Okay, I got forced into this one by one of Ren Jonsin’s trivia questions this week…
It was Wednesday’s question about the pro football team’s stadium where Tom Pistone, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, and Glen Wood won NASCAR races. The answer, of course, was Soldier Field, now home of the Chicago Bears, so technically that is correct. However, Da Bears didn’t start playing their season schedule at Soldier Field until 1971, and the last nationally-sanctioned stock car race there was a USAC event won by Norm Nelson on August 12, 1967.
The track was listed as a half mile, but I suspect it was closer to a 3/8ths. Tommy Thompson (not our writer, the driver from Louisville in NASCAR’s early days) once told me it was a “big three-eighths.” Looking at the accompanying photograph, it was well off the football field. If I remember correctly from my high school days, a true measured quarter-mile (1320 feet) running track would just touch the corners of the end zones, or be very, very close. That photo also shows that they had crowds which would have made any promoter’s mouth water—remember, the place held 100,000 in those days.
For the record, Pistone (1956), Turner (1956), and Wood (1957) won convertible races. The only Grand National race was won by Fireball in 1956. Oh yeah, Fred Lorenzen won a MARC (the forerunner of ARCA) race there in 1958. AAA stocks and midgets, later sanctioned by USAC, also ran on that track.
For proof that they ran as late as 1967, I’m including a photo of Norm Nelson (1), Sal Tovella (4), and Don White (2) taken at Soldier Field. I don’t know which race it was, but Tovella and White are obviously driving Dodge Chargers from 1966 or 1967. Don’t know who is in the Dodge Coronet on the outside of Nelson, but in those days, judging from the color it could have been Al Unser.
Oh well, back to the story…
Andy Granatelli and his Hurricane Racing Association ran regular weekly events at Soldier Field up into the 60s, and that’s where the infamous fake accident story comes in. It’s well chronicled in Andy’s book, “They Call Me Mr. 500,” which I read many years ago but I don’t have it on hand anymore. We’re working from memory here.
This was a promotional stunt which, I think, doubled the size of their crowd for the next week. It was all staged, of course, part of Andy’s outside the box thinking. He even paid an extra $50 if a driver rolled one over.
On this particular night, the alleged accident occurred right in front of the crowd (obviously, the late Bob Harmon also learned from Andy Granatelli). The ambulance rolls onto the track, the driver is extricated from the vehicle, placed on a gurney, and then put in the ambulance, presumably for transport to the nearest hospital. However, the attendant doesn’t secure the rear doors to the ambulance, and when it pulls away from the scene, the gurney rolls out and starts rolling down the track by itself.
Meanwhile, the field has been given the green flag in anticipation of the ambulance being off the track by the next lap, and they come roaring out of the turn to see this gurney rolling down the straightaway in front of them. Cars swerve to the left and right, barely missing the gurney. My memory is a little hazy from that point—either the ambulance crew retrieved it, or somebody ran over it.
The drivers were in on the caper, of course, and by the time the gurney rolled out of the ambulance, there was a mannequin on it instead of the driver. I’m not sure how many heart attacks there were in the crowd before they managed to explain what had really happened, but I am sure that no promoter since Andy Granatelli has had the cojones to try that since then.
I’ve personally tried to talk a bunch of them into doing it.
No takers. Not even Bob Harmon.
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