Editor’s Note: In 1999, I began work on a book called “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed.”
It was published by David Bull Publishing (www.bullpublishing.com) in 2002, and revised in 2005. I had a tremendous amount of fun with the book and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post a few chapters. I hope you enjoy reading these.
The following text is as it appeared in the original book. If you are so inclined, you can follow this blog and receive automatic updates. But enough of me. Now, here’s the text:
“If you really look at it, in the first race, they disqualified the first winner. It started right off the bat. Someone had an idea: “Hey, I can get an edge with this.” That still continues today.” —Dick Thompson
William Henry Getty France had plenty of reasons to smile on the morning of June 19, 1949. His fledgling National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing was about to host the very first race in its new “Strictly Stock” series, which France predicted would capture the imagination of race fans hungry for action in post–World War II America.
The first NASCAR Strictly Stock race was a key victory for the former Washington, D.C., gas station mechanic that everyone in the loose-knit racing fraternity knew as “Big Bill.” The crowd gathered at the dusty three-quarter-mile Charlotte Speedway proved beyond a doubt that fans were interested in watching honest-to-God stock cars race: Hudsons and Kaisers and Lincolns and Fords that regular folks drove, not the fancy open-wheelers at Indianapolis or the bastardized “Modifieds” that looked like they’d been wrecked and rebuilt even before the race started.
And the cars literally were stock cars. There were no tube frames or aerodynamic sheet metal, no exotic racing fuel or slick, high-grip tires. The cars raced at Charlotte were vehicles that drivers had purchased at their local Lincoln or Ford or Hudson dealership and raced as they were, with only the most rudimentary safety modifications. Unlike today, when race cars are rolling sponsor billboards, the first Strictly Stock cars carried crude, hand-painted numbers and the driver’s name and little else. In the few rare cases where cars had sponsors, the sponsor was usually a gas station or a car dealership in the driver’s hometown. There were no uniforms or million-dollar transporters back then, either. For the most part, drivers wore T-shirts and blue jeans and were regular guys out to have some fun on a Sunday afternoon.
“When they said Strictly Stock, that wasn’t just the name of the division, that was the rule as well,” said historian Bob Latford, who began working at stock-car races in 1946 and later served as public relations director for Charlotte and Atlanta Motor Speedways. “The only thing you could do was beef up the right-front hub, because all the tracks were dirt then and the wheels took a lot of abuse, bouncing around. The tracks were not well manicured. The wheels, right fronts especially, were subject to breaking. And they let ’em do a little there. That was all you could do. Engines had to be essentially stock. Most of the cars still had their headlights in ’em. They taped over those. Driver's doors, they took a leather belt, a dog collar, something like that, and strapped the door shut. For seat belts, some of ’em just used a piece of rope to tie themselves in.” Strictly stock it was.
And that was precisely what the fans wanted to see, as witnessed by the Charlotte turnout. The number of people attending that first Strictly Stock race, like much of NASCAR's history, is shrouded in controversy and myth. The announced attendance was 23,000, though some estimates placed it as low as 13,000 people. Still, attracting even 13,000 people was a huge triumph, especially at a time when racing was in its infancy and Charlotte was smack in the middle of nowhere.
Just as important to France, the first Strictly Stock race was proof that he had established a leadership position in the war for the heart and soul of racing in the Southeast. Now he was ready to turn his attention to promoting the battles on the track.
For most of the 1930s and 1940s, automobile racing had been chaotic and disorganized at best and outright criminal at worst. Dozens of sanctioning bodies had come and gone, each of which seemed to carry some tortured-sounding acronym like USCRA or NARL or, worst of all, SCARS.
In fact, one of France’s earliest rivals was O. Bruton Smith, who grew up poor in rural North Carolina but would go on to form an empire of automobile dealerships and then a host of racetracks. Smith's National Stock Car Racing Association, or NSCRA, was one of France's competitors, though not for long.
The many acronym-bearing sanctioning bodies were just as confusing to race fans then as the plethora of dot-coms in the late 1990s. Nobody knew who the real stars were, nor what constituted a true championship series or a national champion driver. France knew that by organizing the racing community, he could end the confusion and put his rivals out of business. That’s why he convened a meeting of 22 men on December 14, 1947, in the Ebony Room of the Streamline Motel in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The men, described in a 1998 interview by attendee Sam Packard as a mixture of “Yankees, Southerners, and bootleggers,” sought to organize and better the sport for the interests of all involved. Promoters would be held accountable for race purses, and NASCAR would come up with rules for competitors and enforce them.
