NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Bill Claren on the Early Days of NASCAR, the Bootlegger Myth & the Current State of the Sport

On June 13, 1954, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (then known as the Grand National Series) held its first and only event at the Linden Airport in Linden, New Jersey. This event marked the first time NASCAR ever raced on a road course that was not on the Daytona Beach. The race received further notoriety last season, as it was the last time a foreign car manufacturer (Jaguar driven by Al Keller) went to victory lane in the sport until Kyle Busch won at Atlanta driving a Toyota in the spring of 2008. In fact, there were 13 Jaguars entered at Linden and one of them was driven by Bill Claren, who drove his No. 2 XK-21 to a fourth place finish that day, one spot behind Buck Baker while beating names such as Herb Thomas and Lee Petty.

Claren’s participation in the Linden race was only one small part of his career. He was responsible for creating NASCAR’s first ever sports car division in 1955 which was then called NASCAR-SCODA. In the 1970s he founded the American Formula Ford Association, where several IndyCar greats began their careers. The eighty-one year old continues to stay involved by writing about the sport he used to participate in. Our own Tony Lumbis caught up with Claren at the track during the Pocono 500 weekend where one of the sport’s early participants spoke about the first years of NASCAR, how some drivers raced in rental cars, why most of the southern bootlegger stories are just a myth and what he thinks about the series today.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: Describe your career leading up to the race at Linden Airport. How did you become involved with NASCAR?

Bill Claren: When I was a little kid, back before World War II, my daddy would take me to the races at a place called Nutley Velodrome. It was a high-banked bicycle track where the midgets ran at about five to six seconds a lap if you could believe it. It was a super fast, fantastic show. So I said one day, “I’m going to do that after I get out of high school pop.” He patted me on the back and he said “sure.” Sure enough, after I got out of high school, I went to a local track out in Paterson, N.J. I lived in a place called Montclair, N.J, so it wasn’t all that far away. I got hooked up with a gentleman whose name was “Pappy” Hough who had five racecars. I was what was referred to as a “stooge,” and we used to pick up parts. I got paid working for Pappy for about three or four months. I got to ride in his cars, warming them up down in Richmond, Va.

Then I decided to go out and try to get a ride in someone else’s racecar. I told people that I used to race cars down south. It was stretching the truth a little, but it wasn’t a lie. So, I managed to pick up rides and I started racing midgets in 1947. I raced full time through 1949. By 1950, stock cars put midgets for the most part, out of business in the northeast. So I raced a few midget races between 1950 and 1954. Late in 1953, somebody asked me to drive their sports car at Wall Stadium, which is not too far from where I lived. They heard about my reputation and trusted me. I said, this is fun, I think I’ll get into this. So I purchased a Jaguar and I decided to become a professional sports car racer. We had run oval tracks with those cars, which was not the common thing. In 1954, I knew enough about midget racing and we raced at many of the same tracks that we raced the midgets on. I knew how to set the car up and my mechanic knew how to set them up and we managed to finish either first or second in almost every race. It was maybe an 11 or 12 race series and I managed to come out on top and win the championship. I was awarded the Paul Whiteman trophy. I had the pleasure of being in Mr. Whiteman’s company when he took me to New York. It was quite an interesting deal and I had quite a bit of fun.

In 1954, Ed Otto, who was vice-president of NASCAR at the time, asked me to get my club to come over and run with the NASCAR Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup Series). We put about 25 sports cars on the track with almost the same number of NASCAR cars and we managed to take the first-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place positions. In that race, I actually finished fourth. Some of the record books will show me as sixth, but that was an error that never got corrected. The next year, in 1955, SCODA – Sports Car Owners and Drivers Association – became a division of NASCAR.

Lumbis: Did you race the same Jaguar at Linden that you drove in the Sports Car races?

Claren: Yes, Jaguar XK-120. I paid $900 for the car. Actually a sports car guy happened to be a big deal at the bank. He had lent me his car the year before just to race. I told him I needed the money to buy this car to race. He said tell them that I told you to give you the loan.

When I walked into the office and gave them my final check, I said, “I want you to know that you have been the proud owner of a championship racecar.” The guy almost crapped on the floor. It was a hell of a $900 spent, I tell you that. I raced that car for several years. For a while I was racing out of the same garage as Mark Donahue and a few other guys who were real hot shots in SCCA. We later bought a Healey Chevy, which was an Austin-Healey with a 327 Chevy engine in it.

Lumbis: Some fans may not realize that back in those days, you could take a car directly off the streets and race it in a NASCAR sanctioned event.

Claren: I’ll tell you about the street cars. NASCAR drivers ran late models or practically new cars that looked like the Mercurys or the Oldsmobiles or the Hudsons. We had a few gentlemen, who, well, I can’t describe them as being totally dishonest, but they were a little on the off the law side. They would go to a national rent-a-car like a Hertz and they would rent the car and run it in the race. In those days, you did not have to have those big roll cages inside of the cars. A lot of the guys did, but they allowed guys to bring cars in right off the showroom floor and race. Then they would tell the rental car companies some story like they were in the parking lot and went in a store to shop and someone hit the car and they have no idea what happened. After a while, the companies found out what was going on and were careful as to whom they rented their cars to.

