The 1953 Season
"Pointless Finishes" and a Hard Safety Lesson
By Greg Fielden
As the NASCAR Grand National Circuit began reaching into new marketing areas of the continental United States, promoters hosting the headlining late model stock cars felt it was necessary to know well in advance which drivers would be participating in their races.
|The production-based driver seats used in the early '50s provided little driver protection.|
Quite understandably, the promoter's request was a reasonable one. How else could he promote his event? The drivers, however, were reclusive and uncooperative. A free spirited laconic group, they never got into the habit of completing entry blanks to notify promoters of their intentions. If they showed up, they would race. If not, the promoter would know it by their absence. The fact is that except for the few well-financed teams, most of the drivers never knew whether they would have the money to make the next trip.
In an effort to address this situation, NASCAR instituted a new set of rules whereby no championship points would be distributed to those drivers who had not filed an entry blank with the promoter and the sanctioning body. From 1949-1952, points were awarded according to finish position regardless of whether an entry blank had been completed.
"The time has come when more attention must be paid to the filing of entry blanks," read a statement mailed to each of the 8,000-plus members in 1953. "Let the promoter know where you'll be. They have to know so they can advertise you and get the money to pay the purses." A simple message in the mail failed to provoke a response from many of the series regulars. In the third event of the 1953 Grand National season at Spring Lake, NC, no less than six drivers were not issued any points because they had failed to file an entry. Among those standing still in the point race were Bill Blair, Fred Dove, Ray Duhigg, Weldon Adams, Harold Nash and Coleman Lawrence.
Once more, NASCAR reiterated the importance of filing entries. "Drivers are required to post entries by a specified deadline," read a follow-up bulletin. "This new rule, clearly stated on each entry blank, will be enforced strictly at all NASCAR events in 1953." Eventually, the drivers would learn to comply with the new standards. As the Grand National circuit entered its fifth season, speeds were noticeably on the rise. The $202,507 tour was attracting more cars and more drivers, more publicity in daily newspapers -- and somewhat alarmingly, more parts failures in the area of spindles, hubs, axles and suspension systems.
The Hudson, Oldsmobile and Lincoln manufacturers began supplying "severe usage" kits on the race cars shipped to car owners -- many of whom had worked out individual arrangements with the factories. In announcing their approval for the sturdy "severe usage" kits, a NASCAR spokesman said, "Responding to the request from car owners across the nation for more durable equipment, these factories have come up with parts calculated to ease drivers through the most rugged conditions."
With NASCAR gladly accepting certain modifications "in the interest of safety," the sanctioning body began a campaign to make the cars and tracks safer for the competitors. They issued several bulletins, leaving car owners largely responsible to see that no short cuts were taken in the protection of the driver.
Frank Arford of Indianapolis, a driver and owner of two Grand National cars, became the second fatality within a year when he lost his life in a qualifying crash at Langhorne on June 20. Arford's Oldsmobile broke through the wooden retaining barrier on the front stretch, flipped and threw its driver out. The roof of the car was also flattened. An investigation revealed that the seat brace had broken loose. The helpless driver slipped from under the belts and landed some thirty feet from his car.
Following the tragedy, NASCAR issued another bulletin to its members. "Grand National Circuit contestants are urged to install roll bars and to lock seats so they cannot break loose and slide forward," the statement read. "Those with divided (bucket) seats are urged to wire down the section on the driver's side to help eliminate strain on the safety belts."
Later that year, Fireball Roberts had a spill in a Modified race at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in which his seat belt broke in a roll-over. Painfully bruised but otherwise unhurt, Fireball remarked, "I issue a warning to my fellow NASCAR drivers to check those seat belts. Mine had been rotted with battery acid (Modified cars usually had the batteries located inside the driver's compartment). I was lucky."
With the news of the Arford death and Fireball's outcry, most competitors forsaked the short cuts in safety and inspected their protective gear. In the late spring of 1953, the one-mile Raleigh Speedway, formerly Southland Speedway, joined the NASCAR fold. In its 1952 inaugural, the track operators had joined up with the AAA for an Indianapolis Car Championship contest.
|Modern custom built racing seats use multiple safety features such as padded side and head bolsters.|
During the early part of 1953, Bill France convinced the speedway directors that the Grand National circuit would be ideal for the neatly groomed facility. He assisted the promotion of a 300-mile race on May 30, directly opposite the Indianapolis 500.
