Stock car racing turns 70: Richard Petty recalls wild first race in 1949

NASCAR

You can spot the birthplace of stock car racing, but you have to know where to look. And you have to bring a little imagination with you.

On June 19, 1949, the fledgling National Association of Stock Car Racing ran the first event of its new Strictly Stock division. The location was the Charlotte Speedway, a brutally rough-hewn ¾-mile dirt track situated a few miles southwest of sleepy downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. These days that site is perpetually shaken by the roar of engines, but not from race cars. It’s the whine of turbines as commercial planes scrape the air above the site, hammering in and out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport via a runway that’s barely a mile away.

At the intersection of Wilkinson Boulevard and Little Rock Road, the only indication that anything has ever taken place here more significant than businesspeople filling up their rental cars is a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker. The gray sign with the black lettering tells you there was once a racetrack located 200 yards to the west. A glance in that direction looks directly into a fenced-in lot for Allison Used Trucks.

“People complain about the traffic over there when they are trying to get to the airport,” says Richard Petty. “But they should have been with us when we were trying to get to that racetrack in 1949. You might want to check and see, because I’m pretty sure there are probably some folks still stuck down there.”

Petty was not a participant in the event, but a spectator. He was a few weeks shy of his 12th birthday and rode down from Level Cross, North Carolina, with his father, Lee, who was going to attempt to make the field in the very car in which they’d driven to the race. It was a 1948 Buick Roadmaster, chosen by Lee because it was long, lean, heavy and had a massive straight-eight engine that Petty suspected would have no problem muscling its way around the red-dirt bullring.

“This was the first real stock car race, you see,” Richard Petty explains. “Daddy wanted to make sure he was going to be a part of that. And he really wanted to make sure he got a part of that $6,000 purse.”

In the seven decades since, Strictly Stock has been known as Grand National and then a series of corporately sponsored Cups, from Winston to Nextel to Sprint to, currently, Monster Energy. But to get to now, the first green flag had to be waved over the inaugural race featuring genuine off-the-street automobiles.

When Bill France Sr. grabbed the helm of NASCAR, founded only a year and a half earlier, these were the cars that he believed would be the future of the sport, not the sanctioning body’s original racing machines — the smaller, lighter, more tricked-out Modifieds. In February 1949, France held a test stock car event in South Florida and it had gone pretty well. Now, it was time to launch an entire series of stock car races and he knew exactly where he needed to do it.

“There were a lot of sanctioning bodies popping up all over the country and my father wanted to clear up all of that confusion,” Bill France Jr. recalled in 1998, when NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary and made a field trip out to the Charlotte Speedway location. “One of those competing groups was right here in Charlotte, and North Carolina is also where all of the guys were already running stock cars on country roads, so this is the place that made the most sense.”

That competitor was the National Stock Car Racing Association (NSCRA), founded by Bruton Smith. Yes, the same Bruton Smith who owns the current Charlotte Motor Speedway and the lifelong burr beneath the France family’s saddle.

As for those “guys who were already running stock cars on country roads”? Those were the bootleggers, the moonshine runners who had already spent the previous couple of decades perfecting the science of speeding up, lightening up and loading up street cars for races of a different sort. When they weren’t outrunning law enforcement at night, they were running for bragging rights in the hills of the Carolinas and neighboring states.

“NASCAR was smart, man,” Petty recalls. “They held a meeting in Charlotte to let everyone know what the plan was and to vote whether or not to have that first race in Charlotte. Daddy was there. When the word got out that there was that much money, it didn’t take long for everyone to start figuring out how they were going to get there for that race.”

France, a master promoter, starting touting his $6,000 “marathon” 150-mile event. Florida cartoonist Zack Mosely made mention of the race in his nationally syndicated “Smilin’ Jack” comic strip. France even promised a 33-car field to emulate the Indianapolis 500. Filling that field was practically a foregone conclusion, seeing as how anyone with a car was eligible for the event. The only work allowed on the cars would be to tape up the headlights, stick a plate of reinforcing metal between the brakes and wheels to keep tires from flying off, and to yank off the mufflers. You know, to make sure they sounded awesome.

Would-be racers started eyeballing potential race cars and attaining them in every way imaginable. Driver Tim Flock somehow convinced a pair of newlywed neighbors to let him borrow their brand-new Oldsmobile 88. Lee Petty’s Buick Roadmaster also belonged to a neighbor, whom he persuaded to let him borrow on the grounds that the prize money won would more than cover the cost of inconvenience. “I listened in on Daddy’s half of that conversation when he was on the phone with the guy, Gilmer Goode,” Richard remembers, still in awe. “It was the greatest sales job I’ve ever heard.”

On Saturday, June 18, 1949, the first fleet of Strictly Stock cars started rolling into Charlotte to practice, qualify, and hopefully race on Sunday. There was everything from Mercurys and Hudsons to Cadillacs and a Kaiser. The problem was that they all rolled into town very slowly. The fastest stock cars in America, crawling along at single-digit miles per hour on the unprepared two-lane roads of rural Charlotte.

“They had thousands of people show up just to watch practice!” Flock remembered in 1997. “That traffic was so bad and everybody was in it. You’d have race cars next to family cars, all jammed up, and the only reason you knew the difference between the racers and the regular people was that the racers had a number taped on their door. Like, a number made out of duct tape.”

Once they finally got to the racetrack, they discovered that it was even less prepared to handle the crush. The Charlotte Speedway had opened one year earlier, a dirt track plowed out of the weeds and fenced in only with bushes and some slapped-together wooden planks. It had hosted a couple of Modified races. That was it. But France was convinced that it was the perfect location.

