The NASCAR Story (Oct, 1951)
The NASCAR Story
Strictly stock car racing is the hottest sport around right now. And here’s the lowdown on it.
By Tom McCahill
FROM a spark that a couple of years ago was not much bigger than the glimmer in a bridegroom’s eye, the sport of racing unmodified or strictly factory-condition stock cars has blazed forth into a roaring prairie fire of popularity. Hot rods, midgets, jalopies, modified stocks, sports cars and even the big Indianapolis racers are getting a real run for their money from this newest racing craze. During a comparatively short season from April to November, the un-souped-up stock cars attract no fewer than 5,000,000 cash customers to tracks all over the country, making them the Number One crowd-grabbers in automobile racing today.
How come all the excitement? Well, I think the explanation is easy. Real stock car racing, where no souping up is allowed, gives Joe Fan a chance for the first time to see how his own pride and joy stacks up against competitive products. The cars he sees racing around the track are the exact duplicates of the car he owns or can buy at the corner showroom. If Joe has been thinking of buying himself an Amalgamated Fooey Six he may change his mind quickly after seeing the three Amalgamated Fooey Sixes in the race throw right front wheels and roll over. He may even buy a Consolidated Carbunkle Four, a car he never thought much about before, because the Carbunkle Four stayed together and finished in the money.
Yes, I think the reason the absolutely stock car races have caught on to such an extent is because the average spectator has a personal interest in the results. The cars racing are the twin brothers of his own and his friends’ and how these jobs stand up in professional competition under the terrific beating they take, is of vital interest to him. Any normal guy gets a boot out of seeing his own make of car, driven by a top professional, beat the tar out of a rig identical to the one the brother-in-law is always bragging about. Even the boys not keen for speed would like to know if the wheels are liable to fly off the Mouse Tail Eight under stress or if the engine has the nasty habit of breaking its mounts and causing a fire when fuel lines snap. And who isn’t interested in knowing whether his brakes will stand up in a real emergency or how his own car’s body will react to a roll-over: in a rough crack-up, will the car top squash flat, will the sides cave in and tear apart, or what? Nearly all these questions are answered eventually if the fan attends enough stock car races.
Aside from the educational angles of stock car racing, the races themselves are loaded with thrills and the competition among the big-time drivers is as sharp as the blade of a woodsman’s ax. Some of the cars racing, such as Cadillacs and V-8 Chryslers, cost almost $4,000. So the wrong zig when the driver should have zagged can be a pretty costly proposition. The prize money is big and getting bigger all the time (totalling about $500,000 last year) but a bad crash with a four-grand crate often spells temporary bankruptcy for the car owner. In these big-time stock car races all the cars must be new models, meaning from 1950 up, and in some events each car must not only be a current model but its total mileage may not be over 5,000 miles. This stops the sharper who would hunt out a thoroughly loosened current model with 30,000 or more miles on it. As all stock car racing men know, a car with a lot of miles can be rebuilt to beat the spots off a 5,000-mile kid, even though all original factory specifications are maintained to the letter. The big wheel of American stock car racing is a six-foot-six-inch, 220-pound character known as MR. NASCAR. Bill France is his regular handle and this moon-tickler is the president of the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing, NASCAR for short, perhaps the world’s largest single automobile racing organization. During the regular race season from April to November, an average of 25 NASCAR-sanctioned races are held each week from coast to coast. These races are run on everything from quarter-mile and half-mile fairgrounds dirt tracks, to the major circuits such as Langhorne, Pa., the Michigan State Fair Grounds and the asphalt lV4-mile oval at Darlington, S. C, where the annual 500-mile Labor Day classic is the Kentucky Derby of the stock cars.
This young, post-war organization has some unique advantages, such as low entry fees and life and hospital insurance for every driver. In addition to the summer races, NASCAR sponsors a big winter event, known as Speed Week, at Daytona Beach, Fla., [Continued on page 178] where it maintains its headquarters. NASCAR also sanctions events for a so-called “sportsman’s” class, which broken down into understandable English means modified stock of any age, usually pre-war Ford coupes and similar crates, that nave been internally hopped up any amount but with no visible external alteration. These races are fairly popular but the real pay dirt for NASCAR is found in the competition among the showroom-condition stock jobs. These are known in racing circles as Grand National Circuit cars or late-model absolute stock entries.
In any new organization which has mushroomed to such proportions, there are bound to be a few weak links in the daisy chain at first. Keeping the boys honest is one of Bill France’s biggest headaches as there are more ways of surreptitiously altering a stock car than there are hairs on a cat’s back. France and NASCAR’s racing Commissioner, the famous Cannonball Baker, do their unmodified utmost to make sure all entrants get a fair shake. At some of the big races, such as this year’s 250-miler in Detroit, all cars are thoroughly checked from stem to stern before the race to make sure they are absolutely stock. Then they are locked in a compound until race time. At other NASCAR events, the cars are allowed to run and then the first three to finish are immediately impounded for a technical inspection. As exhaustive as these examinations are, it is feared that on more than one occasion some car jockey with a heart full of larceny has walked off with the marbles.
