The 1960 Season
Three New Superspeedways and Live Television
By Greg Fielden
NASCAR Grand National stock car racing was born and bred on the short dirt tracks of the Southeast. There was always a certain flair with watching big American-mad passenger cars locked in a four wheel drift through the corners of a dirt track.
From 1949 – 1958, 381 Grand National events had been presented, 296 of them on dirt tracks of a mile or less in length. There had been three superspeedways in operation during the early years of NASCAR, but somewhat shockingly, two of them had gone out of business by 1959.
Raleigh Speedway, a one-mile banked paved oval, joined NASCAR in 1953 and ran its last lap in 1958. Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, a giant 1.5-mile steeply banked dirt track, lasted from 1954 to 1957. Only Darlington had prospered during the decade of the 50’s.
There were a number of hardcore traditionalists who whispered that NASCAR would follow Raleigh and West Memphis into a fatal passage if too much emphasis was put on the “super fast tracks”. The dirt tracks were the backbone of the sport, the traditionalists argued, and stock car racing would wilt and collapse without the spinal cord intact.
NASCAR President Bill France did not subscribe to that theory. He felt the dirt tracks had their place in Grand National racing in the 60’s, but the superspeedways underscored progress. And Big Bill was certainly an advocate of progress.
“Upgrading the facilities was one of the most important phases of NASCAR stock car racing, “ France stressed. “The big tracks simply accelerated that movement. The spectators could watch the races in comfort, and it was entertainment the whole family could enjoy.”
In 1960, three new superspeedways were built. B.L. Marchbanks, and extravagant California sportsman, supervised the construction of a 1.4-mile banked paved track in Hanford, CA. He promptly named the facility after himself. Marchbanks Speedway scheduled its first race on June 12, 1960, and press released boldly stated that the 250-miler was “the biggest race ever held West of the Mississippi River.”
Marvin Porter, a journeyman driver out of Lakewood, CA, won the first California 250 at 88.032 mph. He collected $2,000 from the $17,425 total purse.
Most of the 33 cars in the starting field were made up of Pacific Coast Late Model regulars – a forerunner to today’s Winston West Series. “They weren’t paying enough money to get all of us Easterners out there,” explained defending Grand National champion Lee Petty. “All of us who were running for the points got together and decided it would be best for our pocketbooks not to go all the way out to California and back. Nor for no $2000. Each of us knew that if one guy made the trip, we’d all have to go to get them points. And we’d all lose money if we did that.
“Next thing I knew, Rex White had slipped out the back door and gone to California, “ continued Petty. “He got lots of points too. That helped him with the championship that year.”
White finished eight in the California 250 and earned 456 points. He leaped to within 390 points of leaders Richard and Lee Petty in the point standings and was never out of contention after that.
Only 7,000 fans turned out for the Marchbanks Speedway inaugural. Temperatures which hit 104 degrees were a major factor in the slim turnout. Sixteen cars dropped out of the race, but no race officials bothered to find out why. There was a major communications breakdown.
One week later, Charlotte Motor Speedway opened its doors with the first annual World 600. Track President Curtis Turner and General Manager Bruton Smith both wanted the event at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile tri-oval to host the “world’s longest and most grueling late model stock car race”. They had considered a 501 mile race with the checkered flag being thrown on the cack stretch of the 334th lap. However, they opted to tack on another 99 miles and call it the World 600.
The race, originally slated for May 29, was advanced three weeks so construction crews could finish the project. Light poles were erected so crews could work in two 12 hour shifts around the clock.
Pavement was completed the morning of the first round of qualifying. It had not had time to settle and huge holes were ripped into the turns. “You could have half-hidden a big Chevrolet Impala in some of those holes,” quipped Buck Baker.
Patch work on the pavement was done daily, and the drivers prepared for the worst. “Most of the cars looked like army tanks,” recalled Lee Petty. “We knew the track wouldn’t hold up for 600 miles with 60 cars on the track. Heck, it wasn’t holding up for four laps while one car qualified. We put big screens over the grill and windshield to keep flying rocks and chunks of asphalt out of the radiators. Hopefully, it would keep flying objects out of the driver’s compartment. We even put tire flaps over the rear tires on our Plymouths to keep all the debris from flying up into the guy following us.
In the driver’s meeting, NASCAR Executive Manager Pat Purcell told the drivers to keep off the infield area which separated pit road from the homestretch. There had not been time to plant any grass in that area, and NASCAR officials were fearful of a blinding dust storm if any cars cut across the infield to enter the pit area.
Early in the race, Junior Johnson lost control of his Pontiac coming off the fourth turn. His car skidded into the dusty infield area and plowed into the Victory lane structure which had been placed on the edge of pit road. He tore out 30 feet of chain-link fence and came to rest on pit road. He stopped in the pits while his pit crew made quick repairs. Johnson continued in the race, completing 297 laps, good enough for 30th place in the field of 60 cars.
