Sixty years ago on June 19, 1949, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) ran its first ‘Strictly Stock’ race. The 200-lap, 150-mile event took place on a three-quarter-mile dirt track called Charlotte Speedway, entirely unrelated to the modern 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Thirty-three cars started the race, which was won in the end by Jim Roper’s Lincoln after Glenn Dunaway’s Ford was disqualified late in the evening when steel wedges were discovered welded to the springs of his car – an old moonshiner’s trick designed to prevent the springs from sagging under the weight of a load of illegal whiskey.
NASCAR was formed near the end of 1947 and formally incorporated in February 1948. The first sanctioned event was the 1948 ‘beach race’ run alongside the Atlantic Ocean just south of Daytona Beach.
First held in 1934, Daytona’s beach races were taken over after World War II by a new promoter named Bill France who immediately became the dominant personality of NASCAR.
In those days there was plenty of competition, most notably from the National Stock Car Racing Association (NSCRA) run by Bruton Smith, who would go on to build the current Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960.
Today Speedway Motorsports, Smith’s publicly traded company, owns and operates eight major NASCAR tracks and is the only serious rival to NASCAR’s track-owning company known as the International Speedway Corporation (ISC). And Smith, now in his eighties, is firmly in charge of his multi-million dollar enterprise.
Back in 1949 as the boss of NSCRA, Smith’s career was just beginning. Early that year he announced that a big-money Strictly Stock NSCRA race would take place in June at the Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta.
Until then American stock car races were run for ‘Modifieds’, mostly 1939 Fords, because few new cars were produced during the early post-war years as the country’s auto manufacturers converted from building tanks and airplanes to cars.
But by 1948 new cars were beginning to pour off Detroit’s production lines, prompting Smith to decide to stage an NSCRA race for new cars – Strictly Stock – rather than the substantially rebuilt and older Modifieds.
Smith’s move kick-started Bill France into announcing a similar Strictly Stock NASCAR race to be run in Charlotte on the same day – June 19, 1949. To lure drivers away from the rival NSCRA race in Atlanta, France put up an unprecedented purse of $5000 with $2000 going to the winner.
Race day was hot, humid and dusty, but a huge crowd estimated at more than 20,000 turned up. Some 13,000 paid between $2.50 and $4 to watch, and the rest were gatecrashers as the state police arrived to control the unruly crowd.
Bob Flock led the first 25 laps in a Hudson only to blow his engine. Bob Blair then took over in a Lincoln he had borrowed for the race. But Blair also suffered an engine failure as the majority of the Strictly Stock cars fell by the wayside with few, if any, properly prepared for racing.
Glenn Dunaway, driving a 1947 Ford loaned to him by a friend, dominated the final 50 laps. Dunaway won easily by three laps from Jim Roper, Fonty Flock and Red Byron. But the $2000 winner’s prize eventually went to Roper after Dunaway’s car was declared illegal.
France staged seven more NASCAR Strictly Stock races in 1949, with Byron taking the championship from Lee Petty and Flock. During the winter France changed the name of his new series from Strictly Stock to Grand National and it stuck for more than a quarter-century before commercial considerations resulted in a switch to Winston Cup and today’s Sprint Cup moniker.
NASCAR has its troubles today but the France family organisation has come a long way from that first Strictly Stock race in a farmer’s field outside Charlotte 60 years ago.