Origins, Part 4 – ‘Big Bill’ Tackles Bruton, NSCRA
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part RacinToday series on the earliest days of stock car racing.)
If the initial stock car racing epidemic had a specific carrier in the 1930s, it was the prototypical promoter. This was the type who usually wore a suit jacket and a fedora to signify success at the risky task of selling tickets in rented facilities and recognizing the latest thing – from wing walking to air races, quarter midget racing for smaller Indy-type cars and motorcycle racing.
When stock car racing first came along, in the eyes of many promoters it was just another cheap thrill show for a gullible public. Some promoters saw bigger things in it such as Bill France, who studiously avoided suit jackets and eventually began to wear a cap instead of a fedora after taking over promotion of races on the Beach & Road Course in Daytona in 1938.
By 1940, production cars in America were big, loud, fast, sturdy and numerous, a promoter’s dream. An explosion of races in all regions of the countries resulted in the AAA taking up the task of declaring a national stock car champion by choosing among the winners of the country’s biggest races, usually those over 100 miles in length.
After World War II, France and NASCAR, which he incorporated in the early months of 1948, were hardly alone when it came to running stock car races. The popularity of racing production cars was blossoming across the country.
Virtuoso promoter Ed Otto, an eventual partner of France, began promoting stock cars in the 1940’s in Avon, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., and other stops with the New England Stock Car Racing Association. Bill Barkheimer, another future France partner, found success in promoting events up and down the West Coast.
Perhaps the best evidence of stock car racing’s universal appeal was the presence of an African-American circuit in Georgia in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Atlanta Stock Car Club circuit was formed by blacks who were barred from racing with whites or who suffered racism even if they were able to race with white drivers, circumstances that pervaded many series and race tracks.
Johnny Marcum, who first got to know France when the two raced against each other in stock cars at the Ft. Wayne mile oval in the late 1930’s, promoted the Midwest Association for Racing Cars, also known as the MARC, shortly after the war from his base in Ohio. It later became what is now called ARCA and continues to sanction stock car races on all manner of tracks.
A variety of promoters helped stoke the fires that eventually made the white yeoman South the sport’s hottest crucible. For three years, the National Stock Car Racing Association, organized by a group of drivers and promoters, went head-to-head with NASCAR in the Southeast, starting in 1948. Both organizations fought for the best dates, the best drivers and the most popular tracks. The NSCRA’s make-up included promoters such as Bruton Smith of Concord, N.C., Alf Knight in Chattanooga and Sam Nunis in Atlanta. Due to internal squabbles over dates and drivers, who formed the majority of the membership, the NSCRA eventually folded. A driving force behind the group and eventual majority owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., Smith missed the break-up as a result of being drafted by the U.S. military.
“Sometimes too many people in charge can only hurt you,” James Kelly, a promoter in North Carolina, told Eddie Samples of the Pioneer Pages. “I know twice we had races scheduled under the NSCRA, once in 1949 on September 10 at the Concord track, only to find out those drivers went to Asheville. Another time, on March 26, 1950, we had a big event at the Florence, South Carolina track but the NSCRA drivers ended up in Atlanta. We just had too many conflicts.”
Under the one man, one vote system employed by France, who held 40 percent of the NASCAR ownership along with three partners who each held 20 percent, conflicts within the organization were kept to a minimum. But outside the organization was a different story. France regularly scheduled races opposite Smith’s Concord track at the old Charlotte Speedway facility. He eventually got the Lakewood mile controlled by Nunis in Atlanta, the biggest and most popular on the NSCRA schedule, to switch to a NASCAR sanction. Once the NSCRA broke up in 1951, many of the drivers became better known for their NASCAR exploits, such as Jack Smith, Gober Sosebee, Billy Carden, Ed Samples and Buddy Shuman. The latter two were the NSCRA champions during its three complete seasons.
