Monday, August 4, 2014

August 4, 1956: The OK Race ... That Wasn't

On August 3, 1956, Jim Paschal won NASCAR's only Grand National division race completed in the state of Oklahoma - a 200-lap feature at the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City.

A day later, the same twelve GN cars that raced in OKC towed to Tulsa for what was to be a second GN event in the state - a 200-lap race on the city's half-mile dirt track. However, things didn't go exactly according to plan though for Tulsa Time.

As best I can tell, the event remains the one race in NASCAR's GN/Cup history that was scuttled mid-race and simply wiped from the record books.

Though the race was scheduled as  the first Grand National race in Tulsa, it wasn't the first NASCAR event at Tulsa's fairgrounds. Twenty entrants from NASCAR's short-lived convertible series raced in Tulsa on June 2, 1956. Frank Mundy won the 200-lap race held about two months before the GN cars arrived.

Based on the limited information I've found, Speedy Thompson seems to have won the pole with Ralph Moody beside him (later to become half of the powerful Holman-Moody team of the 1960s). NASCAR Hall of Famers Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty and Buck Baker rounded out the top 5 starters.

The field took the green flag as scheduled. With qualifying completed and the race underway, that's about as far as the planned events got.

In 2011, Mark Aumann wrote about the race at Key excerpts from his article follow:
Lee Petty had led 168 laps before he broke a differential with seven laps to go [TMC: at OKC], so he was already in a bad mood by the time he pulled into Tulsa. So imagine the surprise and disappointment that he and the other teams had when they realized the fairgrounds "track" was nothing more than a large expanse of dry hard-pan clay, set off with traffic cones to demarcate the turns. And even worse, according to one report, the only lights were a pair of bulbs that lit the grandstand area.

The 12 drivers from Oklahoma City who towed to Tulsa - plus John Schipper, who entered his convertible - reportedly argued with the promoters about their safety concerns, particularly after seeing the amount of dust kicked up during qualifying. But the weather was clear and a crowd of about 6,000 people showed up for the race, so the decision was made to go on with the show.

Almost immediately after the green flag dropped, the 13 cars began to create a huge dust storm, which covered everyone in the grandstand in a layer of red clay and made it almost impossible for the drivers to see more than a yard in front of them. As the sun began to set, the visibility got worse, as two cars crashed in the first 17 laps. At that point, no one dared try to make a pass for fear of unintentionally running into one another.

By Lap 32, Petty had had enough. According to reports, Petty pulled his Dodge into the infield, ran across the track, climbed into the flagstand, grabbed the red flag from the starter, and began waving it to stop the race. That set off an argument between the drivers, NASCAR officials and race promoters as the crowd became more and more unruly.

Local authorities were called in to restore order, the promoters eventually relented and refunded money to the fans, and NASCAR packed up and left. Although Speedy Thompson led all 34 laps from the pole, the race was declared abandoned and removed from the official record. No prize money was issued and no points were given.

Despite his mid-race mutiny, Petty was not reprimanded by NASCAR. In fact, his impertinence was probably welcomed, as Tulsa never returned to the schedule.
Accounts differ on how the race was unfolding at the time Papa Lee had seen enough. Aumann's account had Speedy Thompson leading every lap of the race up until the time Lee stopped things. Sportswriters indicated Lee was leading the race. Some said the race was stopped after 25 laps - others 25 miles. Aumann's article says the race was stopped after 34 laps. But as Mark Twain said "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

Source: Reading Eagle via via Google News Archive
Source: Wilmington Morning Star via Google News Archive
In the end...
  • the fans went home - some angry, some perplexed, some glad they got their money back
  • the writers had a different type of copy to file 
  • the drivers headed north to their next race - the only GN race at Road America in Elkart Lake, MN, and 
  • another head-scratching chapter was written in racing's history book.
With almost 60 years of hindsight, the story can be dismissed as a funny one - and one indicative of the intensity of Lee Petty as well as his concern for himself and the other drivers. Looking at it closer though, NASCAR officials should not have been surprised at what the track had to offer. Admittedly, the different era had different types of planning vs. what is available today. But with NASCAR's convertible series having raced at Tulsa just two months earlier, the suits at the beach had the opportunity to get feedback from the the drivers who raced and put it to use for the GN race.

Oh, and driver John Schipper mentioned in Aumann's article? He has the distinction of being the only driver to race in both the convertible and GN events at Tulsa. He didn't exactly have sterling results in either of them though - dead last in the former and next to last in the latter.


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