In the last few weeks, I have recapped the history of the other top series in NASCAR, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Now it is time to recap the history of the top series, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
This is the first of a three-part recap of the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I will be starting with NASCAR’s humble beginnings and continue up to 1971. Next week will cover the introduction of RJ Reynolds and Winston into the sport in 1972 and finish with the 2003 season and the departure of Winston. The week after that will cover the entrance of Nextel and Sprint into NASCAR and the Chase era from 2004 to 2013.
Much like the Disney enterprise started with one man’s dream, so too did NASCAR. The man who would go on to create and organize NASCAR was William Henry Getty “Big Bill” France. France was born on Sept. 26, 1906 in Washington, D.C. He got the nickname “Big Bill” by standing in at 6’5 and weighing 240 pounds. In 1934, France packed up his family and headed south to Florida. There, France began competing in races on the beach.
In 1947, France turned his attention to promoting and organizing racing. He announced that there would be a new stock car touring series called the National Championship Stock Car Circuit (NCSCC). The first season of this new series started and ended in Florida, with the first race in January in Daytona Beach, and season finale in Jacksonville in December. Robert “Red” Byron won the inaugural “Battle of Champions” race in Daytona and took the season finale as well. He won seven other races during the season. There were 40 races during the season, and when it was all said and done, Truman Fontello “Fonty” Flock won the championship and the $1000 winner’s purse, thanks to the seven wins he had on the season. Ed Samples, who won two races, was second and Byron was third.
As pleased as France had to have been that he had gotten through the first season, he knew that the sport needed to continue to grow. He held a meeting on December 14, 1947 in the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida where France laid out his plans for his new sport. He was quoted as saying “Gentlemen, right here within our group rests the outcome of stock car racing in the country today. We have the opportunity to set it up on a big scale. We are all interested in one thing: improving present conditions.” The meeting continued for three more days and in that time, France had appointed various technical and competition committees. Louis “Red” Vogt, who was top-notch mechanic” was credited with coming up with the name of National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing or NASCAR.
The first race under the new NASCAR name came in Daytona Beach on Feb. 15, 1948 on a 2.2-mile portion of the 4.1-mile beach course that included both the highway and the beach itself. Red Byron took the lead with 16 laps left and held on to win. Six days later on Feb. 21, 1948, the necessary paperwork was completed and NASCAR officially became incorporated. At the end of the season, Byron was the inaugural NASCAR champion, despite having six fewer starts, four fewer wins, five fewer top-five finishes, and two fewer top-ten finishes than runner-up Fonty Flock. The division that Byron was competing in, in 1948 was known as the “Modifieds.”
In 1949, France announced that there would be a “Strictly Stock” race in June of that year. The first “Strictly Stock” race was held at Charlotte Speedway and there were post-race inspection problems. Glenn Dunnaway used a 1947 Ford and won the race. However, officials found that the springs in the Ford were stiffened, which allowed better traction in the corners. Due to the fact that the springs were not the original springs that had been in the car, France disqualified Dunnaway and gave the win to Jim Roper. Due to the success of the first “Strictly Stock” race, France quickly added seven more races to the schedule and once again, Red Byron was crowned champion of the “Strictly Stock” division at the end of the season. Beginning next year, the “Strictly Stock” division was renamed the “Grand National” division.
In September of 1950, NASCAR would begin a long-standing tradition that would last until 2003. There was a new 1.366-mile speedway in Darlington, South Carolina that had an owner that wanted a 500-mile race at his new track. The odd thing about Darlington was its shape. When track designer Harold Brasington built the track, he had orders that the minnow pond near what would originally be turn two, couldn’t be touched. So Brasington had to modify the design and why turns one and two were narrower than three and four.
