The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: So Where Did It Start? by John Potts -- Thursday November 18, 2010

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Driven to the Past: So Where Did It Start?

John Potts · Thursday November 18, 2010

 

There’s been some off-and-on discussion on a couple of message boards I
frequent about just where stock car racing got started.

It all began when a very intelligent and history-conscious poster offered
the opinion that it was a myth that stock car racing began with bootleggers and
moonshiners in the southeast after World War II. He pointed out that it existed
in various other parts of the country for some years before that catastrophic
war.

Now, this guy turned out to be one of those people you can’t even agree
with. Not without starting another argument.

When I offered my opinion about it, he pompously declared that there were
several points on which I erred, inferring that I should shut up and let the
real people in the know conduct the discussion.

Oh, well…

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that NASCAR and big time stock car
racing as we know it did in fact originate with those bootleggers and
moonshiners who wanted to know whose car was fastest.

However, I agree that there was a lot of stock car racing going on for quite
a few decades before.

Since automobiles were invented and intended for personal transport, my
contention is that stock car racing is as old as the second car. Or at least,
since the first time two guys with cars met each other.

I pointed out that the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, still the greatest racing
event in this country, began as a stock car race.

The intellectual noted that this happened because of an agreement between
the AAA Contest Board and an automobile manufacturers’ organization.

That agreement may very well have been in place, but the fact remains that
the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed because Carl Fisher and his
car-making friends wanted a place to test and show off the vehicles they were
constructing for the public.

That form of stock car racing evolved into open wheel racing as more and
more modifications were allowed, and eventually into the unbelievably expensive
form known today in Indy Car and Formula One.

Buck Baker in this Cadillac-powered car set a record in the 1952 ‘flying mile’ trials down at Daytona Beach.

(I don’t necessarily want to see big-time open wheel racing go back to stock
car racing, but I wouldn’t be unhappy to see them put the engines back in
front.)

The American Automobile Association was the premier sanctioning body in
those days, and the younger fans among us probably don’t realize that they
remained so until after the 1955 season.

That was the year that cost American open wheel racing such standouts Bill
Vukovich, Manuel Ayulo, Mike Nazaruk, and Jack McGrath, among others. And there was the disastrous crash at Le Mans when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes plowed into the crowd, killing him and more than 80 others, mostly spectators.

These were the days before roll cages, even before roll bars on open
wheelers. There was a saying – “There are old race drivers and there are bold
race drivers. There are very, very few old, bold race drivers.”

The AAA decided it was time to wash their hands of motorsports, and they
bowed out. Only recently have they come back in the form of sponsorship.

Their departure led to the formation of the United States Auto Club, but
that’s an aside.

The AAA ruled their racing with an iron hand. They had a stock car division
well before NASCAR came along. I can remember the 1949 Indy 500 winner, Bill
Holland, being suspended for taking part in an “unsanctioned” event. Somehow, I
got the impression that was a stock car race.

Many drivers did take part in “unsanctioned” events, usually under assumed
names to deter the wrath of AAA.

Also for the younger folks, there was an intense rivalry between AAA and
NASCAR during the formative years of the France dynasty. Bill France Sr. was
unceremoniously escorted from the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at
least once. Supposedly, that’s when he vowed to build a better and faster track
than IMS.

Big Bill even formed his own open wheel “Speedway” division, and kept it
related to the stock cars. They used the chassis and bodies of the late 40s and
early 50s Indianapolis cars, but with stock block engines. The photo
accompanying this column is none other than Buck Baker in a Cadillac-powered
car. Buck set the record for the division in the 1952 “flying mile” trials at
Daytona Beach in this car at 140 mph.

At least one of the guys who drove those cars is still around, I think.
That would be Ralph (Ralphie the Racer) Ligouri, who drove open wheel cars from
the 40s up through the turn of the century, and was also an early NASCAR
stalwart. He’s also probably the only guy left who drove in the ONLY premier
NASCAR division race in Kentucky to date, a 1954 Grand National event at Corbin
Speedway won by Lee Petty in a 1954 Chrysler.

But I digress…sorry for getting off the original subject, but you readers
know how I can ramble when something from the past jumps into my head. I have
to write it down quickly before I forget it again. They say the memory is the
second thing to go. I forget what they say is first.

At any rate, I think we can reliably trace stock car racing back to a day
when two guys met on the road and decided to find out whose self-propelled
machine was fastest.

- – - – - – - –

In keeping with long-standing Frontstretch.com policy, this will be my last
column until we get close to Speedweeks.

We’ll be back, maybe in a different format because I’m beginning to run out
of stories after three years of this. Maybe more of them will creep into my
alleged mind over the winter, but if we come back as Potts’ Shots or some other
name, rest assured we’ll take a journey to the past every so often. And
depending on the editors’ approval, I may have the latitude to comment more
often on present day events.

Until then, thanks in a BIG way to all the readers of this column, and all
those who have commented. Even when you disagree or catch me wrong, I
appreciate it. My daddy used to say that if you didn’t learn from your mistakes
there was no use making them.

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©2000 - 2008 John Potts and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Jacob
11/19/2010 08:04 AM
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John,

As always, I enjoyed reading your column. Some people just want to argue no matter what the topic is.
Have a good winter, and I will be awaiting whatever form your column takes next year.

Don Mei
11/19/2010 10:23 AM
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Good column John. Ive been around motorsports, both motorcycles and cars, since college in the late sixties. I’ve been a rider, a driver, a sponsor, an official, an announcer and a race organizer but never a tuner: I’m a mechanical idiot. The one absolute certainty I have learned from all my experience is that there are NO experts, NONE, simply varying degrees of ignorance. Its something people should remember.

Jacob
11/19/2010 11:25 AM
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Don,

Why don’t you post more often? You are one of the most knowledgable commenters that this site has.
By the way, what book did you take that Teddy Roosevelt quote from? I can’t get it out of my mind and would like to read more of it.

jld1948
11/19/2010 11:49 AM
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Thanks for writing John! I greatly enjoy reading your columns and look forward to your 2011 views!

HankZ
11/19/2010 12:39 PM
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Thanks for being here at the FS, the best column they have.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Don Mei
11/19/2010 05:16 PM
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Jacob,

I really dont have as much time as I would like to carry on here. Im a college professor and I do a fair amount of consulting work, so I’m pretty busy. Still, I should do more. I love the sport and hate to see where its heading.

The quote is from a speech TR gave at The Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910. You can easily find the speech online by doing a search and using Roosevelt, Man in the Arena. Thanks for the kind words.

Surfcaster
11/21/2010 10:39 PM
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Rhode Island’s final oval track gasp was in Lonsdale, next to the Blackstone River on Mendon Road, where the Stop & Shop supermarket is. The track operated from 1947 to 1956, and Sylvia, who has fond memories of watching races there, is one who makes the connection between the Ocean State and the formation of NASCAR.

Built for midget racing, and drawing crowds of more than 30,000, Lonsdale had its first stock car race on Oct. 26, 1947. It was won by Georgia driver Fonty Flock, and race promoter Bill France also came north for the race, which was a huge success. On Dec. 12, a group of 22 men, including Flock and France, met at the Streamline Inn Motel in Daytona, Fla., and formed the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing. “Three or four guys from New England were there, including a couple from Rhode Island,” Sylvia says. “The last surviving member of that group was Rhode Island’s Sammy Packard, who died a couple of years ago.”

Taken from site URL http://www.projo.com/projocars/content/projo_20060804_ftrac.9323f3.html