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05-17-2006

First Charlotte NASCAR 'Strictly Stock' Race Gets North Carolina Historic Marker
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First Charlotte NASCAR 'Strictly Stock' Race Gets North Carolina Historic Marker

Close Finishes Photo

Few, if any of the press conferences or promotional events surrounding the two weeks of NASCAR action at Lowes Motor Speedway, had the historical significance of a small ceremony held just off Little Rock Road in Charlotte Wednesday morning.

The event - the dedication of a North Carolina State Historical Marker - highlighted the running of the first NASCAR "Strictly Stock" race held on Sunday, June 19, 1949 at the now long forgotten Charlotte Speedway.

The unveiling of the historical marker drew a large crowd of dignitaries including Beverly Perdue, the Lt. Governor of North Carolina, Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, NASCAR president Mike Helton, Lowes Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler and former NASCAR greats Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison.

Beverly Perdue

Lt. Governor of North Carolina Beverly Perdue
(Close Finishes Photo)

"What we are doing today is celebrating a huge piece of North Carolina's history," said Perdue (left) in addressing the gathering. "North Carolina is synonymous with NASCAR. It was born and bred here. This is where it all started. Think back to what it must have been like. These were cars that weren't fixed up or souped up. On that hot, sunny, humid Sunday afternoon in July, a bunch of people who were pioneers for a new industry came out here to being stock car racing. NASCAR and Big Bill France decided to do it right here."

"It's important that we understand and respect history," stated McCrory (below right). "This was the place of the first race. This was a place that had a big impact on the entire region and the entire state. Without this first race here, maybe we wouldn't have over 60 race teams located within 70 miles of where we stand today."

Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory

Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory
(Close Finishes Photo)

The fact the state of North Carolina was saluting the race is somewhat ironic considering it nearly didn't allow the event to happen.

Despite a heavy watering, the dust from Saturday's practice session on the three-quarter-mile clay oval was so heavy that it filtered all the way over to nearby Wilkinson Boulevard, a busy commercial thoroughfare and the main road connecting Charlotte to Gastonia at the time.

The North Carolina State Patrol was alerted and they ordered NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to find a way to quell the dust or the event would have to be shut down. The prospect of having the race cancelled had to send shudders down France's spine as he had put up a $5,000 purse for the event - a huge sum for an auto race at the time.

Perhaps more important than the money, France and his fledgling NASCAR organization were in a power struggle to rule the emerging stock car racing world.

With as many as five different groups vying for control of the sport. France's idea of a Strictly Stock division for 1949 was a new concept after NASCAR sanctioned Modified and Roadster races the previous year. His idea to run street legal cars met with some initial skepticism - especially given Detroit built no new cars were from 1941-1946 and recent models were little more than warmed over pre-World War II designs.

First Charlotte NASCAR 'Strictly Stock' Race Gets North Carolina Historic Marker

(Close Finishes Photo)

Still, France figured the new division would be a hit with the general public, but to make it that way, he would have to do something big, very big. That's where the five grand came in.

France guessed right as cars and drivers from across the country to try for the 33 starting spots in the race on the track located on the outskirts of Charlotte. Now, because of the dust problem, the division's first race was in peril and France's financial ruin were a distinct possibility.

Fortunately, a cure for the dust was found as 50 bags of calcium chloride were graded into the track's surface Saturday afternoon all but eliminating the dust problem and allowing the show to go on.

NASCAR legend Bob Flock proved to be the quickest in qualifying that day storming his Hudson Hornet to a speed of 70.367 miles per hour to win the pole position for the inaugural event. Red Byron was second fastest with Tim Flock, Otis Martin and Fonty Flock completing the Top-5 qualifiers.

France's speculation that the public would turn out to see cars similar to those they were driving race proved to be right on target as a huge crowd - estimated as high as 20,000 - showed up on race day Sunday.

"Not only was this the site of the first NASCAR race, it was also the site of Charlotte's first traffic jam," quipped McCrory.

First Charlotte NASCAR 'Strictly Stock' Race Gets North Carolina Historic Marker

(Close Finishes Photo)

As France suspected, the public could identify with the cars, most of which were driven to the racetrack by their owners. The cars featured few safety improvements other than reinforced wheels and primitive driver restraints. In most cases those were a hastily installed seat belt or worse, a rope.

