NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Taking 1 for the Team

During Friday night’s NXS race at Daytona, the ugly specter of team orders once again reared its ugly head. It was no great surprise to anyone that the trio of Kaulig Racing teammates worked well together to dominate much of the race, often in positions one, two and three. Late in the race as the pay window prepared to squeak open, it still appeared the three Kaulig drivers were prepared to sweep the top three spots. 

AJ Allmendinger held the top spot when the white flag flew. Ross Chastain appeared to have second solidly in hand, up until the third turn of the final lap. In a “no guts, no glory” move, Chastain attempted to pass his teammate Allmendinger. The two ran out of real estate. Allmendinger went hard into the outside wall and wound up finishing 15th. Chastain wound up sixth. The wreck allowed the third Kaulig teammate, Justin Haley, to take the checkers and the big trophy. For any young racer out there aspiring to one day hit the big leagues, this is not the sort of move that makes a team owner have warm and fuzzy thoughts about you, nor does it cause him to dig through his desk searching for a pen to have you sign a contract extension. 

For the most part these days, the issue of team orders has become self-policing. Almost every Cup car out there is basically a rolling billboard. They are festooned with the corporate logos of various business entities that supply that team with cubic yards of cash in exchange for that signage and subsequent exposure. 

When the race car they sponsor takes a win, they are duly overjoyed and hopeful that there will be a resultant rise in their sales sufficient to justify the NASCAR marketing expenditure. While they may note that a teammate to the driver they sponsor won the next race, they really don’t give a rat’s ass. (Unless they are associate sponsors of that team as well.) Sponsorships are getting hard to come by, particularly the ones that can actually pay the bills. No matter how good his intentions or how altruistic the move might have been, it would be a foolish driver who gave up a potential win to aid his teammate in the increasingly “what have you done for me lately?” world of Cup racing. 

Back in the day, the car manufacturers, particularly Ford and Mopar in the golden era that stretched from the early ’60s to the first couple years of the ’70s, funded most teams. As a factory supported driver, you were expected to do what you could to ensure a driver at the wheel of your brand of car won and that the guys wheeling the others makes did not. If at all possible, you were to make sure the drivers of those other makes were sufficiently humiliated in how poorly they finished. But then the government got into the car design game and demanded cars become safer, less polluting and got better fuel mileage. Thus with a whimper, not a bang, ended the golden age of the muscle car, though I have to admit as of late Ford and Chevy have been building some mighty hot cars that would in fact suck the doors off one of my beloved Mach Ones or Road Runners. Of course, back in the days of yore when I drove my Cobra Jets, Six Packs or Stage Buicks, you could have bought a very nice shore house for less than you’d pay for a Hellcat Challenger. 

In other forms of motorsports, particularly Formula 1, team orders could be pretty blatant. The big teams, the ones that won the vast majority of the races, had a primary driver and a secondary driver. The secondary driver was expected to yield place to the primary driver when necessary to help that primary driver win races or championships if need be. It was pretty obvious. In some instances the secondary driver would slow dramatically and wave his teammate by. 

F1 fans by and large hated team orders. They’d paid good money to see a race, not a parade. So F1 outlawed team orders. But the fact remained that the driver alone knew if he’d blown a corner racing hard or decided to yield to his teammate. Often times later in the season, once that constructor and primary driver had clinched a championship, the long-suffering secondary driver would have his primary driver ease up and let him by for a race win as repayment for a debt owed. That’s why I gave up on F1 racing for a decade. (Well, that and the insanely early start times for some F1 events here in the States.) 

Other forms of auto racing also had team orders. Perhaps the most infamous example of team orders gone bad was the 1966 24 hours of LeMans. The Ford squad and their GT40s had done what they’d set out to do, humiliate Ferrari. With team cars running 1-2-3, Ken Miles was ordered to slow to allow for a nice photo of the trio of GT40s crossing the line in the same shot. But after the race it was decided that since the car Miles drove had started the race several feet further up the grid than the GT40 piloted by Bruce McLaren, McLaren’s car had actually completed more distance and was the winner. We’re talking a difference of feet, if not inches here. Those of you who have seen Ford Versus Ferrari know that story doesn’t have a happy ending. (And if you haven’t seen the film, you should. It’s excellent.) 