“We are all interested in one thing,” France told the group. “That is improving present conditions. The answer lies in our group here today to do it.” And so they did. Legendary mechanic Red Vogt was credited with coming up with NASCAR as the group’s name, and well-known racer E. G. “Cannonball” Baker was named the first commissioner. Big Bill France, however, was the real center of power for the organization. It would need it.
Shady dealings were commonplace in racing. Local race promoters often would fail to deliver on promised prize money to the drivers. It was not unusual to see post-race events end in fisticuffs or much worse.
And many of the drivers weren’t any better. While today cities like Charlotte and Atlanta and regions like Upstate South Carolina are testaments to the economic prosperity and boom times that Sun Belt chambers of commerce love to tout, half a century ago the Southeastern United States was still trying to recover from the ruinous effects of losing the Civil War. Put bluntly, the Southeast at that time was dirt poor in most places. Economic options were few: farming, usually tobacco or cotton, or working in the mills for little more than a subsistence wage.
Of course, there was one other option, and many of the South’s best and brightest pursued it with ferocious abandon: moonshining. A lot more money was to be made selling corn liquor cooked in a back-yard still than there was toiling away trying to raise crops or busting your ass in the mills.
Not that bottling and selling moonshine was without its hazards, mind you. Federal agents from what is now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms hunted for the stills and the men and women who ran them. Getting caught meant going to jail and going to jail meant your family had no source of income.
Out of necessity, moonshine runners learned to hop up their cars and drive them on the ragged edge. Their livelihood—indeed their very survival—depended on their ability to outwit and outdrive the dreaded federal agents known as “revenuers.”
“It was a game of honor,” said Latford. “Most of the revenuers knew who the bootleggers were. It was a matter of pride to try and catch ’em. And an equal matter of pride to try and outrun ’em. And a lot of it was argument between bootleggers: ‘My hauler will outrun your hauler.’ And they’d get together and get a grader or a bulldozer or tractor to cut out a little circle in a corn field or a tobacco field or a cotton field and go out there on weekends and race and bet with each other, sometimes for pretty good money.”
The smartest of the ’shine runners would take tame, stock-appearing Ford coupes and replace the underpowered “flathead” motors under the hood with high-compression, overhead-valve Cadillac engines, the most powerful of the day. Then they would beef up the chassis with stiff springs so that it wouldn't sag under the load of a couple hundred gallons of corn liquor. “You didn't want to draw attention to it going down the road, but you wanted the ability to get away if they came after you,” Latford said. “And you have to remember, they were running a lot heavier because of the liquid they were carrying than the pursuers were.”
What the moonshine runners wanted was a car that looked completely stock to the untrained eye, but was the fastest car in the state in the wee hours of the morning. And what the feds lived for was catching these guys and running them down. It was exactly the kind of war of minds that crew chiefs and NASCAR inspectors would play out again and again in later eras.
And the moonshine runners were very, very good at what they did. Brothers Tim, Bob, and Fontello “Fonty” Flock from North Georgia were three well-known whiskey haulers of the late 1940s. And a guy from Wilkes County, North Carolina, named Junior Johnson would later make a name for himself, too.
France knew all about the whiskey running and the tricked-up cars and the wild men who drove them. And he set about organizing and controlling them. While NASCAR would sanction 52 races in 1948, its first full year in operation, the Strictly Stock division, which would eventually evolve into the Winston Cup Series over the next quarter-century, wouldn’t get its start until Charlotte in June 1949. But when it did, it launched with a bang.
“Stock-car racing has boomed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and I feel that we are in for another big year,” France said in 1948. But even Big Bill didn’t know how big. The first Strictly Stock race in Charlotte would give him a pretty good indication. And it would also give NASCAR its first controversy and the first of many unsuccessful challenges to France’s authority.
• • •
In truth, nobody knew exactly what to expect at the first Strictly Stock race, and it showed. Parking and traffic were nightmares, just as they typically are at modern-day Winston Cup races. The concession stands sold out of food and drink.