The Raleigh track was billed as a "one-mile super fast track", apparently a prelude to the more familiar superspeedway jargon we hear today. A press release isued by the Public Relations Department read, "North Carolina race fans will witness the biggest event in the history of speed activity in their state when Bill France presents a 300-mile Grand National Circuit race on Memorial Day, May 30, 1953."
In order to handcuff expenses -- and recalling that Johnny Mantz had blitzed the field in Darlington's first Southern 500 using a hard compound truck tire -- a special rule governed tire use in the Raleigh 300. "No special asphalt tread racing tire allowed," NASCAR insisted.
A crowd of 15,235 filled the grandstands to watch the field of 49 cars take the green flag at noon. Fonty Flock, who started 43rd after missing the time trials due to engine problems, roared through the pack, took the lead with 105 laps to go and beat Speedy Thompson by two laps. Flock became the first man to win two super fast track races. Top prize was $3,500.
The Raleigh Speedway board of directors was so impressed with NASCAR -- and Bill France in particular for actively promoting the affair -- that a 220-mile championship for Modified and Sportsman cars was scheduled for Saturday night, September 19th. With the field open to the sixty fastest qualifiers and some $15,000 in prize money up for grabs, the 'biggie' for the Weekend Warriors would be a show under the lights. It was the first superspeedway event staged at night.
As the command was given over the public address system to fire the engines, Bill Blevins, a 25 year old rookie out of Fayetteville, NC, had difficulty getting his Ford to crank. A utility truck pushed him out of the pits and onto the track.
Blevins' car started briefly but then the motor died out on the backstretch. Lacking experience, Blevins allowed his dark maroon colored car to stop in the high speed groove, apparently expecting to get another push before the start of the race.
No one in the NASCAR control tower nor anyone in the flag stand spotted Blevins' idle car on the backstretch. The green flag was given to the field of 59 cars. As they whipped off the second turn, Blevins was a sitting duck. Thunder exploded as the crowd of 10,000 watched in horror. Blevins' car was pancaked by at least a dozen other onrushing race cars. No less than 15 automobiles were utterly destroyed. Hysterical race directors red flagged the remaining cars.
Rescue squads hurried to the crash site. There they found Blevins and Jesse Midkiff of Burlington, NC dead in their cars. Several other drivers were treated at local hospitals. It took an hour and 20 minutes to clear the wreckage.
Buddy Shuman of Charlotte won the tragic affair, which was tabbed "Black Saturday" by the print media. Shuman won by a two-lap margin over Bill Widenhouse in the shortened 170-miler. Shuman was quick to give credit to his pit crew. He made one pit stop in the race, and his crew put two new tires on and filled the fuel tank in one minute, 47 seconds. The "quick" pit work proved to be the margin of victory.
On the more positive side of the ledger, NASCAR and Langhorne Speedway combined to present the International Stock Car Grand Prix, a 200-mile event open to both foreign and domestic hard top automobiles. "This NASCAR sanctioned show is calculated to settle arguments galore about the merits of such imports as Mercedes and Jaguars on a circular track," said France in announcing the contest with promoters Irv Fried, Al Gerber and Red Crise.
A Jaguar driven by Lloyd Shaw won the pole position with a speed of 82.200 mph, but Dick Rathmann's Hudson Hornet romped to victory, leading all 200 laps. Grand National cars swept the first five places. A Jaguar and two Porsches finished in the top 10.
There were no Mercedes in the race, but there was a Volkswagen "Beetle" driven by home statesman Dick Hagey, who qualified at only 48 mph. The local driver managed to finish 19th in the field of 38, better than 70 miles behind Rathmann.
For the season, Herb Thomas set a record by winning twelve races and the Grand National title. He was also the leading money winner with $28,909.59 in purse and point money. The Hudson Hornets won 22 of the 37 races, including one stretch of 16 out of 20.
Photo credits from top: CMS, NCMS