The 1954 Season
Driver Defections and a New Thing Called Television
by Greg Fielden
|Smokey Yunik (above) owned the Hudson that Herb Thomas drove to 12 Grand National wins in 1954.|
Tim Flock, the youngest member of the famous Flock brothers, was one of NASCAR's most dazzling speed artists. Winner of the 1952 Grand National Championship, the slender Atlanta driver played the sport with abandon, delight and a touch of class.
For the 1954 season, Flock had paired up with car owner Ernest Woods. After the 1953 campaign, Ted Chester, who owned the Hudson Tim drove to the title, disbanded his operation. Flock and Woods struck a deal to seek the championship in Oldsmobiles. At Daytona's SpeedWeek in February, Flock started the year off with a bang, winning the 160-mile Grand National by one minute and 28 seconds over runner-up Lee Petty. But an impromptu post race inspection revealed an alleged minor violation in the carburetor of the Flock-Woods Oldsmobile.
The car was disqualified and Flock was placed at the rear of the 62-car rundown, earning no points and losing the $1,700 first place check. It was the second time in 24 months that Flock had been stripped from an apparent Daytona victory. He had been disqualified after winning the 1952 Modified-Sportsman race because his car was equipped with wooden roll bars.
NASCAR President Bill France said disqualifying Flock "was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make," but he added that strict enforcement of the rules was necessary for the continued advancement of the sport. Flock was so incensed that he vowed to quit racing. He stepped out of the Ernest Woods ride, retreated to Atlanta and opened a Pure filling station. Flock's walkout seemed to set a trend for the early part of the 1954 season. Brother Fonty quit NASCAR in March to join the SAFE (Society of Autosports and Fellowship Education) stock car tour, giving up one of the most cherished rides on the tour, the Frank Christian Oldsmobile team. In June, Al Keller, who won two races early in the year including a 100-mile road race at Linden, NJ in a Jaguar, announced he was moving over to the AAA Indy Car circuit to pursue a career in open wheel Championship cars.
"Those four boys ran the best ... race I've ever seen. One hundred nerve racking miles (and they) were looking one another in the eye." ...Pat Purcell, NASCAR Executive Manager
Toward the end of the year, Hershel McGriff, who took the Christian ride when Fonty Flock jumped ship, said that he would retire at season's end to devote full time to the lucrative logging business in his native Oregon. Fonty was miffed following a Grand National event at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway on March 21st. In the 100-miler, Flock, Dick Rathmann, Herb Thomas, and Buck Baker treated the foot-stomping crowd of 20,000 to perhaps the most exiciting race stock car fans had ever witnessed.
Pat Purcell, NASCAR's Executive Manager, remarked afterwards, "Those four boys ran the best damn race I've ever seen. One hundred nerve racking miles (and they) were looking one another in the eye." Flock suffered a flat tire in the late stages which put him off the pace. Thomas nipped Baker by a single car length, with third place Rathmann hot on the tail-pipes of Baker.
Immediately after the completion of the electrifying event, NASCAR penalized Thomas a full lap for improperly rejoining the race after a pit stop. For a few minutes, Baker was elevated to victory circle. After the official rundown had been announced, it was pointed out that Baker had committed the same violation as Thomas. NASCAR docked Baker a lap and also penalized Rathmann for improperly making a fuel stop. That put Gober Sosebee in first with Flock second. Finally, NASCAR waived all the penalties and declared the finish official the way they crossed the finish line.
Fonty quit NASCAR's premier series two weeks later. Keller, originally out of Buffalo, had raced with NASCAR off and on since 1948. He captured his first Grand National race at Savannah, GA on March 28th. A versatile driver, Keller was assigned to drive a Jaguar entered by bandleader Paul Whiteman in NASCAR's maiden voyage into road racing. A make-do 2-mile track, utilizing the runways of the Linden, NJ Airport, was the scene of NASCAR's plunge into the "sophisticated" world of road racing. To add international flavor, the event was open to foreign sports cars.
Keller took the lead from Herb Thomas with 54 miles to go and sprinted away to take the checkered flag. From victory lane, Keller said he was quitting NASCAR to join AAA and get a crack at the Indianapolis 500. Keller would start five Indianapolis classics, with a fifth place finish in 1961 his best effort. On November 19th of that year, he was burned to death when his flaming car went over the fence in Phoenix.
Despite the defections of three of its current stars, NASCAR claimed its Grand National circuit contained a flair that, most assuredly, would endure for decades. It also found its way into a fascinating electronic toy called 'television'. A half-hour TV program entitled Wire Wheels made its debut on WABD-TV in New York City with the entire first show devoted to Daytona's SpeedWeek activities.
Out west, racer Mel Larson was producing a weekly programs called Desert Dust, which aired on KYTL-TV in Phoenix. Another program, Autorama , hit the airways on WICC-TV in Bridgeport, CT. It was graphic testimony that NASCAR's heroism was growing under the spellbound gaze of thousands. With NASCAR's prescribed profile coming into focus on a national level, a wide range of companies began to manufacture specialized racing equipment. Pure Oil Co., which became affiliated with NASCAR in 1952, introduced a special racing tire for stock cars featuring an all-nylon cord. Each tire sold for $37.90, including tax and delivery.
|Future pace-car driver Elmo Langley made two Grand National (now WC) starts in 1954.|
It was the first time any company had bothered to manufacture a tire for stock car racing. Previously, over-the-counter rubber was all that was available for the stock car jockeys. A short time later, General Textile Mills produced a new racing helmet to replace the old leather strapped Cromwell headpiece, which had seen no major improvements since the late '30's. The GenTex 70 helmet was a "radical departure from the older type helmets," said a press release from the company. "Its military type head sling is designed to cushion shock and lessen the danger of concussion." Price tag was $35.
Advancement continued. In July, flameproof coveralls were made available to the racing fraternity by Treesdale Laboratories of Pittsburgh. Their Permaproof Fyre Safe Fisher Fabric coveralls were sold for only $9.25. By the autumn, most of NASCAR's regulars had been outfitted in the baggy coveralls. With NASCAR gaining so much widespread national exposure, Bill France jumped full bore into an area which had been virtually monopolized by the AAA for a half century. France announced the beginning of the NASCAR Auto Association, an auto club which provided - for a fee - travel information, hotel, restaurant and garage service to its members.
France said the NAA "will accept as affiliates only the better hotels and motels, and those recommended will have to maintain a high standard that will assure the motoring public of the finest in accommodations." France, always a whiz at slogans, came up with another good one: It pays to stop with friends - and your friends are wherever you see the sign of NASCAR. With a base of 11,000 members, the NASCAR Auto Association was considered a viable threat to AAA.
The problem was the same old thorn -- uncooperative drivers and owners. It irritated NAA affiliates to have vacancies while race cars on trailers were parked in the Mom and Pop Motel across the street. The NAA lasted a little over three years.
Scheduled for an August 22 opening, the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, "The largest stock car racing facility in the country," was built at LeHi, AR, a massive mile and one-half dirt track. Construction delays forced postponement until October 10th. Buck Baker won the Mid-South 250 at an average speed of 89.013 mph.
Lee Petty won the 1954 championship via consistency, while twelve-time winner Herb Thomas finished second, 283 points behind. Petty won seven races and was running at the finish 32 times in 34 starts. Also in 1954, Louis Jerome "Red" Vogt, mechanic par excellence, was the first man to receive a lifetime NASCAR membership. It was a fitting honor for the man who named NASCAR.
Photo credits from top: All Charlotte Motor Speedway