“There were fans here at 6 a.m. that day,” said David Allison, the son of track owner Carl Allison, in a 1998 interview with NASCAR Winston Cup Scene correspondent Mike Hembree. “People were trying to get in everywhere. We had people climbing trees to see. Daddy would crank up a chain saw and go over there. He wouldn’t actually cut the trees down, but they would come out of them anyway. They never dreamed that many people would come to the first race.” But they did, for one reason: They wanted to see their local heroes race stock cars, the very same kinds they drove.
And of course, the whole point of France’s Strictly Stock series was just as the name implies: Cars were to be raced exactly as they had come off the showroom floor. The only exception was that racers were allowed to put a steel plate between the front wheels and brake drums to keep the wheels from stripping their studs and lug nuts and coming off the cars. That was it. Everything else had to be stock.
And that’s how most of them raced on that hot, dusty day in Charlotte. There was Lee Petty from up near Greensboro in the northern part of the state, who had come down in an enormous and brand-new Buick Roadmaster sedan, which he would roll over and destroy in the race.
Buck Baker drove a Kaiser at Charlotte, and Bob Flock raced in a Hudson, while brother Tim somehow managed to borrow a brand-new Oldsmobile 88 with less than 1,000 miles on it from newlyweds Buddy and Betty Elliott of Hickory, North Carolina.
At the end of 200 laps, there was a lot of torn up machinery and dashed hopes. Crossing the finish line first was Glenn Dunnaway of Gastonia, North Carolina, about 25 miles southwest of Charlotte. Dunnaway, who had come to the race without a car to compete in, had hooked up with bootlegger Hubert Westmoreland, who installed him behind the wheel of his 1947 Ford coupe. His margin of victory was three laps.
But before Dunnaway could claim the $2,000 first-prize check, a small fortune in those days, NASCAR chief technical inspector Al Crisler disqualified him for having illegal “bootlegger springs” on the rear of the Westmoreland-owned Ford. The heavy-duty leaf springs helped distribute the weight better, which in turn improved handling. “They basically flip-flopped the springs and beefed up the rear end of the car. It was an old bootlegger trick, of course,” said Latford. “A lot of the guys building the cars had built a lot of bootlegger cars.”
Not everyone felt that Dunnaway should have been disqualified. “I think that was the worst injustice that I ever saw NASCAR do anybody,” veteran racer Jack Smith said in his final interview, given just weeks before he died of heart failure at age 65 in October 2001. “The night before the race they had tripped that car with whiskey on it. It had two pieces welded on the back of the frame so the axle would go down to there [limiting suspension travel and how low the car would drop with a load of moonshine]. If anything, it would have had to hurt him.” But Crisler deemed it illegal, and Big Bill France agreed.
Dunnaway’s disqualification turned the race win over to Jim Roper, who had driven nonstop all the way from Halstead, Kansas, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, in a 1948 Lincoln. He had seen the race promoted in the syndicated comic strip “Smilin’ Jack.”
Roper’s engine was torn down in post-race inspection, and he had to get a replacement motor from nearby Mecklenburg Motors in order to drive the race-winning car back to Kansas.
Westmoreland, meanwhile, was incensed. He filed suit against NASCAR in Mecklenburg County Court, in North Carolina, asking for $5,000 in damages and saying he and Dunnaway were unfairly robbed of the victory. But the suit was subsequently thrown out and actually worked to France's advantage, because as Latford put it, a court of law decided “that he [France] could make and administer the rules for the organization.” This was a crucial victory, given the fledgling nature of the sanctioning body and the outlaw mindset of many of its participants.
The scenario would be repeated often over NASCAR’s illustrious history: A huge crowd witnessed a race steeped in controversy that would be talked about for days to come. A competitor would be caught cheating and be punished, and NASCAR’s authority would be challenged, unsuccessfully. It's a theme that would be repeated over and over again as stock-car racing grew. Such twists and turns and rumors and innuendo would help fuel the growth of the sport over the next half century and beyond.
“If you really look at it, in the first race, they disqualified the first winner,” said Dick Thompson, the longtime public relations director for Martinsville Speedway. “It started right off the bat. Someone had an idea: ‘Hey, I can get an edge with this.’ That still continues today.”
“There's always been people caught cheating,” agreed Bob Moore, a veteran motorsports journalist who began covering stock-car racing for the Charlotte Observer in 1962. “A lot of times, the punishment was just a slap on the wrist. In some cases, like Dunnaway's, you get more than a slap on the wrist.”
