Saturday, April 2, 2016

April 2, 1961- USAC stockers make Southern debut

In January 2016, Curtis Turner and Bruton Smith were deservedly inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Their racing accomplishments earned them a spot in the Hall, but their selection for the same class was truly fitting. The two were allies and enemies - of each other and of Big Bill France.

Curtis and Bruton each announced plans for a superspeedway in the greater Charlotte area in the late 1950s. Bruton's plans withered, and he joined Turner's effort through somewhat of a forced marriage.

Charlotte Motor Speedway opened in 1960 with the inaugural World 600. NASCAR granted a second race to CMS - the National 400 - for that fall. Perhaps to open the eyes of fans to new types of racing - or perhaps to turn an extra buck for the financially strapped track - or perhaps simply to poke the bear, Bruton floated the idea of  a 100-mile, Indy-car, roadster race as a prelim event to the National 400. After some discussion and visits by the USAC brass, the race didn't happen.

For reasons only Bruton likely knows, he wasn't done courting USAC - or taking his jabs at Bill France Sr. In addition to his role with CMS, Bruton also promoted races at the nearby Concord Speedway.

Instead of an open wheel race at the 1.5 mile, paved Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, he chose to host USAC's stock car drivers for a 200-laps, 100-miles race on Concord's half-mile, dirt surface Easter Sunday, April 2, 1961.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Since its formation as a sanctioning body, NASCAR had dominated the south - and frankly still does. USAC, its preceding AAA sanctioning of open wheel races, and its successor organizations such as CART and the IRL had little exposure in southern states beyond general awareness of the annual Indianapolis 500.

The race seems to have been the first time USAC's stock car fellers were to be introduced to folks below the Mason-Dixon line. With the champ car race off the table, Bruton went right at NASCAR's wheelhouse with the scheduling of a USAC stock car race. Many wondered how fans would accept it. A more important question was how they would support it - with their greenbacks.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Bruton claims he scheduled his USAC race based on an open NASCAR date ignoring the obvious reality of it being Easter Sunday. NASCAR Grand National races were scheduled for Saturday April 1st at Greenville-Pickens Speedway and April 3rd, the traditional Easter Monday race at Bowman Gray Stadium Nothing was scheduled, however, for Easter Sunday. Until.

Rain postponed a Grand National race scheduled at Orange Speedway in Hillsboro, NC for March 19. Rather than reschedule it for Good Friday or another non-Easter weekend date, the promoter booked it on Easter Sunday. The promoter's name? Well, it happened to be the same guy who ran the sanctioning body: Bill France, Sr.

A degree in rocket science isn't needed to know France was willing to go head-to-head with Bruton's race - never mind most God-fearing, southern-by-the-grace-of-God race fans likely preferred to take the day off from anyone's race.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal via Google News Archive
Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Bruton's race at Concord was held as scheduled (as was France's rescheduled one in Hillsboro). Bill Cheesbourg won the pole and led 12 laps. Don White dominated the race, however, and won after leading 165 of the race's 200 laps. Ramo Stott started fourth and finished seventh. Fifteen years later, Stott would find himself starting P1 for the now-legendary 1976 Daytona 500.

In the late 1960s, Richard Petty was coronated as The King of NASCAR. Don White was held in essentially the same high esteem in the ranks of USAC's stock car division.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
The 1961 race wasn't USAC's last venture at Concord. The stockers returned two years later for another event. The pole winner for the 1961 race, Bill Cheesbourg, took home the trophy on race day in 1963. USAC's open wheel or stock cars never raced at Charlotte Motor Speedway; however, Buddy Lazier won the Indy Racing League race at CMS in 1997 - the first of three IRL events at the track.


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