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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Cadillacs on the Track

As you might expect, I check over a lot of websites and message boards looking for stuff from the past that reminds me of things that have happened. I don’t remember which site or board it was, but last week somebody asked about whether anybody had tried a Cadillac in big-time stock car racing.

Racing what would now be called a “high end” car isn’t new. A Lincoln won the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race in 1949, and I think Frank Mundy drove a Cadillac in that one. Lincolns figured prominently in the early years, and they also had quite a record in the old Carrera Panamericana, or Mexican Road Race. And, of course, the Chrysler 300 teams of the 1950s were dominant in their era. Cadillac, however, has for some reason always been perceived as a pure luxury car.

I recall Harry Hyde telling me in 1965 that a Cadillac dealer in Louisville had offered him a pretty good chunk of change if he could build a Caddy and put it on the pole for the ARCA race at Daytona in February. For some reason, that never came to fruition, but Harry seemed to think that putting one of his Pontiac chassis, which I think had been a Grand National car in 1963, under a Cadillac body wouldn’t be a big problem.

The first Cadillac I saw racing was in a SAFE (Society of Automobile Fellowship and Education, a midwest group eventually merged into NASCAR) new car race in the early ’50s at the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Sportsdrome. Bob Pronger of Chicago, a driver of some talent who also reportedly had a shady past, was campaigning a 1954 Coupe Deville, if I recall correctly, and doing pretty well with it. I don’t know what the cost of a Caddy was in 1954, probably in the $4-6,000 range, but it would have been pretty high for the time. I told Bob Hall, the promoter at the Sportsdrome at the time, that I thought Pronger must have been crazy.

“Yeah,” Bob said, “he’s as crazy as Bernard Baruch or Jay Gould.”

I asked what he meant, and he explained that Pronger was getting $500 to $1,000 per race for putting local Cadillac dealers’ names on the quarterpanels in water colors.

“As long as he takes care of the car, he’s in good shape,” Bob explained.

Well, we all know how tough that is. Sure enough, Pronger showed up with a Louisville-area dealer’s name on the car, and he led that race past the halfway point before pulling off the track. I don’t know how Pronger’s season turned out, but when the question came up recently on that Web site, I mentioned it and then did some research.

Turns out that a driver named Mike Klapak had a Cadillac about the same time, racing in the Midwest Association for Race Cars; John Marcum’s outfit which became the Automobile Racing Club of America in 1964. I don’t know how well Klapak did with that car, but there it is. Don’t let the whitewalls and headlights fool you. In the early days, cars were racing with those tires and just covering the headlights and taillights with tape.

(Mentioning that also reminds me – one of my pet projects in my old age is to compile a complete list of MARC/ARCA results and ASA results – I’m still looking for sources.)

Oh, almost forgot… there’s also a story about Joel Thorne, a wealthy auto and boat racing enthusiast who owned the car which won the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 with George Robson at the wheel. Thorne rented a Cadillac and drove it in an AAA stock car race at the Milwaukee Mile in 1951. That, I believe, would have been when the Mile was still dirt. But I have no information available about what shape the car was in when he took it back.

Anyway, there it is – evidence that America’s premier luxury car in those days did indeed have its time on the track.

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The mention of racing Lincolns brings to mind the story about IndyCar drivers Bill Vukovich and Chuck Stevenson in the Mexican Road Race during the ’50s. As the story goes, Vuky was driving the Lincoln at the time and Stevenson was co-piloting. Stevenson was kibitzing quite a bit, telling one of the greatest drivers of all-time where he had gotten on the brake too soon, gotten on the gas pedal too late, telling him how he could have gotten through each curve a little faster, etc.

The tale reached a climax when Vukovich, trying harder, apparently misjudged a corner and took the Lincoln through a guardrail and over a small cliff. According to the report, as the car was in the air, Vuky calmly took his hands off the steering wheel and said, “OK, you son of a b****, you drive!”

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