- 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.
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|