The 1956 Season
Kiekhafer Wins 30 Races, Then Vanishes
By Greg Fielden
|Carl Kiekhaefer (L) and Tim Flock dominated the Grand National circuit for two seasons, then disappeared.|
At Daytona in 1955 Carl Kiekhaefer suddenly emerged as one of the most influential figures in NASCAR Grand National racing. Having made millions in the Mercury Outboard Motor Company, the Fon Du Lac, WI entrepreneur ventured to NASCAR on the pretense that producing winning cars adorned with his business logo would increase sales of his boat motors. Kiekhaefer entered stock car racing as a strictly business venture.
During the first six years of the sport the main artery in Grand National racing, from the competitors standpoint, was enjoyment. It was a game the contestants could thoroughly enjoy. Everyone was on equal terms, and a wide variety of teams raced competitively. It was an era tinted with optimism. Kiekhaefer changed all that.
In 1955, the irrepressible Kiekhaefer Chryslers were just getting warmed up. His cars won only 22 races in 40 starts. Principal driver, Tim Flock, won eighteen races and captured the championship. Kiekhaefer compiled an enviable track record while more or less warming up. In 1956 Mr. K. would get serious. His first step was to hire Buck Baker to take the wheel of one of his Chryslers. Baker, a hard-nosed competitor who relished close quarter racing, had been one of Flock's formidable opponents in 1955. The veteran campaigner also had a reputation a mile long for on-track antics.
Kiekhaefer phoned Baker in January of 1956 and made his pitch. "If you are as big a !@#$% as everybody says you are, I'm curious. Would you like to drive for me?" Baker wondered if a prankster was on the other end of the line. "I didn't know who that could be," Baker recalled. "I had run hard against his cars in 1955, and I had beaten him a few times. I figured I'd be the last to be asked to drive one of his cars." The stage was set.
Kiekhaefer was a perfectionist who demanded perfection from all of his employees. That included his drivers. He had certain ideas about how things would operate in his domain - no ands, ifs or buts. He employed a weatherman to travel with the team, taking readings on humidity and other meterological data. All his drivers were required to fill out a report on what type of gear was used, oil temperature readings during the race, tire wear and finish position. Samples of each of the dirt tracks were taken and placed in a plastic cylinder. All data was analyzed so the team could be better the next time they encountered a track of similar texture.
Kiekhaefer had other ideas. He would often rent an entire 40 or 50 unit motel, leaving most of the rooms vacant. He would instruct the men to occupy one side of the motel with wives or girlfriends confined to the other. No "extra curricular activity" was permitted between the men and the women the night before a race. Curfews were closely scrutinized. Bed checks were frequent. Kiekhaefer's rules and regulations were not unlike those of the armed forces.
One thing was different. Kiekhaefer paid his drivers a lot more than the armed forces did - up to $40,000 per year. In the first 25 Grand National races Kiekhaefer entered in 1956, his cars won 21 of them. The Chrysler and Dodge automobiles also finished second eleven times. Records tumbled. Kiekhaefer established a mark that is likely to stand for eternity -- his cars won 16 consecutive Grand National events from March 25 through May 30. The unmitigated success of Kiekhaefer's squad brought king-sized headaches to Bill France, who did not particularly savor the utter domination by one team.
Car owners were airing complaints. They felt that any car that fast must be equipped with illegal additives. NASCAR inspectors were eye-balling the Kiekhaefer cars with unwavering regularity. "Not once were we able to find any of Carl's cars illegal," remembered France. "And, brother, did we try!" France was not the only one who cared little for one team mopping up the premier stock car racing series. The spectators, who were paying anywhere from $2.50 to $10 to watch the Grand Nationals perform, got bored at viewing a private Kiekhaefer car battle for top honors.
They voiced their disapproval in the form of jeers. A chorus of boos and an occasional thrown bottle puzzled Kiekhaefer immensely. Meticulous preparation, the finest mechanics and high quality drivers had delivered success never before seen. Kiekhaefer felt observers would appreciate work of that nature. In mid-1956, the handwriting was on the wall.
"Mr. K felt all the booing was detrimental to his Mercury Outboard business," says Baker, who had won nine of the first 21 first half races. "His main concern was to increase sales, and he really couldn't understand the fan reaction. He almost pulled out in the middle of the year. But he felt some sort of obligation to his drivers and finished the season out." After his incredible winning streak, the Kiekhaefer team went into a tail-spin. After winning 21 of 25, they won only four of their next 20 starts.
|Despite his dominating performance in Kiekhaefer cars, Tim Flock quit in 1956.|
Compounding the plight was the defection of two drivers. Tim Flock, who had won 22 of 47 starts for Kiekhaefer, suddenly quit after winning the April 8 event at North Wilkesboro, NC. Kiekhaefer was stunned that Flock would walk away from his team. "I needed a break," said Flock. "My ulcers were tearing me up. I was always on stand-by. Never had any time for myself. One time he phoned me and said a private jet would pick me up at the airport in an hour. He said he needed me to come up to Wisconsin for something important.
