The 1952 Season
Sparring with AAA and Two-Way Radios
by Greg Fielden
|Banjo Matthews (left) and Fireball Roberts, two of NASCARs early pioneers.|
For fifty years the American Automobile Association had ruled motorsports in America. National champions had been declared since 1902. The AAA had the Indianapolis 500 safely tucked away and had sanctioned a variety of divisions from Championship Cars (Indy), Sprints, Midgets, Stocks and Big Cars. The AAA flag stretched to all corners of the country. Virtually every other "fly-by-night" sanctioning body with the exception of IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) had survived only a few seasons before they succumbed to promotional failures.
In 1952, NASCAR was preparing for its fifth season of operation. Unlike most organizations which preceded it, Bill France's outfit had cultivated a progressive series from a loose-knit gang of moonshiners out for a 'legal' weekend joy ride. They were playing host to packed grandstands, and NASCAR had become the fastest growing racing organization in the country.
In 1948, one division -- the Modifieds -- operated under NASCAR. A year later the Grand Nationals came aboard, and its impact was comparatively earth-shattering. By 1951, the Short Track circuit had been added, and, for 1952, another new division was in the works. NASCAR had announced that it was going to conduct a series of "Speedway" division events. The vehicles eligible for the new classification were Indianapolis-type cars equipped with stock power plants. France sensed the economically minded division would attract Southerners who wanted a taste of the mystique that drew 250,000 spectators to Indianapolis. Midwesterners who had been driven off the AAA championship trail because of rising costs would also be interested. The Speedway division's first event was a time trial session through Daytona Beach's measured mile during SpeedWeek.
Buck Baker, established pilot in the Modified ranks and who would become the Grand National champion on two occasions, pierced the measured mile at 132.94, 142.29 and 140.41 mph in successive runs over a three-day period. For having the quickest time on the final day, Baker picked up a $1,000 top prize. It was not until May 10th at Darlington Raceway that the first race was staged for the Speedway cars. Baker, driving a Cadillac powered open-wheeler, took the lead in the 144th lap of the 200 lapper and beat runner-up Bill Miller by five miles.
"I bet I'm the only guy who ever won a championship while on his head."...Tim Flock
Seven events were held in May and June at established facilities like Martinsville, Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, Charlotte and Langhorne. With the exception of Darlington, which attracted 21 cars, the starting fields were short of expectations. By July, promoters were concerned about signing up for the Speedway cars since a nation-wide steel strike was making it impossible for car owners to find the metal to build machinery. NASCAR issued a statement in July: "Due to an unusually warm summer coupled with the paralyzing nation-wide steel strike, many promoters have postponed dates until conditions take a turn for the better."
Although the steel strike was resolved in August, the Speedway division failed to attract any new race dates. Baker was crowned champion based on the seven events that were held. The Speedway division never actually got off the ground. The AAA, recognizing their open-wheel rival was terminally ill, delivered a verbal stab at NASCAR racing in general. Arthur Harrington, Chairman of the AAA Contest Board, said in a prepared statement: "The Contest Board is bitterly opposed to what it calls 'junk cars' and believes the fad for such hippodroming is dying out." Furthermore, the July 4th opening of the new Southland Speedway in Raleigh, NC -- a one-mile banked paved superspeedway -- had opted to go with a AAA national championship event for the inaugural instead of the NASCAR Grand Nationals. It was the first time the AAA had sponsored a championship affair in North Carolina since 1926, when it directed a show at the old Charlotte Board track.
|Joe Weatherly was a very aggressive driver, but he was also a sportsman.|
To counter the AAA's invasion, NASCAR quickly tossed a 200-mile Modified-Sportsman race at Darlington into the holiday schedule. The AAA Raleigh show drew 25,000 to watch Troy Ruttman win by two laps over Jack McGrath; and some 12,000 witnessed Curtis Turner tame a 56-car field in Darlington's race where driver Rex Stansell was killed in a late race mishap. The AAA claimed victory on the battlefront with NASCAR.
NASCAR issued a statement shortly after July 4th that said, "The Raleigh event failed to live up to its advance billing", citing the fact that the average speed of 89.109 mph was much lower than AAA expected. Behind the battle lines, progress was marching merrily on. Drivers and car owners began experimenting with two-way radios. The first known use of a two-way radio in a NASCAR event was on February 9, 1952, in the 125-mile Modified-Sportsman race at Daytona's Beach and Road Course.