“Not long after that, I spun out in the same area,” said Lee Petty. “Charlotte’s home stretch was unique and it fooled a lot of us drivers. I managed to miss the Victory Lane. Junior had already wiped that out. I think I had my eyes closed most of the time. With all the dust swirling around, I couldn’t see, so I closed my eyes. When I finally opened them, I had stopped right in my pi area. That was a stroke of luck I thought. My boys checked everything over and I was on my way. Finished fifth.”
But Johnson and Petty received a sever reprimand from NASCAR several days later. “It was three, four, maybe five days later when NASCAR told me that I had been disqualified from the 600 for making an improper entrance to the pits, “ said Petty. “They disqualified a whole bunch of us. Really, what was I supposed to do, having spun out like that?
Along with Petty and Johnson, Richard Petty, Paul Lewis, Lennie Page and Bob Welborn were all disqualified from the World 600 and placed at the bottom of the order. No points. No money.
Jim Foster, Sports Editor of the Spartanburg Herald, who would join NASCAR as an assistant to the President in 1967, defended NASCAR’s decision. “Actually, if the drivers were warned that they would be disqualified if they entered the pits by any route other than pit road, then the Pettys should have been disqualified,” said Foster. “Stock car racing has been criticized for a long time for its lack of rules and it laxity in enforcing the rules it dies have. Racing rules are made for safety reasons. Let’s hope that NASCAR will continue to be a strict in enforcement of its rules as it was at Charlotte.”
Jack Smith made all of his pit stops according to the rules. He had built up a seemingly insurmountable five lap lead with less that 50 laps to go. Smith was just cruising around at a conservative pace when a chunk of pavement gouged the fuel tank of his Pontiac.
Car owner Bud Moore and mechanic Pop Eargle slid under the car and attempted to stop the gasoline from gushing out. They tried stuffing rags and steel wool into the opening, but it was no use.
“Anybody got any Octagon soap?” yelled Moore.
A spectator came up with a bar of Camay, but it was too small and too hard. “A cake of the larger, softer Octagon soap might have plugged the hole,” muttered a dejected Moore.
Smith departed on lap 352 of the 400 lapper and got credit for 12th place. Joe Lee Johnson, of Chattanooga, TN, was deposited in the lead and led the final 48 laps to win $27, 150 of the $106, 250 purse. A crowd of 35,462 spent over five and a half hours in the grandstands watching a slice of history.
Six weeks after the 600, Atlanta International Raceway held it inaugural meet – the Dixie 300. The mile and a half oval, with wide sweeping turns accounting for a full mile, had scheduled its opening for November of 1959. But construction delays and a short cash flow jeopardized the facility for over eight months.
Finishing touches were put on the Atlanta track the week of the race – a la Charlotte Motor Speedway. Tents were used to shelter the garage area, there wasn’t a blade of grass on the site and concrete was poured into the grandstands during race week. Despite the rush, some 25,000 fans turned out to watch the 300-miler on July 31, 1960.
During the race, starter Ernie Moore was struck down by a piece of flying metal while he was in the flagstand. A lengthy caution came out wile an ambulance drove onto the track. Moore was transported to a hospital where he later recovered.
Assistant starter Roby Combs handled the flagging duties the rest of the race, waving the checkered flag over Fireball Roberts at the end of 200 laps. It was the first superspeedway win for Roberts in over a year.
Although the three new superspeedways had encountered an assortment of problems getting off the ground and spectator turnout was less than expected, they did draw national attention to NASCAR stock car racing. With the superspeedway boom working its way up through the gears, the Grand National circuit became a focal point for television cameras.
CBS-Television announced that it would take a bold step – one that no other network had dared to try. On Sunday, January 31, 1960 the program “C B S Sports Spectacular” would televise – live – Grand National Pole Position races and a pair of Compact Car events at the Big D.
CBS had sent 50 technicians from New York to Daytona to cover the actions. The two hour program was devoted entirely to the stock car races at Daytona. Bud Palmer was assigned to handle the anchorman duties. Although heavily unrehearsed in auto racing, Palmer described the action that was put on the monitor. Cotton Owen nipped Jack Smith in a stirring finish to win the first 25-lap Pole Position race, thereby earning the inside front row starting position for the second annual Daytona 500. Smith nosed out Bobby Johns to take the second twin 10-miles as everyone but Owens was eligible to enter the second race.
The first ever Compact Car race was staged over the 3.81 mile road course. Marvin Panch prevailed in the 10-lapper driving a Plymouth Valiant. Panch also won the 50-miler staged on the “speedway course”, beating Roy Schecter by several car lengths. The two contests were open to small American cars and an assortment of foreign entries including Volvos and Simca.