But as outrageous as the ‘66 running of the 24-hour classic was, it is easily eclipsed as the worst example of team orders gone terribly awry. That dubious honor goes to a NASCAR event. Most NASCAR fans have a limited knowledge of NASCAR history back in “the Old Days” way back before Jeff Gordon started competing in the Cup series full-time in 1993. (Conveniently enough, Gordon’s first Cup start occurred in the 1992 Atlanta series finale, the same race that was Richard Petty’s last Cup start.) Most, if not all the principals in NASCAR on that awful day have gone to whatever reward awaited them, so we can discuss what happened openly.

Mr. Peabody, set the way back machine to Oct. 23, 1956. Yes, that’s a long long time ago, one of the few stories I’ll tell that actually predates my arrival on this grand blue marble we all call home. 

If the events of that day had transpired at a later date, doubtless there would have been disqualification, suspensions, huge fines, and possibly even criminal charges. 

But first a little background is in order. (Yes, I’m citing history a lot this summer. Summer is almost gone. Relax.) It’s just as a fellow ages it’s like he’s on a cross-country trip. It’s more comfortable to look in the rear view mirror than to strain one’s eyes looking for the exit sign an unknown distance ahead. 

Anyway, NASCAR’s first super team wasn’t Penske’s or even Rick Hendrick’s outfit. That honor belonged to a scoundrel by the name of Carl Kiekhaefer. Old Carl was a wealthy man by any standards. He’d made his fortune selling Mercury Marine engines. That of course led to some confusion. Kiekhaefer’s teams raced immense white Chrysler 300-series cars, not the Ford Motor Company’s mid-level brand Fords assembled with lock-washers. 

Kiekhaefer burst into the sport with modest goals. He expected his teams to win every race they entered, and thus inevitably win championships. There were weeks that Carl had up to six cars competing at a time. (Back in that era, NASCAR often held races at two or more racetracks on the same day, some on the east coast and others on the west.) 

While ambitious, well-funded and determined, Kiekhaefer had skipped some details. He arrived at that year’s Daytona beach and road course with two immaculately-prepared white Chrysler 300B cars, but nobody signed to drive them. (For the record, Carl turned heads arriving at Daytona hauling his cars in the back of semi-trucks converted into rolling workshops that predated the current style NASCAR haulers by a couple generations.) Kiekhaefer wasn’t born into a racing family like the Pettys or the Woods, but he made quite a splash. He asked Bill France Sr. who the best driver in the sport was, planning to hire him. France told him Tim Flock was the best driver out there. Carl immediately signed Flock on. To entice the former champion, Carl offered him a salary of $40,000 annually, a then-unheard of sum. For comparison’s sake, Lee Petty won the 1954 Cup title, along with seven races, and he pocketed a total of just over $21,000. 

As part of his efforts to win every race, Kiekhaefer’s team bought a meteorologist to every race to document temperature and humidity, track surface temps, etc., looking for ways to make the big white cars faster. Those cars certainly caused a stir. Fitted with early Chrysler Hemi engines, high compression heads, dual four-barrel carbs and solid lifter cams, they were among the most powerful cars sold in America and some of the most costly. NASCAR fans of that era typically drove Chevys, Fords and Plymouths, not Chryslers.  

While the salaries were outstanding, Carl was a tough man to work for. In some ways he was quite strange. Kiekhaefer forbid his drivers from drinking or smoking on race days. Nor were they to have sex with their spouses (or anyone else I presume) the night before a race. And Carl had spies peeking in motel room windows to ensure his rules were followed. 

To a degree, the plan worked. Flock won 18 races that first season and claimed that year’s title. But Flock grew weary of Kiekhaefer and his bizarre rules. In April of 1956, Flock quit the team. The fact he was standing in victory lane at North Wilkesboro when he resigned made things that much stranger. Undeterred, Kiekhaefer offered the seat to Buck Baker. Baker apparently fell for Carl’s sweet talk, which is said to have been along the lines of, “If you’re as big a son of a bitch as everyone says you are, I’m curious. Would you like to drive for me?” Of course, Baker had 40,000 more reasons to take the job. Around the same time, Carl hired Herb Thomas to drive one of his cars as well. 

The 1956 season started out tremendously. The team won 21 of the first 25 races. But like Flock before him, Thomas soon tired of Carl’s bizarre rules and behavior. He too quit the team and began fielding a ’56 Chevy he owned himself. Kiekhaefer was said to be enraged. 