The Allison family — still owners of the used truck lot now on the same site — and track constructors Harvey and Pat Charles spent their weekend scrambling around to solve logistical issues that ranged from running out of hot dogs to looky-loos climbing the trees that lined the track to keep from having to buy a ticket. C.C. Allison’s solution? He got out a chainsaw and started cutting those trees down.

When practice finally started, an Old Testament-worthy red-dirt pillar rose so far into the air that it spewed the darkened dust onto the nearby roads. The North Carolina Highway Patrol warned NASCAR and the track operators that if they didn’t solve the dust issue there would be no race. Thankfully, someone located fifty bags of calcium chloride in a nearby storage shed, purchased for an upcoming motorcycle race. It was spread around the track to weigh down the dust and that was enough to pacify the authorities.

Once practice resumed, one car lost control and crashed into the bushes that lined the track. The driver bolted out of the car and started running around in circles, screaming. Witnesses feared that he was on fire. Turns out that one of the bushes he’d plowed through contained a hornet’s nest. Soon he was joined by others also frantically flailing their arms to fend off stinger attacks. It was those witnesses, who’d gotten too close.

Meanwhile, other drivers wandered the grounds, leather helmet in hand, looking for a car to race while moonshiners/owners with extra cars looked for someone who could help them get as many entries into the field as possible to grab as much of that purse as possible.

There was Sara Christian, advertised as “The Country’s Leading Woman Stock Car Driver.” There was Buck Baker, a Charlotte milkman with a wild streak. And there was Jim Roper, who’d driven his Lincoln all the way from Great Bend, Kansas, after reading about the race in “Smilin’ Jack.” No less than six future NASCAR Hall of Famers qualified for the event, including Baker, Flock, Petty and Red Byron, winner of NASCAR’s first Modified championship in ’48 and the eventual winner of the first Strictly Stock title as well.

On that Sunday, in front of 13,000 people (NASCAR initially announced 22,000, but it later relented), the green flag was finally waved over NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock event. The 33 cars spread out over 17 rows funneled into Turn 1, bouncing and smoking and sliding sideways in the dirt. There was so much force produced so quickly that it blasted the layer of calcium chloride off the track surface and the red dust rose into the air like a mushroom cloud.

No one cared. The fans were too busy gasping and the racers were too busy trying to hang on. One by one, ruined race cars started lining up in the weed-infested pits, steaming and broken. The bouncy, pothole-plagued track was breaking suspension parts like they were pretzels. Many drivers dropped out due to exhaustion, not used to the rhythmic pounding that comes with oval racing. Barely half the field made it to the race’s halfway mark. That’s when Lee Petty lost control of his borrowed Buick and barrel-rolled it through the third turn.

“My first thought was, ‘I hope Daddy is OK,'” Richard remembers. “Then my second thought was, ‘Oh, man, how are we gonna get home?'”

A total of three drivers led the race. At least, according to the official box score there were three leaders. Anyone who was there that day will tell you that there were four leaders. They will also tell you that the listed winner of the race wasn’t actually the winner of the race.

The checkered flag was taken by Glenn Dunnaway, a local hero from nearby Gastonia, North Carolina. Dunnaway had gone to the race without a ride, but he hooked up with car owner Hubert Westmoreland, a known moonshine runner. In fact, the morning of the race, the infield was buzzing that Westmoreland had even managed to squeeze in a late-night ‘shine run the day before, in the very ’47 Ford that Dunnaway was driving.

That turned out to be a historic mistake. Dunnaway won the race by a full three laps, but after his initial celebration, he found himself standing around while NASCAR conducted its first Strictly Stock postrace technical inspection. It went on until nearly dark. That’s when NASCAR announced that Dunnaway had been disqualified because his noticeably smooth-riding Ford was equipped with what was called “moonshiner springs,” spread rear springs that limited movement and kept the body pointed straighter through the turns.

NASCAR deemed it an illegal modification. Jim Roper, the cartoon-recruited racer from Kansas, was declared the winner.

“There was a lot of people there that day who thought that was bulls—,” recalled Buck Baker in 1998. “A bunch of the drivers got together and took up a collection for Dunnaway so he didn’t leave with nothing. Hell, I think he ended up getting more from that than he would have if he’d won the damn race.”

As Roper collected his $2,000 and turned west toward Kansas, Westmoreland turned toward the courts. He filed a $10,000 lawsuit. But weeks later the case was thrown out of the North Carolina courts by Judge Johnson J. Hayes. Westmoreland the bootlegger never stood a chance. Why? Hayes was also known as the “Hanging Judge of Moonshiners.”

As far as Bill France was concerned, that lawsuit could have dragged on for months. His new NASCAR had stayed in the national sports pages while the Charlotte Speedway debate and the resulting lawsuit raged on. The court ruling also had legally solidified France’s ability to rule as the sport’s unchallenged dictator, a role that rankled many through the years but no doubt pushed stock car racing to levels that couldn’t have possibly been dreamed up on that steamy, dusty Sunday afternoon off Little Rock Road.

In 1958, after Baker won the 12th and final NASCAR Strictly Stock race run at Charlotte Speedway, the track was closed, swallowed up by the development of nearby Interstate 85. But today, as one’s plane approaches the Charlotte Douglas Airport from the northwest, if you look down just as it crosses over I-85, you can still make out an almost-oval outline, drawn by the industrial frontage roads that now border the lot where the old bullring used to be.

“When we got home that night, all I could think about was the future,” Richard Petty says. “I was wondering where all this might go and I was hoping that maybe the Petty family could go along with it, and we did.”

The kid who became King winks.

“But first we had to go tell Gilmer Goode that we had wrecked his car.”

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