According to reports, some 17,000,000 viewers watched the races on the tube. CBS elected not to tackle the task of a long distance event. They felt it was more suitable to a television audience to show a series of short races. Each of the Grand National Pole Position races were 10 minutes in length, and the two Compact Car races were 24 and 25 minutes long.
It was only 12 days later that NBC jumped on the racing bandwagon. On Friday, February 12, 1960, a four lap Autolite Challenge race – a special 10-mile event open by invitation – was televised on NBC’s Today show. NBC’s presentation was on a tape-delayed basis. Johnny Beauchamp squeaked past Ned Jarrett and won the race by mere inched. The race was completed in less than five minutes.
History was made at Daytona international Speedway on Saturday, February 13, 1960 – history of the dubious kind. Track officials permitted 73 cars to start the 250-mile Modified-Sportsman race, and the most incredible multi-car crash took place less than 90 seconds after the green flag.
Coming out of the fourth turn to complete the second lap, 37 cars – that right, 37 cars flipped. Twenty-four were knocked out of the race. Forty-four cars were said to have survived the melee.
It all started when Dick Foley’s Chevrolet lurched sideways. Foley was able to bring his car under control on the apron of the track. In fact, he continued and eventually finished 10th. But mayhem tore loose directly behind Foley. Some of the drivers eliminated in the crash included Larry Frank, Speedy Thompson, Ralph Earnhardt, Wendell Scott, Joe Lee Johnson, Hooker Hood, Sonny Palmer and Johnny Roberts.
“That number 66 car (Foley) bobbled in the turn and everything happened all at once,” explained Larry Frank. “My car flipped once, became airborne and sailed completely over the 21 car (Earl Moss).”
“It was the worst accident I’ve ever seen,” said Speedy Thompson. “It’s just a miracle that no one got hurt any worse than they did.”
Eight drivers went to the hospital. Four were released: Dick Freeman, Carl Tyler, Stan Kross and Francis Allen. Four drivers were admitted to Halifax Hospital and kept at least overnight: Jack McLaughlin (neck injury), Bill Wark (fractured leg), Billy Rafter (injured lower leg, left elbow and shoulder) and Will Cagle (neck injury).
Five ambulances rushed to the crash site and reporters on the scene said it was a record for speedy treatment of injured drivers. “Thank goodness there was no fire,” said driver Stan Kross.
It took wrecker crews only 39 minutes to clean up the wreckage. Marion “Bubba” Farr of Augusta, GA, won the wreck marred race at 116.612 mph. The 38 year-old lunch room operator was driving a ’56 Ford Modified powered by a 430 cubic inch 1958 Lincoln engine with six carburetors. Carl Burris finished second in a Sportsman Ford.
The Daytona 500 on February 14 was a wreck-marred event. High winds, gusting up to 30 mph, played havoc with the beefed up NASCAR stock cars. Tommy Herbert, young Miami driver, suffered a badly broken arm and a severe eye injury when his T-Bird flew apart after crashing on the backstretch. In all 32 laps were run under the caution flag.
So many cars were banged up that NASCAR officials cancelled a pair of Grand national events in South Florida scheduled for the following week. One hundred-milers at Palmetto Speedway in Miami and Hollywood Speedway in Hallandale were taken off the slate because, NASCAR said, too many cars had been damaged in the 500.
However, Kelly Kellum, promoter at Hollywood Speedway, was irked that only two drivers – Rex White and Jim Reed – had sent in entries for his race. I can’t pay $4,200 for a match race between Reed and White,” huffed Kellum.
On May 11, Erwin F. “Cannonball” Baker, NASCAR’s Commissioner since its inception in 1948, dies of a heart attack in Indianapolis. He was 78 at the time. “Bake’ had made his final public appearance four days earlier at Darlington in pre-race ceremonies for the Rebel 300.
Baker became famous for his high speed antics, including 143 cross-country runs against time – on motorcycles and in automobiles. In 1914, a New York newspaper tagged him with the name “Cannonball” after he arrived in the City following a transcontinental record run. He had estimated that had had driven 5,500,000 miles by motorcycle and car, collecting a few scars and many trophies along the way. He considered his greatest feat a drive from New York to Chicago in a Franklin automobile in 1928, beating the time of the 20th Century Limited train.
Baker also won the very first even at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a motorcycle event in 1900. In 1933, he drove from New York to Los Angeles, covering the 3,224 miles in 53.5 hours, an accomplishment which would stand for decades. On that trip, he slept only 30 minutes.
A successor to the Commissioner’s post was not named until November, when NASCAR President Bill France gave the nod to Harley J. Earl, former Vice-President of General Motors.
On the competitive side of the ledger, nine superspeedway races were staged, producing nine different winners. Six of the victors had never won on a high-banked oval before. Score one for parity.
Rex White won the Grand National driving championship by 3,936 points over runner-up Richard Petty. White won six of the 44 races – no other driver won as many – and gagged a record $57,524.85 including point money.