My only major beef is that NASCAR doesn’t put enough teeth into the penalties for cheating. In a race like the 500-mile Darlington clambake where the first prize is over $10,000, any guy who tries to chisel with a secret hop-up is guilty of grand larceny. He is just as much a thief as a stick-up man with a gun. And for my dough he should be treated accordingly. If a basketball player who throws a game for money can be sent away to the pokey for a couple of years, then so should the stock car racing thief. As it is, when cheating is detected, the driver is disqualified for that particular race and forfeits his entry dough. Period. If he had to lose his car, or at least forfeit a $1,000 bond posted by him before race time, he’d think twice before installing commercial valve springs, doping his fuel or porting his valves.
Recently NASCAR passed a ruling that every car must finish in stock condition mechanically. This was to prevent the mechanic with thievery in his veins from bolting the exhaust system so loosely that it comes adrift at the first bump, thereby relieving all exhaust back pressure. A simple trick like this can add as much as five miles an hour to a car’s speed. Another old dodge is to cut the fan belt almost all the way through so that it will break after starting, thereby giving the car an extra ten or more horsepower to play with at high speed. A cooling fan isn’t needed at speeds above 50. Just before my Daytona Beach run with the V-8 Chrysler last winter, a very well-known racing figure came up to me and offered to lend me his razor-sharp jackknife to cut my fan belt. If I had done so the Chrysler I drove might have averaged another two or three miles an hour.
Going on to pleasanter subjects, the results of strictly stock car races have to be analyzed carefully for them to mean anything. For example, winning a big-time NASCAR race doesn’t always mean all it implies. Certain tracks that are duck soup for some fast cars are poison to others. The fact that a Hudson Hornet can tear a big Chrysler V-8 apart on a half-mile track doesn’t mean it can do it on the NASCAR four-mile circuit at Daytona. The short wheelbase entries have a tremendous advantage on short courses that can’t be overcome by the more powerful and faster big cars. Recently, a hardtop Nash Rambler ran away from the field on a quarter-mile Washington track. In my opinion this same Rambler wouldn’t have a prayer of finishing in the money on a longer course.
On the short tracks, big cars like the Caddies and Chryslers burn off right front tires faster than balloons in a needle factory, because of their long wheelbase and the extra strain on tires due to their weight. In the straightaway speed trials at Daytona Beach, the Chrysler and Caddie were more than five miles an hour faster than the next make.
The Hudson Hornet, with expert Marshall Teague driving, has been cleaning up on half-mile and mile tracks all over the country. In a turn, the Hornet is one of America’s finest handling semi-big cars and this, plus a very potent engine, makes it a top performer. Olds 88’s are always in the money thanks to a wildcat engine on a comparatively short wheelbase. The sturdy Plymouth with a 111-inch wheelbase is consistently in the top bracket and the winner, over all makes, of 1950’s largest single purse of $10,500 at Darlington, was Johnnie Mantz driving a Plymouth. The Plymouth’s reliable engine with its terrific endurance, plus the car’s tire-saving lightness, plus better cornering ability because of short wheelbase, account for car’s success.
In nearly every big NASCAR race, the course will favor some cars much more than others. So a win on one track doesn’t mean that this or that barge is the best. The four-mile Daytona Beach track is the tops for separating the men from the boys. Here, high speed in the straightaways and roadability in the extremely rough corners shake the weaklings apart like eggs dropped from an air liner. On this course, doors fly open, trunk lids pop up and exhaust systems rattle loose legitimately. Wheels snap and tires pop like cannon crackers. Marshall Teague won this race in 1951 but even this doesn’t make the Hornet the undisputed champ for the two fastest cars in America, the Chrysler V-8 and the Cadillac, were not in the event. Teague might have taken both these makes anyway but we will have to wait until next winter to find out.
According to Bill France, no car with an automatic transmission has ever placed in the money in a NASCAR event, though many have been entered since the No-Left-Foot Polka became Detroit’s theme song. All top racing Olds and Caddies have synchromesh transmissions. According to Daytona Beach time trials, synchromesh Caddies are more than five miles an hour faster than those with Hydra-Matic. (Thought you’d like to know.) Bill France is the real spark plug of stock car racing in America today. France has the promotional ability of Tex Rickard, the organizational skill of Henry Ford the First and the showmanship of Billy Rose. I have been with France when he was handling a big race at Daytona and spent the day wide-eyed in wonderment that one man could handle so many details. At a big race like that, he scoots back and forth in his station wagon checking on everything. Through two-way radio in his car, he helps to break up traffic jams, rescue some dope who stalled his jalopy in the sand with the ocean about to take over, or calls the ambulance for a brand-new mother who thought she’d see the race before the stork arrived.
You don’t have to own a corner of the First National Bank to race with NASCAR. Ten dollars a year dues puts you right on the mailing list and eligible for all NASCAR events. If you can’t afford the big factory stock car races you can start out in the modified or sportsman class, which costs a lot less to buy and maintain, especially if you are mechanically minded. NASCAR is the organization for the guy who wants to race for big cash prizes without having to make a big initial investment. As for the spectators, I hope the stock car prairie fire spreads and spreads and that new car buyers will be influenced by the facts, good and bad, revealed about American -automobiles participating in these events. •