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Driven to the Past: So Where Did It Start?

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 IndyCar and Formula 1.

(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 rollcages, 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. Buck Baker 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 longstanding Frontstretch 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’s 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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