Lumbis: You never had the problem, did you?

Claren: I had no problems. I always owned the cars I raced, except for the midgets. Then later on, my son drove a midget and a Formula Ford. In 1976 I organized a club called the American Formula Ford Association – AFFA. That club lasted until about 1984 and we ran all over the U.S. and Canada. We were pre-race shows for USAC and NASCAR as well as the Formula 1 races up in Canada. They were some fantastic associations. Nine of my AFFA drivers were on the grid at one Indy race a few years after we got rid of that club. Michael Andretti, Scott Goodyear, Chip Robinson, Chip Ganassi and a whole slew of guys got their first pro ride in that American Formula Ford series. That was a great series, probably the best racing I ever seen.

Lumbis: What happened to the AFFA series?

Claren: It still exists, but primarily on an amateur basis. It was amateur before we went in and made it a pro series.

Lumbis: Were you involved with any more Grand National Races?

Claren: Yes. I was in Rhode Island at one point and Bill France called me up and said I need you. I asked him where and he said Michigan and I thought, I don’t want to go to Michigan from Rhode Island. I told him that I’d have to get a deal, so I figured, I’ll give him a high price. You have to remember that this was 1955 or 1956. I said I want $300, which in those days, was equal to $3,000 today. So I figured, he wouldn’t take it. There was dead silence for about half a minute. He said, OK, go all the way out to Michigan. So I did and when I went into the turn, I saw a wheel go up and hit the wall. Then all of a sudden, my car starts to slide up to the right. Here it was my wheel. I had broken an axle but I had $300 made. So we didn’t race the car and they fixed the axle the next day. He still paid me the money. Bill France Sr. was a great guy. He was a man of his word.

Lumbis: You had a chance to meet Bill Sr. personally?

Claren: Sure, I knew Bill. We ran a division for NASCAR that started in 1954. Bill was very much involved. But the man who really put NASCAR on the map was a man from Union, N.J. by the name of Ed Otto, who I mentioned earlier. He was largely responsible for bringing NASCAR to tracks in the northeast. So while everybody thinks NASCAR is a southern organization, the money really came in from the north and the midwest. There were more tracks in the north and west than there were in the south back in the ’50s. Most people think there were bootleggers running it and that’s a bunch of crap. That’s a fairy tale. A couple of the guys were rumrunners, yeah, but very few. Actually, the state that produced the most number of drivers is California.

Lumbis: Why do you think the story stuck about the bootleggers?

Claren: Well, it’s interesting and people think they’re going to go out and watch a bunch of bootleggers race. Well, yeah, they all used to race themselves, but only a few of them got into professional racing. The myth stuck and it’s a good myth. The majority of the guys came from elsewhere though, outside of the south.

Lumbis: You were basically involved with the beginning of NASCAR.

Claren: Yep, Otto really got me involved, but in the 1960s I thought, this NASCAR is not going to go anywhere. So I backed out of a NASCAR deal and we went independent. Obviously I was a little wrong. But for several years we paid our dues to NASCAR.

Lumbis: What do you think about the state of the sport today? Its come a long way and obviously looks a lot different.

Claren: Well, I think it’s a lot more commercialized. It lacks the real personal feelings that we had years ago and the camaraderie. It’s a totally different world and it’s a big business now. It’s exciting to watch up to a point, but it’s having problems. I have been writing for about the past two or three years that NASCAR should revert back to the double-file restarts. This inside line of slow cars is killing a lot of competition. So I think the racing is going to improve based on that. Plus, there are a lot of other things NASCAR can do to make it exciting. Whether they will or not remains a question. At least they have taken a couple of my suggestions and implemented them. Not that I’m the only one who has made them, but I’ve been doing it for quite some time now.

Lumbis: What other things would you like to see changed in the near future?

Claren: I think they can develop a system where qualifying can be a money situation for a drivers, owners and crews, and they can earn points. They could also structure these long races where they could have points awarded at the halfway point. I know it sounds extreme and they kind of laugh at me, but they laughed at me when I said there should be double-file restarts. So there are a lot of things that can be made better. They are starting to move though. There are a lot of problems with the cars they are racing. The safety factor is great, they built a fantastically safe car and that’s what they wanted to do, they achieved it. Now they need to get some more handling back into the car and they can do that too.

Lumbis: One of the big problems I see with this car is that there is no way to tell the difference between the manufacturers.

Claren: Yeah, they are not factory built cars anymore. What would be ideal is if we went back and got them off the show room floor, put roll cages into them. It would slow them down considerably, but it would be interesting (laughs).

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