Thursday, November 7, 2013

November 7, 1954 - Petty Starts 1955 On High Note

November 7, 1954: Lee Petty dominates the 200-lap, 100-mile race on the half-mile, dirt Tri-City Speedway in High Point, North Carolina. Starting third, Petty took the lead on the seventh lap and led the remaining 194 laps en route to victory.

Though held in November 1954, the race was the 1955 Grand National season opener. The 1955 season was the first time NASCAR began a new season in the fall of the previous calendar year. The pattern was repeated several more times into the late 1960s. Brandon Reed wrote a nice column about NASCAR's approach to its season opener for

Tri-City hosted only two Grand National races. The first one was in June 1953 and won by Herb Thomas. Perry Allen Wood describes the 1954 race and Tri-City's history in his book, Silent Speedways of the Carolinas:
Two weeks after the 1954 season ended, the Grand National circus got off to a frigid start for 1955 here for their final visit. Sunday, November 7, 1954, found 21 drivers attempt to break the ice and get another yawner for their efforts. Herb Thomas took the pole ... with Rathman's Blue Crown Spark Plug Hudson outside. Behind them were [Lee] Petty in a Chrysler and Gober Sosebee ... [Dick] Rathman led six laps until Petty snatched it away for the final 194.

This track has most assuredly made it all the way back to nature because no trace of it could be found by speedway archeology. However, this one has a history beyond (its) two Grand National races... Lloyd Seay of Dawsonville, GA stopped by to win on August 31, 1941, and then won the next day in the big Labor Day race at Lakewood in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the next day, his cousin ... started a fight with Lloyd over a sugar debt for the still and put a bullet right through the 21 year-old's pump. ~ pp. 211-212
In his master's thesis (PDF) at University of North Carolina - Asheville titled And Here They Come to the White Flag: The Piedmont-Triad’s Role in Early NASCAR History: 1940 - 1958, student William Tate wrote:
After the war, many new tracks began to emerge alongside the old dirt tracks. These new tracks were faster and more reliable. In the Triad, one such track opened in 1947. Named Tri-City Speedway, the track was built, owned and operated by the Blair family, including local driver Bill Blair. The track was built on land owned by Blair’s brother, Bob. Eventually, Bill Blair dissolved his part of the partnership with his brother and sister-in-law, but he still raced at the track in several races. Blair’s sister-in-law, Mary Lee, handled promotion for the 100-mile event. “Big Bill” France commonly allowed local track owners to handle promotion of a hometown race, while he supplied the famous drivers, cars and purse money...

The popularity of the local tracks with both fans and drivers brought other famous drivers from the South, as well as other parts of the nation, coming to race during the 1954-1955 seasons. Only one other NASCAR sanctioned, strictly-stock race was conducted at Tri-City Speedway. Greg Fielden describes this race as a “100-mile Grand National lid-lifter for the 1955 season…” Promoted by Oscar and Vernon Ellington, the race was scheduled for November 7, 1954 as the first race for the 1955 season. Various big name drivers were slated to run for the $4,100 purse, including, “a brand new Cadillac, to be piloted by North Wilkesboro’s Junior Johnson.” The High Point Enterprise reported that the Ellington brothers had leased Tri-City for the event, noting that, “they plan to keep the track, rated one of the best in the Piedmont, alive and buzzing in the future if things go well.” The brothers even printed a letter addressed to the racing fans of High Point asking fans to come out to the race, promising to live up to their word on providing drivers and to run all the laps as advertised. Unfortunately, the race did not meet the great expectations of the Ellington brothers as only 2,000 attended the race due to wintry weather conditions. Local driver Lee Petty won the race and a winner’s purse totaling $1,000... This was the final strictly-stock NASCAR race at Tri-City, but racing continued there for several years. Bill Blair, Jr. recalled that, “probably the last race was ran there in 1957 or thereabouts, possibly 1958.” The track was dismantled shortly thereafter and turned into a golf course, while other parts of the land were sold for other purposes.
While fortune smiled on Lee Petty as he began the defense of his 1954 Grand National championship, the same can't be said for his brother. Bob Welborn finished 20th in the 21-car field in a Plymouth owned by Lee's brother, Julian Petty.

Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal via Google News Archive (nav to p. 4)

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