Driver Al Stevens of Odenton, MD, who operated a radio dispatched wrecking service, figured out a way he could turn his trade into an advantage on the enormous 4.1-mile race course. Stevens stationed two automobiles, each equipped with a two-way radio, on the course, one at the North end of Daytona's beachfront facility, and the other at the South end. Another two-way radio was in the pits with car owner Cotton Bennett. Each radio operator could communicate with Stevens as he drove the race.
Stevens, driving a '37 Ford Sportsman car, finished third in his class and 27th overall in the 97-car field. He said the radio hook-up assisted him tremendously in averting spin-outs and pile-ups in the turns where cars often bogged down in the sand. In the first Speedway division race at Darlington, Red Crise entered a Kurtis Kraft car powered by a Chrysler Firepower engine, with Tom Bonadies as driver. Crise hand-crafted a two-way radio of his own. He brought an army-type 'walkie-talkie' and strapped it to Bonadies old leather-strapped Cromwell helmet. This must have been very uncomfortable for the driver since walkie-talkie's of this vintage were massive pieces of machinery with heavy batteries.
In the race, the Bronx, NY driver could talk to Crise in the pits by pressing the talk button. Although there was a great deal of static, and the noise from the open-wheelers reached epic decibels, Crise termed his experiment a success. Bonadies departed shortly after the half-way point with a blown head gasket and probably a terrific headache. He finished 18th in the field of 21 cars. One of the high-water marks on the 1952 season was the acquisition of a number of major companies, who put several thousand dollars into race purses and the year-end point fund. Among these were Pure Oil Co., who added contingency monies into each race during Daytona's SpeedWeek festival and distributed some 7,856 gallons of fuel to the competitors free of charge.
Champion Spark Plugs tossed some $5,000 into the championship point funds for the Grand Nationals ($1,500), Sportsman, Modified and Short Track Divisions ($1,000 each), and the Speedway Class ($500). Wynn's and Miracle Power, companies specializing in automobile related products, put additional dollars into the NASCAR point funds. Chasing after the extra dollars were Herb Thomas and Tim Flock, who were locked in a tremendous battle for the Grand National championship. As the season wound down, Thomas and Flock were separated by less than 200 points. By merely starting the season finale at West Palm Beach on November 30th, Flock bagged his first Grand National title. He did it in spectacular fashion. On lap 164, Flock's Hudson whacked the retaining wall and flipped over, skidding down the front stretch on its roof. Uninjured, Flock happily said, "I bet I'm the only guy who ever won a championship while on his head."
Thomas won the race and fell short by 106 points in the standings. Despite a growing number of accessory companies giving extra money to drivers, car owners, promoters and the sanctioning body, the drivers were not necessarily compelled to advise promoters of their intentions to race at his track. NASCAR pleaded with the drivers to cooperate in this matter, but few responded.
One short track race scheduled in July at Akron, OH, was cancelled by the promoter since not one driver had returned an entry blank. After the embarrassing cancellation, Ed Otto, a promoter of many talents, included a footnote on one of his entry blanks. It read: "Don't be a dope. You want racing, but you leave the promoter high and dry on publicity. Fill out and return. Ed Otto."
The NASCAR Public Relations Department expressed the need for drivers to inform promoters well in advance with several notices in the NASCAR newsletter. For the most part, everyone ignored it. It would take NASCAR until 1953 to figure out a way to solve this dilemma. Finally we learned something about sportsmanship in 1952 from an ex-motorcycle racer who was trying his hand at Modifieds. Joe Weatherly, who would eventually become one of the most beloved Grand National champions, was one of the top short track throttle stompers in 1952, having won 49 times in 83 starts when the final statistics were tallied. His record included one stretch of eleven consecutive wins.
In a 25-lap Modified race at Richmond Speedway in August, Weatherly was riding leader Sam DiRusso's bumper in the final stretch duel. In the final lap, Weatherly's front bumper hooked DiRusso's mount, spinning him around in the turn and dropping him to third in the final order. Weatherly went on to win.
Immediately after the race had ended, Weatherly told race officials that he was overly aggressive in his victory jaunt and felt DiRusso was more deserving of taking home first place money. Weatherly instructed NASCAR officials to usher DiRusso into the victory lane. DiRusso was paid for first place, and Weatherly happily accepted third place money.
The 1,200 or so fans who were on hand at Richmond gave Weatherly a standing ovation.
Photo credits from top: All CMS