Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Nashville's 1958 and 1959 Southern 300

Nashville's Fairground Speedways opened July 19, 1958, with a slate of races on the inner, quarter-mile track.

Three weeks later, the Fairgrounds debuted its half-mile track in grand fashion with a 200-lap NASCAR sweepstakes race. Joe Weatherly won the race, a combination event for convertible division drivers and the Grand National hardtop sedans.

The new facility then settled into its groove with regular, weekly features on both tracks. The abbreviated first season concluded with a 200-lap modified race in mid-October. Though the event didn't have a formal name, it became known retroactively as the Southern 200 because of its link to the future.

The race was extended by 100 laps in 1959 and formally named the Southern 300. With the exception of only a couple of years, the modified - and later late model sportsman - race was the final one of each season.

The race's popularity and stature grew each passing year with fans and participants. It soon began to attract many regional and national racers and rewarded points for those drivers chasing NASCAR's national modified and sportsman titles.

Following the track's second reconfiguration in 1973, the race was extended by another 100 laps. The Southern 400 was held from 1973 through the final one in 1977.

Over the coming weeks, I plan to highlight each of the 20 editions of the race with old ads, articles, photos, trivia, etc.

Before taking the checkers, however, one must first take the green. So back to 1958 we go for the inaugural Southern 200, scheduled for Sunday afternoon, October 19, 1958.

The storyline going into the 1958 season-ending race mirrored the storyline of NASCAR's 2018 Cup season 60 years later: The Big Three. Although the track had a limited number of races with the mid-July opening, three drivers won all of the modified features heading into the final one of the year. Bob Reuther, Charlie Griffith, and Jimmy Griggs split all the hardware between themselves.

Source: Nashville Fairgrounds Racing History
Track management rolled out a high tech scoring system for the race. The system still involved manual intervention for scorers to push a button to record a time stamp as their assigned car crossed the scoring line, but the process was a more accurate way to track cars than other means. Other tracks used a similar system, but Nashville racers hadn't seen it before - at the Fairgrounds or other area tracks.

The race truly was a big event. The length was four times longer than any other half-mile feature during the first year of the track, and the winner was to take home a sizable, hefty trophy. Because of the extended distance, the race was to be flagged for a 15-minute break after 100 laps to allow for pit stops and driver maintenance.

The race also attracted a couple of out-of-towners who later raced in NASCAR's Grand National division. Chattanooga's Joe Lee Johnson made the trek to Nashville for the race. Two years later, he won the inaugural World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. G.C. Spencer from South Carolina (and with roots in Owensboro, KY and Johnson City, TN) returned to Nashville to race the new track. Spencer won a couple of features in 1957 at the old, dirt, one-mile, fairgrounds track.

Chattanooga's Charlie Griffith won the first race at the Fairgrounds on the quarter-mile track in July. He also captured the pole for the Southern 200. Bullet Bob Reuther qualified second with Griggs and Malcolm Brady laying down matching times for third and fourth.

Reuther got the jump on Griffith at the green and led the first dozen laps. Griggs then roared past Reuther and proceeded to dominate the rest of the first half of the race.

Following the stage break (where caution laps didn't count by the way), Chattanooga's Friday Hassler grabbed the lead from Griggs. Hassler was only able to hold the lead for a lap, however, and Griggs rallied back to the top spot yet again.

The Nashville promoters learned a valuable lesson as the race continued. They needed better calculations in balancing the race distance, anticipated average speed, and available daylight in the fall. Though the race was scheduled for 200 laps, the event had to be cut short by about 40 laps because of darkness. Lights were not added to the Fairgrounds until 1965, and drivers simply couldn't continue to race in the darkened conditions.

When the checkered flag was displayed after 163 laps, Griggs had a half-lap lead on Hassler with Reuther a lap down in third.