When the NSCRA folded, that left an opening for Atlanta-based John Caveness of Southern Racing Enterprises. But as a promoter, he was not a match for France and his partners: New England race organizer Bill Tuthill, Otto and attorney Louis Ossinsky. Former NSCRA promoter Weyman Milam, a founding member of the organization, began to promote weekly races at the quarter-mile Peach Bowl in Atlanta under the NASCAR banner, for example, sustaining a steady supply of cars and drivers for the sanctioning body as well as highly popular events. Before the shift by teams to the Spartanburg, S.C. and Charlotte areas after the Charlotte Motor Speedway was built, Atlanta was the de facto headquarters for NASCAR participants. In 1958, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts would become the first driver to win two 500-mile races in one season aboard a car built down the street from the Peach Bowl and entered by Frank Strickland.
In the 1940’s, the methods used by all promoters to conduct races on ovals were virtually universal and remain essentially unchanged. France’s NASCAR organization was distinguished by two things: his vision for a bona fide national championship in place of a regional organization and his leadership in getting roughhewn, rambunctious and often defiant drivers and team owners to participate in that vision. France’s first try at a sanctioning body in 1947 was essentially a maneuver while sanctioning events under the NSCRA banner. But when his champion, Fonty Flock, was generally ignored, France adopted a different approach by holding the now famous meetings at the Streamline Hotel in December of 1947 which resulted in the formation of NASCAR.
In that meeting, France made the oft-quoted statement about the future, which included a sidelong and negative view of the NSCRA. Stock car racing “can go the same way as Big Car racing,” he said, referring to Indy cars. “I believe stock car racing can become a nationally recognized sport by having a National Point Standing. Stock car racing as we’ve been running it is not, in my opinion, the answer.”
After splitting with the NSCRA, France frequently used a divide and conquer strategy, such as signing West Coast promoter Bill Barkheimer into the NASCAR fold – or making racing impresario Otto a partner and then putting him in charge of events in the Northeast and Midwest. It was Otto who brought NASCAR to Soldier Field in Chicago and to Canada. Otto, who was not above blowing up caskets with dynamite or using buxom women in pre-race stunts to sell tickets, organized the race in Linden, N.J. on a road circuit won by a Jaguar in 1954.
Under France’s direct guidance NASCAR became the Southeast’s most effective sanctioning body in part because of its base in Daytona Beach. The popular and dramatic beach races for the Modifieds and the Grand Nationals, the name given to the Strictly Stock category in 1950, always gave France an ace in the hole when it came to finances, attracting drivers to his series and fans to his races. The Southern 500 at Darlington was also an ace for France, who had to hustle to get a co-sanction for the event in its first year of 1950 in an effort to beat a 500-mile race planned by Nunis in Atlanta. While Darlington’s status as the only high-banked paved superspeedway in the Southeast was crucial to NASCAR’s command of the Southeast, most of the financial benefits for that Labor Day race went elsewhere.
As for week-long events in Daytona each February, veteran journalist Chris Economaki tells the story of dropping by the bungalow of Bill and wife Anne France to collect his fee for working as the announcer at the beach races. He glanced inside the screen door and saw the two Frances sitting on the floor counting a large pile of money.
Using the popularity of Daytona and Darlington, France scheduled events on the many dirt ovals that dotted the landscape of nearby Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, the four states where almost 65 percent of events were held in the first decade of NASCAR’s existence. People wanted to see the same cars and drivers that raced at Daytona and Darlington.
In addition to team owners and drivers, bootleggers also made up the ranks of track owners, sometimes as a partner to France. The Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, N.C. was co-owned by France and Enoch Staley of the famed bootlegging family that built the North Wilkesboro Speedway, among others. France’s partner at the Martinsville, Va. short track was longtime “whiskey entrepreneur” Clay Earles.
In Atlanta, it was often said that Raymond Parks, reputed to be the city’s biggest bootlegger and numbers runner, helped finance longtime friend France’s operations when “Big Bill” wore the cap of track promoter under the name of his separate company, Bill France Enterprises. As related by his son David, Gober Sosebee often told the story of driving France from Atlanta to Daytona Beach with a briefcase full of cash from Parks. Nothing has ever been verified, although Parks’ wife Violet has also said that the “gentelman bootlegger” confirmed he helped France with finances.