Finally, the headlights were taped off and the windows rolled down to keep glass breakage to a minimum.

With longtime Charlotte radio announcer Grady Cole calling the action, the fans were treated to a wild event that saw several lead changes and crashes. Included in the latter category was Lee Petty barrel-rolling a borrowed 1946 Buick Roadmaster. The wreck totally destroyed the car and forced Petty, his brother Julie, and Petty's sons - Richard and Maurice - to hitchhike their way back home to Level Cross, NC after the race.

Meanwhile, Glenn Dunnaway from nearby Gastonia motored his way to the front of the pack and took the checkered flag in the 200-lap race in front of Jim Roper, Fonty Flock, Byron and Sam Rice.

After the event, technical inspector Al Crisler declared Dunnaway's car to be illegal because of altered rear springs. That gave the win to Roper, who drove his Lincoln all the way from Halstead, Kansas for the race, and moved Tim Flock into the Top-5. Archie Smith, Sterling Long, Slick Smith, Curtis Turner and Jimmy Thompson completed the Top-10.

Other notables included Buck Baker (11th), female driver Sara Christian (14th), Petty (17th), Jim Paschal (23rd) and Herb Thomas (29th).

Dunnaway, thanks to the disqualification, was credited with 33rd - last place.

Incensed, Dunnaway's car owner, Hubert Westmoreland, threatened to sue France and eventually did filing a lawsuit for $10,000 in a federal court. In December, 1949, Judge John Hayes ruled against Westmoreland and Dunnaway leaving Roper with the $2,000 first prize and a piece of history as the winner of the first-ever NASCAR Strictly Stock race.

The victory was the lone NASCAR career highlight for Roper, who only competed in one other Strictly Stock event finishing 15th and winning $50 in a race at Hillsboro, NC later in 1949.

History also shows that after five races in 1949, France renamed the Strictly Stock division calling it 'Grand National' - a title that stuck until R.J. Reynolds took over title sponsorship of the division in 1972 and rededicated it Winston Cup. Whatever the name, the division proved to be the forerunner of today's modern NASCAR Nextel Cup division.

As for Charlotte Speedway, it would play host to 12 NASCAR Strictly Stock/Grand National races before closing on October 17, 1956. On that day, Buck Baker beat Ralph Moody and Marvin Panch to the finish line in a 100-mile event.

The win was Baker's third at the Charlotte track giving him bragging rights as the speedway's all-time winner over Turner and Thomas, each a two-time victor at the track. Other winners at the track included Dick Passwater, Speedy Thompson, Tim and Fonty Flock.

Today, the original site of the speedway is surrounded by progress with Interstate 85 now running where the main-straight grandstand once stood. A nearby hotel - a Marriott Courtyard on Little Rock Road - is usually cited as the closest landmark to the once historic raceway.

Wednesday's ceremony was small in comparison to the crowds that will stream into Lowes Motor Speedway over the next two weeks or those that will spill on to the streets of Uptown Charlotte for the annual Speed Street/600 Festival.

To many who motor by the plaque erected on Little Rock Road, the event was and will be of little consequence. Without the artistic and financial success of that first race at Charlotte Speedway, however, today's NASCAR might not exist as the inaugural Strictly Stock race put NASCAR and Bill France, Sr. on the map as the leaders in the race to control stock car auto racing.

NASCAR president Mike Helton

Lt. Governor of North Carolina Beverly Perdue
(Close Finishes Photo)

"Little did they know what it would be like today in 2006," said NASCAR's Helton (right) of those who organized and competed in the first Charlotte NASCAR race. "Even with their vision and energy of competition did they know what NASCAR and Charlotte would be like today. I think it's not only important to celebrate this moment, but every moment that has happened since July of 1949. Making a permanent fixture of this location is a great tribute to the efforts of everyone that has made NASCAR grow to what it is today."

As they say, the rest is history, and now there is a marker to prove it.

Story, Photos and Permission To Reprint courtesy of John Close and Close Finishes.

 



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