The 1955 Season
Racing Under Fire and Mega-buck Cars
By Greg Fielden
|Junior Johnson (L), pictured with Cotten Owens, won his first NASCAR race in 1955.|
On March 20, 1955, AAA driver Larry Crockett was killed in a hideous crash at Langhorne Speedway. Six weeks later on May 1, Mike Nazaruk was burned to death in a flaming crash at the same track. In the 1955 Indianapolis 500, Bill Vukovich, seeking a third straight 500-mile victory, died when his car gyrated endlessly outside the speedway's backstretch and finally landed upside down in a fiery heap.
Other AAA drivers fatally injured in 1955 alone while at the wheel were Jack McGrath, Jerry Hoyt and Manuel Ayulo. The 1955 racing season was frequently punctuated by the cold breath of tragedy. At about 6:00 pm on June 1, 1955, the unthinkable occurred during the 39th running of the 24 Hours of LeMans road race. In the 34th lap, a Mercedes manned by Pierre Levegh, a wealthy, relatively inexperienced 'once a year racer', clipped the wheels of an Austin Healy driven by Lance Macklin. Levegh's car skidded into a protective barrier near the entrance to pit lane. The car ricocheted across the race course, catapulted over a six foot dirt wall, bounced over a picket fence and exploded in a clap of thunder as it landed where the crowd was thickest.
The car disintegrated. Flaming sections tumbled through the densely populated area. The rear end sailed skyward and landed in another group of spectators near an underpass. The front axle with parts of the chassis, scythed through the crowd. Screams of pain and terror arose as fragments of the car fell earthward. Smoke and flame spread over a wide area. It was easily the darkest hour in auto racing history.
"82 Perish In Fiery (LeMans) Crash," read the headline in National Speed Sport News. The death toll would eventually rise to well over 100. Negative ramifications shot through the veins of auto racing world wide. In some nations, all forms of vehicle racing were banned. The very well-being of auto racing in the United States was threatened.
Senator Richard Neuberger, a Democrat from Oregon, called for a ban of all auto racing in America in a speech before the United States Senate on July 12, 1955. In a plea to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Neuberger said, "Mr. President, I think the time has come to forbid automobile racing and similar carnage in the United States. I doubt if there is as much blood shed in Spanish bull rings as today is occurring on automobile race tracks in this country. Now even women racing drivers are getting killed in fiery and dreadful wrecks....
"We allow children to visit race tracks where men and women are constantly in the peril of being maimed or killed. If automobile racing is necessary to perfect motor vehicles as proponents of racing ridiculously claim, then I suppose we next will hear that we must run stallions off cliffs to improve horse flesh. I believe the time has come for the United States to be a civilized nation and to stop carnage on racetracks (which) are purposely staged for the profit and for the delight of thousands of screeching spectators."
Although utterly senseless, Neuberger's speech made headlines. Headlines which had the racing fraternity shivering. Less than a month later, on August 3, 1955, Andrew J. Sordoni, president of the American Automobile Association, which had sanctioned Indy car racing for 54 years, delivered a verbal bombshell that brought a stunned racing world to its knees: "Upon completion of the schedule of events already undertaken for the year 1955, the AAA will disassociate itself from all types of automobile racing in the United States."
The AAA withdrawal stirred responses and opinions from everyone: Bernard Kahn (Sports Editor, Daytona Beach News-Journal): "AAA withdrawing leaves NASCAR practically alone in the driver's seat in the stock car field ... Racing's future is not jeopardized by the AAA decision. The stage is now set for a blood transfusion in automobile racing. It may come from energetic Bill France, NASCAR President ... Automobile racing is here to stay like sex, the atom bomb and ice cream."
Russ Catlin (former AAA Press Chief): "There will be a period of reconstruction that should be very interesting. Out of it a strong man will emerge. As long as such men as Tony Hulman ... and Bill France -- men with a true love for the sport -- are around, racing need worry little about its future." Editorial (New York Daily News, August 5, 1955): "The AAA is well advised, we think. In the old days, these races contributed a lot to the improvement of the breed. Those days are long gone. Auto races in these times attract a lot of people who morbidly expect to see somebody killed or injured - and often do. Why should the AAA cater to that morbidity any longer?"
Andy Granatelli (Chicago Auto Racing, Inc.): "You don't abandon a sport because of accidents. You take steps to make it safer. Withdrawal of the AAA from racing could improve, rather than hinder, the sport."
In Sordoni's August 3rd announcement, he added that automobile racing no longer was an asset to the development of the highway passenger car, a claim that provoked a sharp response from NASCAR's France. "Automobile racing (has) for a long time (contributed) and still is contributing much to the automotive industry," declared France. "Racing has been the experimental area and the proving ground for the major improvements which have been made in automobiles.
"The tire industry today is spending thousands of dollars in experiments with racing automobiles to develop tires which will meet the safety standards required on today's super highways," he added. With the anti-racing pellets flying, NASCAR further stressed its contributions to the general motoring public. "As for safety, NASCAR has taken the lead in this field for the past several years," declared France. "Two years ago, NASCAR officials were concerned about automobile doors flying open during an accident. We required extra reinforced door fasteners on all cars. As a direct result from this experience, the automobile manufacturers have improved and strengthened their door locks for 1956."