And the man slapping the wrists would only reinforce his authority in the 1950s, while those wanting to flout the law were just starting to get warmed up. After just one season, NASCAR founder Bill France changed the name of his “Strictly Stock” series to Grand National, a name purportedly lifted from an English horseracing event to make the series seem a little classier. But whatever the name, stock-car racing was still a pretty crude sport to say the least, and its first major stab at the big time proved as controversial as the first Strictly Stock race did.
When Darlington Raceway opened in 1950, it was billed as the sport’s first superspeedway, an egg-shaped track 1.3 miles long and designed for high speeds, at least by the standards of the day. At a time when most races were run on small, grimy dirt tracks, Darlington was viewed as the first truly modern, purpose-built stock-car racing track.
Historians point to the track’s Labor Day weekend opening for the very first Southern 500 as the birth of a new generation of tracks. But those who were there remember it as both rustic and a place where rules were liberally bent and sometimes broken.
Inspections were conducted before qualifying and away from the track, making it laughably easy to sidestep the rules.
“We hauled the car from Spartanburg [South Carolina], went to the racetrack first and signed in,” recalled “Little” Bud Moore, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who participated in the D-Day invasion in World War II and later won 63 races and three NASCAR championships as a car owner. “Then they took so many cars up there to inspection, then sent another bunch. Inspection was done before there was any practice. We were down there about a week going through inspection and getting all that stuff done before there was anything done at the track.”
“They pulled the heads on the engine. Checked the compression. Checked the engine pretty thorough. Went through it pretty good. It had to be pretty stock. The only thing we were allowed to change on the chassis were the shock absorbers. We used heavy-duty shocks. Had heavy-duty hubs [on the axles].”
According to Bud Moore, it was a far cry from the high-tech scrutiny today’s Winston Cup cars go through. “The inspection station was about two or three miles up the road, north from the racetrack. We drove the car up there. It went through inspection. And you drove it back to the racetrack,” he said. “It was a concrete block building—a farm equipment building. They sold farm equipment. A pretty good-sized place. They moved all that out, and that’s where they did the inspections. They didn’t have any place in the infield of the track. No garage. No buildings. Didn’t even have too good a rest room as far as that goes.”
“They didn’t have a man to follow you over there,” remembered Jack Smith, who won 21 NASCAR races in a driving career that spanned the years from 1949 to 1964. “There were people that left that garage [after inspection] and drove the car on the highway and it didn’t run good and they would stop and put another engine in it and go to the racetrack.”
Although some racers took liberties with their engines, the winner figured out that the real secret to going fast was in the tires. “Johnny Mantz won the race in a Plymouth. We were in a Mercury,” Bud Moore said. “Mantz won on Indy-type tires, Ward Riversides. Everybody else was running street-type tires. Sunday morning just before the race started they come out and put those tires on Mantz’s car. He ran the whole race and never changed tires. I changed so many tires with a four-way lug wrench. Red Byron was driving a Cadillac for Red Vogt. They said they used 75 tires. We did go out in the infield and jack people’s cars up and use their wheels and tires. Nobody realized [completing the distance] was going to take that many tires.”
After the race, the second through fifth place finishers, Fireball Roberts, Red Byron, Bill Rexford and Chuck Mahoney, respectively, all protested the legality of Mantz’s car, claiming it carried a bogus camshaft, shocks, and springs. But NASCAR President Bill France refused to have the car torn down after the race, because he was one of the four men who owned it. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, one of his co-owners was Hubert Westmoreland, the bootlegger and owner of Glenn Dunnaway’s disqualified race-winning car from the first Strictly Stock race a year earlier.
NASCAR tech inspector Henry Underhill asked France to inspect Mantz’s car after the race, but was told he could only look at it if he tore down the other 74 cars in the field first, which he obviously lacked the manpower and time to do. Underhill was so incensed he quit NASCAR shortly thereafter. It was neither the first nor last time that France was accused of manipulating the sport in his favor, and it’s hard to claim that the events of the day were anywhere near fair. But France made the rules and again his will prevailed, no matter how much it angered and disgusted the other racers. France held all the power; the others could only hold their tongues.
Still, some on hand that day learned a thing or two, both about how France ran things and how to race. Mechanic and car owner Smokey Yunick was one of the quick studies.