Against all odds, Thomas actually took the points lead from Baker at Langhorne in late September of 1956, There were supposed to be four races left on the Cup schedule after Langhorne, but all of a sudden there were five. Fearing that Baker could lose the title, Kiekhaefer went ahead and bought the Cleveland County Showgrounds race track outside of Shelby, N.C. lock stock and barrel. He quickly got NASCAR to add a race to his new racetrack at the end of the season. Yeah, getting a Cup date was a bit easier back then. 

All was going according to Carl’s plans in that race. Baker, SOB or otherwise, was leading the race. But Thomas had worked his way up to third. One car remained between Thomas and Baker. At the wheel was Speedy Thompson. Cue up the shark music. Thompson was driving another one of Kiekhaefer’s white Chryslers. And the team orders that night were to take out Thomas so he couldn’t win the race or the championship. It’s a lot harder to choreograph a Hollywood film-style wreck than one during a race. My guess is that Thompson meant to disable Thomas’s car so he couldn’t finish the race, not to go ahead and hurt him. But Thompson put Thomas into and in fact partially through the wall. Four more drivers then ran into Thomas’s stricken Chevy, including Lee Petty. Thomas was taken from the car in a coma with a badly fractured skull, head lacerations, internal injuries and a ruptured ear drum. While he would ultimately survive his injuries, Thomas’s racing career was for all intents and purposes over. 

Baker was so upset by the on-track mugging of his friend Thomas he initially tried to decline the championship. I’ve discussed this incident many times over the years with people who were there. None of them has ever indicated they felt Baker was part of the plot to end Thomas’s race with a wreck. But none of them thought that Thompson’s hitting Thomas was accidental. Baker eventually did accept the championship, but he said doing so gave him no joy. 

Fans at the time were enraged by the skullduggery at Shelby, and that wasn’t selling any of Carl’s boat engines. In fact, it was costing him marine sales. At the end of 1956, Kiekhaefer packed up his circus and left NASCAR racing in his rear view mirror.  

A couple of closing notes. I consider this part of the season to be the best string of races of the year. The Southern 500 at Darlington (as opposed to at Fontana or Atlanta) has always been my favorite race of the year. To an extent, it is true of all racetracks, but nowhere is it more certain than at Darlington that a driver has to beat the racetrack, not just other drivers, to score a win. After the Southern 500, the circuit hits the .75-mile oval at Richmond, the perfect blend of a short track and a speedway. And to wind up the first round of the playoffs, the circuit his an annual fan favorite, the Night Race at Bristol. To repeat myself, there’s nothing so wrong with the new NASCAR it can’t be fixed with old racetracks. 

In perhaps the ultimate irony, Sunday’s IndyCar race was delayed when a track cleaning vehicle oiled down the track. Whoops. 

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

9 comments

  1. Avatar

    I had read something about Carl Kiekhaefer and how he did things that were years ahead of everyone else and that his cars dominated the races they were ran. I never had heard about the his strange policies or the in race shenanigans nor the specific incident involving Carl Thomas. As Paul Harvey would say… “now I know the rest of the story”. As always thanks for the history lesson Matt. It was a good read.

    I also echo your sentiments on the “Ford Vs Ferrari” movie. It might be one of the best motorsports movies I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen most of the more notable ones. I could guarantee that anyone that comes to this website would enjoy it.

  2. Avatar

    Great article with a good history lesson. Thanks.

  3. Avatar

    A great story if it is not embellished. I wondered why those Mercury Marine cars faded away.

    I always said that intentionally wrecking another driver is attempted murder, i.e. Carl Edwards/Brad K. And NASCAR can see it coming and does nothing.

    Ford v Ferrari, like all racing movies is not that great. The characters are way overplayed. My eyeballs wanted to roll out of their sockets. Documentaries are the way to make a racing movie.

    • Avatar

      Since you apparently knew them both (otherwise how would you know they were overplayed), what were they really like?

    • Avatar

      Tom, I call BS on your 2nd paragraph. If I remember correctly, you are referring to the Talladega race where Carl ended up in the catchfence. Attempted murder? Really? Carl came down to block and Brad held his line. Carl ended up spinning and partially airborne, but he was on his way down until he collided with Newmans car as he was coming to the finish. That is what put him in the catchfence. Either your memory is bad or you have an ax to grind with Kes. Either way thats a little overboard with the hyperbole.