Although a bleak future was being sketched by the hands of fate, no ashes fell over NASCAR. France issued a statement regarding the sanctioning body he founded eight years earlier. "NASCAR represents hundreds of speedway operators, thousands of contestants and millions of fans from coast to coast. NASCAR has become the world's largest racing organization. We plan to continue expanding and to function as it is. "NASCAR's reputation has been built on a solid foundation and is continuing to improve safety and sportsmanship on the speedways of America," continued France. "We will continue to enlarge its program for all types of stock car racing, supervision of speed and automotive tests."
Evidently the automotive manufacturers felt the NASCAR Grand National circuit was a viable place to test their cars, too. And it was an excellent marketing area. Chevrolet and Ford entered stock car racing with mega-buck financing to selected NASCAR teams. A few executives in Detroit and Dearborn noticed that sales would often parallel the performance of a particular brand of car. They reasoned that if their brand of automobile won more races, sales would be greater. It was worth trying, anyway.
|Tim Flock dominated the 1955 season, winning 18 races and the championship.|
Chevrolet stepped into NASCAR racing, then jumped full bore into a nation-wide advertising campaign with an accent on high speed performance. The vigorous campaign began with the erection of some 16,000 billboards - all of which noted NASCAR. Additionally, 7,500 daily newspapers carried national ads. Chevrolet hit the network television market with commercials centered around performance on the NASCAR circuit.
Barney Clark, director of the Chevrolet racing program, said, "This is the sort of concentration that is pretty overwhelming when you add it up." Chevrolet won only two races on the Grand National circuit in 1955, but the biggie, Darlington's Southern 500, was one of them. Chevrolet was quite proud of Herb Thomas' achievement on Labor Day. Chevrolet Motor Division arranged to have the winning car hauled to the Texas State Fair in Dallas, one of the largest outdoor fairs in the country. Apparently, this was the first "show car" ever.
Chevrolet and Ford invested large sums of money into NASCAR Grand National racing. The sanctioning body, car owners and drivers were the immediate beneficiaries. Chrysler, on the other hand, was the main beneficiary of Carl Kiekhaefer's entrance into stock car racing. Kiekhaefer, a man of peculiar character who had made millions with his Mercury Outboard firm, happened to choose Chryslers as his race cars. He had one primary function -- to sell his outboard boat motors.
Along the way, he could acquire a little additional knowledge about reciprocating engines which could be applied to his Mercury Outboards. Kiekhaefer won most of the races he entered. And Chrysler Corporation just loved it. Sales of their new Chrysler 300 soared, and they didn't have to invest a dime into racing. Kiekhaefer's plunge into stock car racing was rather sudden. So sudden that he did not have a driver when he hauled his car to Daytona Beach for SpeedWeek 1955. The first choice was apparently Hershel McGriff, the Oregonian who had such a fine season in 1954. But McGriff had announced that he was headed back to Oregon, forsaking racing for the lumber business from whence he came.
Bill France had recommended McGriff, but McGriff stuck to his guns. Had he accepted the Kiekhaefer ride and not taken a 15-year detour from auto racing, there is no telling what NASCAR's record book might look like today. Kiekhaefer eventually teamed with Tim Flock, who had quit NASCAR a year earlier and was itching to get back in full time. Flock became an instant sensation. He won eighteen pole positions and eighteen Grand National races - both judged at the time to be unbeatable. He bagged the championship and pocketed $37,779.60 in prize and point money.
Kiekhaefer was hell-bent on winning. He entered cars in 40 Grand National races and won 22 of them. His cars finished first and second in four races. Eleven times his main man, driver Tim Flock, led every lap in an event. About the only major event he did not win was Darlington's Southern 500. The best he could do there was third. There was one other "superspeedway" on the 1955 slate - a 300 miler on October 9th at the huge Memphis-Arkansas Speedway. It was the largest track on the NASCAR tour at 1.5 miles. Kiekhaefer made sure his Mercury Outboard insignia was on the winning car whether he owned it or not.
Kiekhaefer entered four Chryslers in the 300-miler. All three Flock brothers -- Tim, Fonty and Bob -- were saddled in his "Big White Cars", along with AAA star Norm Nelson. He also sponsored virtually every other front runner. Speedy Thompson, Buck Baker and Banks Simpson carried Mr. K's logo. And Thompson won. Tim and Bob finished fourth and fifth.
Although Tim Flock dominated the Grand National tour, he did not assume command in the point race until the 33rd event had been completed. Lee Petty, who also drove a Chrysler, led the points for 31 of the first 32 races, mostly with consistently high finishes. Chrysler had a double dose of good with both Kiekhaefer and Petty campaigning in their 300s. In late spring, Chrysler released a national two-page advertisement to magazines. Petty was pictured with his wife and two children, Richard and Maurice, standing beside a Chrysler. It marked the first time Richard Petty had been in a national advertisement, more than three years before he drove his first race car.
In July of 1955, Lee Petty became the first driver to have a fan club established for his supporters. Morris Metcalfe, a race-crazed fan who would eventually be NASCAR's Scoring Director, organized the Lee Petty Fan Club. There were no membership dues. The only requirement to join was a keen interest in NASCAR and Lee Petty, and that the member drive a Chrysler. Hundreds joined up.
The 1955 season got off to a rocky start. During the threatened ban of all auto racing in this country, NASCAR grew stronger. It had passed the most difficult test of all.