“In 1955 Smokey went up to Firestone in Akron and wanted to go through the junk pile,” remembered Lowe’s Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, who previously had been the tire company’s racing representative in 1964. “Firestone always had a pile of tires that had been tried somewhere and didn’t work. Smokey picked out four Indy-car tires that were harder compound, that were being discarded because they just were too hard. That’s what he put on the ’55 Chevrolet that Herb Thomas won the Southern 500 [at Darlington] in. Went 500 miles without a tire change. Was that cheating? No, it wasn’t at the time, because the NASCAR tire rule was very loose.”
Smith, meanwhile, had discovered some tire tricks of his own in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “People found out they could take tires, put them out in the sun, put them in an oven, soften the tires and put them on the left side or get a tire recapping company to do it,” he said. “At the Peach Bowl speedway in Atlanta, I found out that Jones Tire Company was a recapping company. I could get him to recap the tires for the left side and put [on] a certain compound and heat it to a certain temperature. It was just like day-and-night difference in how it handled. People always accused me of cheating on the motors. We didn’t have to cheat on the motors. All we had to do was get the car to handling. Any way you could get tires heated to a certain temperature and then bring them out and cool them off, that made a difference. You could even use a kitchen-type oven.”
Smith also saw firsthand how his competitors would try to get a good look at what he was doing. “Lee Petty. You could be sitting down beside your car. Here he’d come and lay down and start talking to you,” Smith said. “And he’d be looking up under that car all the time he was talking to you. If you wrecked or something, he was going to come to see how bad it was. It wasn’t that he was worried about you. He was looking for things on your car.”
Others were trying similarly crude experiments in other areas of their cars, trying to make them go faster. Junior Johnson said he got his first taste of rudimentary aerodynamic engineering in the early 1950s with his whiskey haulers.
“I think it came from back when I was fooling with moonshine,” he said of his eventual mastery of aerodynamics. “I messed around with cars, took the windshield wipers off. We used to bet money and see who had the fastest car on the highway. I could do a lot of stuff and pick up 15 to 20 miles per hour. You know a lot of cars had a big old hole where the headlights were? I'd flesh that out and stop it off. Just taking the wipers off would give you four or five miles per hour. Various things like that. Taking mirrors off. Once you pick up on that, you start seeing what makes a car not aerodynamic. Any time you help the aerodynamics of the car, you help the handling.”
Humpy Wheeler, meanwhile, was looking for some help of his own in unlikely places, as he briefly and ultimately unsuccessfully pursued a driving career in the hardscrabble Southeast in the early 1950s. What he discovered was, to say the least, unorthodox.
“It seemed like the higher you got in racing the more sophisticated the cheating became. Years ago when I was trying to race—I was a teenager—I took this old Ford flathead down to Cowpens [South Carolina] Speedway, which on Friday night was hallowed ground in the Carolinas,” Wheeler recalled. “It was what we called outlaw racing then. This was in the ’50s. The best flathead racers in the South seemed like they would end up at Cowpens Speedway on Saturday night. The equipment was fairly simple. We all ran Mercury block engines. You were only allowed one Stromberg carburetor with one barrel. So everybody was always trying to monkey with that carburetor, but there wasn’t much to it.
“There was one guy down there, though, his name was Black Cat, and he ran an appliance-white ’34 Ford. He seemed to get more out of carburetors than anybody. So I wanted to buy a carburetor from this guy. He said, ‘Let’s go over to my house.’ He didn’t live far from the track. We went over to his house. It was a trailer. We went in there, and he went to the refrigerator and opened the door. It was full of Stromberg carburetors. They were cold. I paid the five extra dollars for one and put it on my car. And it ran better. What did he do to those carburetors? I don’t know. He was very serious about the refrigerator, though.”
Wheeler saw his share of fuel additives of questionable legality, potions designed to boost horsepower through more efficient combustion, a staple trick of cheaters throughout history. “There was a guy named Sweeney Prosser who sold something called ‘Sweeney Prosser’s Nitro X.’ He sold it in five-gallon cans. It was a white can, but he had great graphics on the front. This was back in the ’50s when graphics hadn’t really come into racing big time,” Wheeler said. “As soon as you saw that can, you had to buy it. It worked very well. Most people were running Amoco white gas then. What did he have in that fuel? Whatever he had, no one ever figured out. It did make the car run better. You could feel it in the car. When he died, so did the formula and the fuel. I never saw it again.”
Even early in the sport’s history, creativity mattered. And the further along the sport grew, the more creativity became a factor.