"I went to the airport and flew up to his office," Flock continued. "When I got there, he said I could go back home. I flew all the way up there just so he could tell me to go back home. He just wanted to know where I was." After Flock quit, he had to settle on picking up rides at most of the races. He did land a driving assignment for Bill Stroppe's Mercury team later in the year.
Herb Thomas, NASCAR's winningest driver, was hired to replace Flock. He joined Baker and Speedy Thompson as part of the powerful three-car punch. At several points in the season, NASCAR would sanction same day Grand Nationals - one on the East coast and one on the West coast. While Baker and Thompson concentrated on the eastern shows, Kiekhaefer sent Thomas out West. "I didn't really like having to go all the way out west when there were races near home," remarked Thomas, "but at least I did win some races. I won three in a row out west at one point in the year."
In late July, Thomas quit Kiekhaefer's team and cranked up his own Chevrolet to finish the season. He was second in the point race. "I felt all along that I was getting the worst equipment from Kiekhaefer," said Thomas. "He didn't want me to win the championship. He'd prefer that Buck win since he had driven for him all year. I felt I could do better in my car, so that's what I did." It set the stage for one of the closest battles for the Grand National title.
Thomas took the point lead from Baker at Langhorne on September 23. As the season wound down, it appeared Thomas would win his third Grand National title. But Kiekhaefer leased the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Shelby, NC on October 23rd, arranged for an eleventh hour NASCAR sanction, and squeezed another event into the fall schedule. It gave Baker one more opportunity to shave the point deficit.
The 100-miler at Shelby got off on the wrong foot for Thomas. "I had a rear end go out in practice, and I had to change it," said Thomas. "The race officials held up the start of the race so I could get my car fixed." Thomas had earned the 13th spot in qualifying, but he started at the rear of the 26-car field. He came charging through the pack. By the half-way point, he had worked his way into third place. For several laps, he tried to get around second place Speedy Thompson. Baker was a quarter lap ahead, leading.
On lap 109, Thomas made his bid to pass Thompson. "I don't remember much about it," Thomas said. "I remember passing Speedy. The last thing I remember is going straight into the wall. That's all I remember about that night." Thompson's front bumper hooked Thomas' rear quarter panel. Thomas' Chevrolet shot into the wall. The steel rail broke and held Thomas' Chevy in front of an on-rushing pack of cars.
Jack Smith, Billy Myers, Ralph Moody and Lee Petty plowed into Thomas. Also involved were Tiny Lund, George Green and Billy Carden. Thomas was lifted from his car and placed on the track surface unconscious. He was transported to the hospital with a fractured skull, a badly lacerated scalp, a ruptured ear drum and internal injuries. Dr. John Hamrick, who treated Thomas, said he was in a coma, critically injured and in possible need of brain surgery.
Baker went on to win the race and Thomas was credited with a 17th finish position. Thomas still led the points, just 118 points ahead of Baker. Baker was shaken by the turn of events. Initially, he said he was not going to enter the final three races of the year in respect for his fallen comrade. But others convinced the Charlotte driver that the accident was not of his making, and accidents are part of the sport. Baker drove in the last three 1956 events and won the championship by 586 points. Thomas was second.
Baker, who won the first of two consecutive championships in 1956, said he caught flak from the Shelby race. "Some people blamed me for the crash, but I was on the other side of the track and didn't see it," Baker pointed out. "I don't know to this day what exactly happened. I didn't see it." Kiekhaefer's team won the last five races of 1956. After conclusion of the season, he quit, virtually never to be heard from again until he was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame some 25 years later.
Kiekhaefer won 30 Grand National races out of 50 starts in 1956. For his brief two-year career, he won 52 of 90 events, records which will remain unapproachable for decades to come. NASCAR President France paid Kiekhaefer a tribute when he packed up and left - almost as suddenly as he entered the sport. "Carl has done a great deal for stock car racing," said France. "He has provided excellent equipment on the tracks, top drivers, a lot of color, and he has improved the engineering on the cars he raced."
While Kiekhaefer made most of the news for the season, there were other headlines. Most notable was the merger of NASCAR and SAFE. SAFE, the Society of Autosport and Fellowship Education, was a midwestern based outfit under the direction of President Charles E. Scharf and Secretary Harry Redkey. The merger was completed in January 1956. Offspring of the merger was the Convertible circuit of NASCAR, a late-model class for ragtops. Bob Welborn won the championship in 1956 on the strength of consistency and three victories. Curtis Turner wound up second, winning 22 of the 48 events.
On the lighter side, there was one Grand National event which got the green flag, but never became an official chapter in NASCAR history. That occurred at Tulsa, OK on August 4, 1956. A 100-mile Grand National event was scheduled and 32 laps went into the record books when dust conditions became unbearable. Lee Petty, driving in the race, parked his car in the pits, sprinted across the track and climbed into the flagstand. He took the red flag from the starter and red flagged the race himself. The spectators received a refund, and the race was never rescheduled.
Photo credits from top: All Tim Flock