Brasington had previously approached France about having his series compete in a 500-mile race, but France turned him down, worrying that the cars wouldn’t be able to handle the distance. Brasington then approached another racing series promoter who agreed to race 500 miles at the new track, but ticket sales and entries were down. So Brasington once again pitched his idea to France and France accepted to sanction the race. On Sept. 4, 1950, 75 cars took the green flag for the inaugural Southern 500. Due to the speeds and the surface of the track, tires weren’t able to withstand the track and began to go flat for many drivers. Johnny Mantz, who had found truck tires with a harder compound, took the lead on lap 50 and never looked back en route to the win. Due to the shape of the track and time of the year that the race was held, Darlington and the Southern 500 quickly became the track and race that everyone wanted to win at for the next eight years, when an even bigger track popped up in Daytona Beach, Florida.
When France completed construction on the new Daytona International Speedway, the first thing that took people aback was its size. Not the size of the track itself, since it was the same length as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the size of the turns. The turns were banked 31 degrees, which is how high the construction crew could get the dirt to stay before it started sliding back down to the ground. To get the dirt that was needed, construction crews dug a large hole in the middle of the infield on the backstretch. That hole would become known as Lake Lloyd. The first Daytona 500 was held on Feb. 22, 1959 and France couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were side by side coming to the checkered flag. The problem was there was a lapped car on the outside of both of them (closest to the fans) and because instant cameras hadn’t been invented yet, it was hard to tell who won. France thought Beauchamp had won, but when Petty protested the results, France said the results were unofficial and wouldn’t be until he had looked at all the evidence. At this point France pulled off a brilliant PR move. He took three days to announce the winner. Whether he needed all three days or not, it was a way of keeping the race in the news for an extra couple of days rather than just a small blurb on Monday, if it got mentioned at all. On Feb. 25, France announced that Petty had won due to the fact that the evidence “substantiated” that he had won.
Lee also protested the results of another finish later that year in Atlanta. Lee was declared the second place finisher to a young driver by the name of Richard Petty, Lee’s son. Lee declared that he had been the winner and a check of the scorecards proved Lee to be correct. (Lee was driving a 1959 car and Richard was driving an older model and if a driver who won happened to be driving a current car, he got a financial bonus. The Pettys put every dime they won back into their homegrown operation, and according to Richard, they needed the money more than he needed his first win.) Lee would go on to win the 1959 championship, thanks to 11 wins during the 1959 campaign.
Richard would go on to win the title in 1964 and 1967. His 1967 season saw Petty set two records that will most likely never be broken. Petty won 27 races during that season, including 10 in a row. He also passed his father’s record of total races won after winning his 55th race at Darlington in May.
While Petty was becoming one of the biggest names in NASCAR, France was having to deal with another of the big-name drivers; Curtis Turner. In 1961, Turner and Bruton Smith were in the process of building Charlotte Motor Speedway and ran into financial troubles. Turner turned to the Teamsters Union for $800,000. The Teamsters would agree to loan Turner the money as long as he got the NASCAR-licensed drivers to join a union called the Federation of Professional Athletes. The Teamsters were promising better benefits to the drivers, but what they really wanted was to have pari-mutuel gambling approved so people could bet on races. France wasn’t happy when he heard the news. “No known Teamster member can compete in a NASCAR race and I’ll use a pistol to enforce it,” France said. France also vowed to plow up Daytona and plant corn in its place before the union was “stuffed down my throat.” Glenn “Fireball” Roberts was the first to come back to France. One by one the other drivers returned, before Turner and Tim Flock were the only ones left. When they didn’t give in and leave the union, France banned them both for life. (Both would be reinstated down the road.)
David Pearson would close out the decade by winning the title in 1968 and 1969. He had won his first title in 1966.
The 1970s began with Bobby Isaac winning the 1970 title over Bobby Allison and James Hylton. Isaac had 11 wins on the year. Only Richard Petty had more with 18. No one else had more than 3. Petty won his third title in 1971 with 21 wins in 46 starts. As Petty was celebrating his title, events were taking place behind the scene that would give NASCAR the boost it needed to enter the national spotlight.