Controversy soon arose following the race. Friday Hassler protested Griggs' car. Hassler alleged Griggs' engine had a modified stroke and didn't have a starter - both rules violations. The second complaint was dismissed immediately, and inspectors didn't find issues with Griggs' engine. Hassler's protest was dismissed, and Griggs' win was upheld - over Friday's vociferous objections of course.

In some respects, the race was a promoter's dream - controversy, a protest, fans buzzing positively and negatively about the race and the darkness, etc. The only downside was track promoters Bennie Goodman, Mark Parrish, and Bill Donoho could not provide more racing to the fans right away. All had to wait until the spring of 1959 for the roar of the engines to return.

The second season-ender (and the first formally named Southern 300) was held Sunday, October 11, 1959. Track management learned from the year before and backed up the start of the 1959 race by an hour to 2:00 PM. Yet they arguably still pushed the enveloped by adding 100 laps to the race.

Earl Abts from Birmingham, AL won the pole by setting a track record. The previous record had been held by L.J. Hampton, and it lasted all of a just a few minutes! Griffith and Brady made up the second row.

Though Abts had success at other tracks - particularly in Alabama - his Nashville highlight was the 1959 Southern 300 pole. He returned to race several more times over the next couple of years, but he never won a feature at the Fairgrounds.

Fotki: Alabama Auto Racing Pioneers
Indirectly, Abts had a hand in the success of Bobby Allison's career. Earlier in 1959, Abts' car owner approached Allison after Abts won a race in Montgomery. Harry Mewbourne offered Allison some needed parts for next to nothing. Allison repaired his ailing engine and then won his first ever feature race.

From Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang by Peter Golenbock
Similar to the 1958 200-lap race, the 1959 Southern 500 was divided into thirds. The field was slowed after the 100-lap and 200-lap marks for crews to service the cars and ensure the drivers were still OK.

Abts parlayed his pole start to an early lead. He was competitive for much of the first third of the race. His steering then went away; however, and he popped the wall on lap 102 to end his day. Griffith too was competitive but exited with transmission failure.

An unfortunate and somewhat frightening accident involved Jack Marlin (brother of Coo Coo), fourth-place starter Brady, and a couple of others caught up in the collateral damage. Marlin had issues and stalled out on the track. Brady's windshield was heavily coated with grime, and he could barely see through it with the glare of the fading sun. Brady was still in full throttle when he drilled Marlin.

Reuther showed the way for much of the race - particularly the final 100 laps. With 17 laps to go, however, Reuther had nothing more to give. Exhausted with blistered hands from manhandling his car, he simply could not keep his foot in it to make it the end. Griggs eased by Reuther, and led the remaining laps to win the race for the second consecutive year.

Source: Nashville Banner
Griggs won about 20 more races over the next decade ranging in length from a 30-lap modified feature to a 400-lap open competition event. But the driver who went back-to-back in the track's first two season-closers saw his racing career come to a close in the same event in 1969. That story, however, will have to wait for another post.

Source for articles: The Tennessean and Nashville Banner



  1. Really interesting series you have started. Majority of names unfamiliar to me. A real learning experience. I'm curious to find info about Pancho Alvarez, the Gray Ghost from Tampa. Interesting,also, to learn that CooCoo had a brother racing. Other than Nashville, I can't think of another track I've been to with a smaller inner oval, other than the 3/4-mile at Pocono. Definitely haven't encountered that at another weekly track. Really looking forward as you continue this new series. Nice job.

    1. Another "fan letter" about the series, Chase. Looking forward to seeing more. Regarding Dave's comment about the inner ovals, I'll note that as of this year, Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey (just south of Philly) now has TWO of them. The "outside" track is a large half mile (maybe closer to five-eighths), and management added an inner quarter-mile a few years ago. I visited on a night when both tracks were in action. This year a third-mile track was added between the other two. Gives them lots of flexibility. All the tracks are pretty flat, and I thought visibility on the big track wasn't great (on the backstretch), so the intermediate track may end up being used a lot.