In addition to establishing a strong base in the Southeast, France’s vision for a national championship eventually worked because the popularity of the sport was already growing outside the Southeast when NASCAR was launched. The first seven-race Strictly Stock season in 1949, for example, held three of its events in Langhorne, Pa., Hamburg, N.Y. and Carnegie, Pa. The largest crowd attending any of those seven races was at the Langhorne track near Philadelphia, where the turnout was reported in excess of 20,000, considerably more than reported for the first race in Charlotte.
Regardless of the sanctioning group, imbedded in the Southeastern brand of stock car racing from its earliest days were rural values of self-reliance and ingenuity, survival in the face of risk, endurance despite pain and hard work despite little reward. France always kept his purses ahead of rivals, but absent winning regularly, there was never a large amount of money to be made by drivers. Generally, purses in the early years of NASCAR totaled $5,000 and racers, most from small towns and the rural South, invariably groused about not making a fair share of the gate.
Much like any farming community, racers often helped each other make it to the next race by loaning parts, labor or other support. But above all there was a concrete world view, one that easily lent itself to keeping score in a sport that was inherently violent.
The Scotish-Irish culture of honor’s tendency toward defense of territory with violence was a constant theme in NASCAR racing. Participants went to the track knowing the rules included physical intimidation. Elizabeth Petty once broke up a post-race fight between husband Lee and DeWayne “Tiny” Lund by bashing the not-so-tiny Lund in the head with her purse, which held at least one rock-solid item, reportedly a handgun.
Herb Thomas was racing for his third NASCAR championship in 1956 when Speedy Thompson knocked his car out of the track at the Shelby Fairgrounds in North Carolina. It was Thompson’s friend and teammate Buck Baker who went on to win the title. Thomas ended up partially disabled and never regained his racing form. “There was a lot of hanky panky on the short tracks,” said Ray Fox, the mechanic for Thomas that day. “But you didn’t expect to cripple somebody.”
From the days of the legendary Lloyd Seay the southern states touched by the Appalachians produced many of the best drivers and cars in no small part because the easily built dirt ovals made from indigenous clays created hyper-fast surfaces. Combined with many of the drivers’ training behind the wheel of hopped up Fords loaded with over a hundred jars of moonshine, the good ol’ boys of the Southeast often had an edge when it came to keeping a car balanced at speed. Whenever NASCAR regulars arrived at tracks outside the Southeast – roughly 35 percent of the races scheduled each year by France in the 1950’s – it was with a knowing swagger that they took on the local combatants whose cars made up much of the field.
Others migrated south to participate in the NASCAR schedule such as Lloyd Moore, a mechanic from New York, especially the famed beach races held each February. Upstate New York driving heroes like Bill Wimble and Dutch Hoag, on the other hand, tended to stay closer to home and compete in regional events, some of which were organized for NASCAR by Otto while many others ran under other sanctions such as Pittsburgh-based IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) or independently.
Moore complained that commuting to the Southeast was overpriced. “You were lucky if you had a 50-cent piece in your pocket so you could buy yourself something to eat.”
In the Midwest the stars such as the stoutly named Ignatious “Iggy” Katona occasionally ran major NASCAR events in the Southeast in the early 1950’s, but primarily pursued races in Marcum’s circuit.
On the West Coast, Hershel McGriff made a name for himself in NASCAR by racing primarily in the sanctioning body’s events in California, Oregon and Washington and only occasionally made his way to races east of the Mississippi.
Initially, France’s independently contracted team owners were focused primarily on making enough money to get to the next race. “We were racing out of junk yards,” said Lee Petty, who competed in NASCAR from the day of the first Strictly Stock race in Charlotte in 1949. Renown crew chief and engine tuner Smokey Yunick ran a garage in Daytona Beach when he wasn’t racing. “Most of us had other jobs and worked our ass off all week and then went to the track and picked up a crew there,” he said.
In the 1950’s, competing regularly behind the wheel of a stock car was a labor of love far more than a pursuit of money.
(Next: Speed and mobility bring a new ethos to a rapidly changing Southeast, one best summed up by the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway.)
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment