Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 19, 1955 - Petty Pockets Plattsburgh

June 19, 1955: Lee Petty wins the pole and the 200-lap, 100-mile race at the half-mile, dirt Airborne Park Speedway in Plattsburgh, New York. Petty's average race speed was greater than his pole-winning, qualifying time - the first of only two times in NASCAR Grand National / Cup history its happened.

The track still operates today (web | Twitter). The 1955 race, however, was the only NASCAR Grand National event ever held there.

The Plattsburgh race was the final of a three-race driving career for Julian Petty - Lee's brother and Richard's uncle. Unfortunately, he finished dead last. Julian hung up his helmet and focused only on fielding Grand National and Convertible Series cars for multiple drivers throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s.

Finishing one spot ahead of Julian was driver Chick Norris in his one and only Grand National start. Had the third letter in his first name been "u" vs. "i", his career would without question have been unmatched in the annals of stock car racing.

The race at Airbone completed a three-race NASCAR "Northern Tour" for the season. Three days - three races - three upstate New York tracks: June 17 was Rochester, June 18 was Fonda, and June 19 was Plattsburgh.

For all the talk even today about NASCAR being a "southern sport", the sanctioning body and track owners promoted plenty of races up north - including races in upstate New York and near the Canadian province of Quebec. Airborne Speedway is also located near Lake Placid, NY - the site of the winter Olympic Games a quarter-century later.

In a 2011 article published in the Press Republican of Plattsburgh, NY, writer Matthew Hamilton recounts some of the history of Airborne Park.
Maurice Broderick made his living in the automobile business.

So when he saw the success of Moffitt Park race track in Plattsburgh, expanding his living to include automobile racing seemed to make perfect sense.

"It ran in the late '40s and early '50s, and that's what gave Maurice the impetus to put a track together — dirt of course," said Bill Ladabouche, racing historian and founder. "He secured a loan for $2,500 for boards for the fences and all that, (though) today I don't believe you could buy the food for the concessions for that amount of money."

In 1954, Airborne Park Speedway was born. With it came a new tradition of short track racing and a history that would follow the ebb and flow of the small town racing industry.

It all began with a half-mile long paper clip of dirt carved into the landscape around the outside of a swamp on Route 22. Photos of the early races show drivers with no fire suits, often without gloves, driving small coupes that had the headlights taken out so they could be driven back home.

"There's one story where one driver had punched someone, and the official came over and said, 'That's going to cost you $50,'" Ladabouche said. "The driver looked at him and said, 'Well then it's worth it,' and punched him again and said, 'Well here's the $100.'"

Though some drivers gained reputations off the track, others gained fame for their prowess on the track. The early days were dominated by Bushey, Dick Nephew, Bob Bruno and others who raced from the track's inception until, in some cases, 30 or 40 years later.

But locals like Nephew and Bruno and Vermonters like Bushey weren't the only legends that gained fame at Airborne. In 1955 Broderick developed a relationship with NASCAR that would last until the mid 1970s. At the time, the NASCAR Grand National Series (Sprint Cup Series) was just as rag tag as the competition in Plattsburgh, but national prominence followed none-the-less. NASCAR legend Lee Petty, who won the first Daytona 500 and whose son is seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, was the winner of the first NASCAR race at airborne, which included the first factory team car ever to race in NASCAR.
I was unable to find a race recap from an old, archived newspaper for this race. Greg Fielden's race recap in his book Forty Years of Stock Car Racing - Volume One once again provided some insight to a race whose coverage is otherwise limited or missing.
Lee Petty topped off the Northern swing by taking the win in the 100-mile Grand National event at Airborne Speedway. Its was his fifth victory of the year. Buck Baker finished in second place, and Tim Flock was third. Flock was handling the controls of the Hubert Westmoreland Chevrolet normally driven by Gwyn Staley.

Petty led the first 25 laps after starting on the pole. Baker forged the front for 37 laps before Petty got back in to the lead for good.

Julian Petty, the winner's brother, finished last in the 16 car field when the fuel pump quit working on his Chrysler after just five laps. ~ p. 185
Edit: Several months after this entry was posted, a reader found my blog and shared a couple of news clippings about the race from the archives of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

Credit: Plattsburgh Press-Republican, June 18, 1955
Credit: Plattsburgh Press-Republican, June 18, 1955
Credit: Plattsburgh Press-Republican, June 20, 1955

Edited June 19, 2014

1 comment:

  1. I was able to find a few newspaper articles about this race.
    I've posted them at my blog Mark's Ephemera.