appropriately numbered car driven by Baker.

Petty assumed the lead after Putney's unfortunate trip out of the track, down the access road, through the cemetery, back onto the track, and into a wad of other cars. He paced the field for 13 laps before his career rival, David Pearson, assumed the lead.

Pearson led about 40 laps before Tiger Tom made his presence known. Tiger set the pace for 32 laps before having to make a pit stop. As Tiger's car hit pit road for service, Petty's 43 took back the lead for four laps. Pearson then again took the lead from Petty in a script played out frequently over a two-decade period.

The King got back around Pearson with just under 50 laps to go. With less than 40 to go, however, Pearson in his #6 Cotton Owens' Dodge took the lead yet again. Petty hung tight with Pearson and hounded him constantly over the remaining laps.

With a couple of laps to go and Petty in hot pursuit of Pearson's lead, the 43 broke loose. Petty lost the car but gathered it to soldier on. The gap was enough, however, to allow Pearson to roll on the remaining circuits and nab his eleventh win of the season. Petty still managed to finish second, and home track racer Rene Charland finished third in his seventh of nine career GN starts.

Photo courtesy of Ray Lamm
The race was the 14th time Pearson and Petty finished in the top two spots. Over their careers, that stat grew to a remarkable string of 63 races through 1977.

Source: The Leader-Herald
Though the King came up a little bit short in 1966, he returned in 1967, won the pole again, dominated the race, and claimed the Fonda 200 win. Though he didn't win the pole in 1968, he again led the most laps (180 of 200) and picked up another trophy in the Grand National division's final race at Fonda.

Remarkably, Allison managed to race his car the next race. He took his demolished Chevelle to a cousin living in New York. Over a two-day period, the front fenders and hood were replaced and the rear of the car rebuilt. Allison made the show at Islip Speedway much to the surprise of NASCAR officials. He not only qualified for the race - but he won his second career GN race four days after his first victory.

TMC

Sunday, July 12, 2015

July 12, 1958 - Paschal Pockets The Asheville Cash

July 12, 1958 - What a day for Petty history.
  • 21 year-old Richard Petty debuted as a professional race car driver in a NASCAR Convertible Division race at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina
  • Bob Welborn won the Columbia race in a Chevrolet fielded by Richard's uncle, Julian Petty, and
  • Jim Paschal found a pot of gold on the speedway at McCormick Field in Asheville, North Carolina in Julian's hard-top Chevrolet.
In 1958, Welborn joined forces with Julian to run the full Convertible schedule for a championship and also a limited Grand National races with the goal of winning as many as possible. So ordinarily, Bob would have been at the wheel of the #49 Chevy. Welborn couldn't be in two places at once with the points-paying race at Columbia falling on the same day. So Paschal was tapped to sling it around McCormick Field.

For years, McCormick Field was a minor-league baseball park (and remains so today as the home of the Asheville Tourists). Several players who found their way to the bigs have passed through McCormick on at least one occasion. For a three-year stint in the mid to late 1950s, however, the bats were silenced at McCormick. While baseball was AWOL, a quarter-mile race track was shoehorned into the ball park.

And on a single occasion, the track promoter was able to host a NASCAR Grand National race. In 2010, legendary NASCAR beat writer Tom Higgins penned a column about McCormick's sole GN event:
Lee Petty came speeding toward home plate, slipped wildly and went crashing into the first-base dugout.

No, the patriarch of NASCAR’s most famous clan wasn’t playing baseball.

Petty was competing in a heat race preliminary to a 150-lap, 37.5-mile Grand National event at McCormick Field, a grand old park in Asheville, N.C.

I was in the press box on July 12, 1958, to cover the action as a raw rookie reporter for the Asheville Times, an afternoon daily.

The Grand National Division was destined to eventually become today's Sprint Cup Series. McCormick Field, dating to 1924, still stands and is home to Asheville’s minor league baseball team.

Many of baseball’s most famous stars played there, including Babe Ruth.

Bob Terrell, the late, great Asheville sports editor and columnist – one of my journalistic heroes – had termed races at the track “demolition derbies in the round.” He added: “When 25 cars start on a quarter-mile track, something has to give.”

It certainly gave for Lee Petty in that July heat race as he battled Cotton Owens.

It was “heat” all right, as Petty’s Olds briefly caught fire as fans in the packed grandstands stood and gasped in astonishment.

Incredibly, the car was pulled from the dugout and repaired in time for the main event. Jack Smith, Herman Beam and Matthews had also crashed in the heat races.

Matthews’ accident prevented him from delighting his many followers in the crowd by “beating the big boys.” Matthews was wildly popular in Western North Carolina, both because of his success and some of the antics attributed to him.

As one story goes, Matthews was said to have dressed as a woman to enter a “Powder Puff” race. When one of the cars came through the turns sideways and on two wheels, Matthews was black-flagged.

No one but Banjo could drive McCormick Field that way, it was figured, and his race was over. Said Lowe, according to the story: “Banjo is a fine driver, but he makes one ugly woman.”

Time finally came for that Grand National main event and a field of 15 cars lined up, stretching from the home-plate turn to where third base would have been.

Jim Paschal held the pole position in a '57 Chevrolet fielded by Julie Petty, Lee’s brother. Owens had the other front-row spot in a Pontiac.

Many speculated the pole winner wouldn't be passed if he didn’t experience any trouble. This proved to be true.

Paschal immediately pulled out front and no one could get around him. He led all 150 laps. Owens stayed right on Paschal’s rear bumper and was the runner-up by only a car length. White finished third, Lee Petty fourth and Smith fifth. Right behind came Junior Johnson and Buck Baker.
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
TMC