The 1957 Season
Factory Teams Withdraw, France Picks Up the Tab
By Greg Fielden
|John Holman was given the responsibility of organizing the Ford factory teams, which included drivers Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner.|
After spending a year and a half in the NASCAR Stock car circles , the automotive manufacturers were set for an all out assault in 1957. The automotive industry had suspected that the Grand National ranks of NASCAR might be a good marketing area. The heads of General Motors and Ford Motor Company reasoned that winning Stock car races would increase sales. The popularity of Stock car racing and its access to free publicity were too much of a temptation for Detroit to resist.
Their reasoning was not far off base. Although it took both Chevrolet and Ford factory teams several months to become steady contenders, interest soared at an all-time high. General Motors team manager Frankie Del Roy placed Hugh Babb of Atlanta in charge of maintaining a fleet of Chevrolets for the 1957 Grand National season. Some of the drivers on the Chevy payroll included Buck Baker, Speedy Thompson, Jack Smith, Rex White and Frankie Schneider.
Ford's effort was in the hands of Peter DePaolo, winner of the 1925 Indianapolis 500. The Ford team was powerful but disappointing--looking much disorganized at times. Buddy Shuman, retired driver, had been appointed to organize DePaolo's team at the close of the 1956 season, but he lost his life in a Hickory, NC hotel fire on November 10, 1956.
DePaolo's next choice was a hefty, gravel-voiced mechanic named John Holman. It was his duty to smooth over the frayed ends of the Ford factory team. Under his command were drivers Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Bill Amick, Marvin Panch and Ralph Moody. Pontiac's modest involvement was through the Ray Nichels shops in Highland, IN. Cotton Owens and Banjo Matthews started the year off with Pontiacs.
California's Bill Stroppe handled the Mercury teams with Guy Wilson doing the mechanical work for East Coast drivers. Modified champ Billy Myers and Jim Paschal accepted driving chores. The Lee Petty team raced Oldsmobiles that were more independently flavored. Old Master Petty and Ralph Earnhardt were the drivers for the two-car team.
The Plymouth division of Chrysler had Ronney Householder heading a one-car effort operated by Ankrum "Spook" Crawford. Flashy Johnny Allen took the controls. The remainder of the starting grids were formed by independent teams, who did not have access to the big industry dollars. They were more or less scrapping for leftovers. There was never any pretense about Detroit's interest in racing as a sporting competition or any other phase of the speed spectaculars. Being manufacturers of cars, Detroit had no sentiment about NASCAR as a sporting proposition. It was strictly big business. Their sole purpose was to boost the sale of new cars.
|Ralph Earnhardt (with Cotton Owens) once raced in an Oldsmobile multicar effort.|
Each manufacturer had swarms of press agents and hacksters to beat the drums of publicity in newspapers, magazines, radio and television. The factories produced optimum equipment in souped up vehicles with power and durability lacking in the same models sold to John Q. Citizen. Advertising values of the controlled performances became dubious. Each manufacturer was laying claims to victory and bragging rights about performances because they could not afford to do otherwise. The result was an avalanche of half-truths and untruths that finally forced NASCAR to adopt a 1957 rule requiring "honest" advertising and publicity.
It started in 1955 when Carl Kiekhaefer's Chryslers carried large letters that read 'Mercury Outboards.' There were reports that Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Co. reaped the most profits because the name of their automobile was the same as Mr. K's highly successful boat motors. Some reporters indicated Mercury used the lettering to their advantage, accenting the name rather than the product. Kiekhaefer got wind of the situation and changed the lettering on his cars to 'Kiekhaefer Outboards' for 1956.
The horsepower race was in full gear as the 1957 campaign got underway. Fuel-injected engines and superchargers were eligible since each manufacturer said the high performance pieces could be purchased by the public. The directors of the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) were disturbed about the excessive advertising of brute horsepower, even if the ads were being done in an ethical manner. The nation's highways were the scene of record-breaking fatal wrecks, and the AMA was concerned at the astronomical rise of horsepower in passenger cars.
In an attempt to appease the AMA, NASCAR outlawed fuel injection and superchargers. The sanctioning body then went one step further and disallowed the use of any race results in media advertising. Violating car makers would lose manufacturer's points. Both Ford and Chevrolet violated the non-advertising law and both lost manufacturer's points in the early part of the 1957 season.
The entire picture changed on May 19, 1957. In a scheduled 500 lap Grand National race at Martinsville Speedway, Billy Myers' Mercury hurtled a retaining wall and hit a number of spectators, including an eight-year-old boy. The boy, Alvin Helsabeck, was gravely injured. Four other spectators required treatment at a hospital. Headlines of the incident flashed across the sports pages nationwide. The Associated Press and United Press International picked up on the story and virtually every American was aware of the unfortunate Virginia 500 crash. It was the type of publicity that AMA directors did not like to see.
Whatever may have prompted the recommendation, the car makers called upon themselves to get out of all competitive tests of cars involving or suggesting racing or speed, including acceleration tests. They also recommended that the industry "should not advertise or publicize actual or comparative capabilities of passenger cars for speed, or specific engine size, torque, horsepower or ability to accelerate or perform, in any context that suggests speed."
The fleet of factory backed race cars were left in the hands of the drivers, who suddenly found themselves team owners. A heavy transition was already on the horizon. When the AMA made its announcement, it was only a few hours before NASCAR President Bill France Sr. issued a prepared statement. "Business will continue as usual," declared France. "We are interested in giving mechanically-minded and competitively minded Americans an opportunity to test their automobiles in supervised off-the-highway areas, and we are extending our operations in this direction in many sections of the country. As always, safety is the primary objective of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing.
"We believe it is essential to provide areas where drivers can take part, not only in such events as acceleration tests but also tests which involve braking, parking, driver reflexes and so on," added France. "We believe such areas are a definite need and that they will go far in letting drivers give expression to their desires to test their cars and at the same time, promote safety by letting drivers operate under experienced supervision and in proper areas."
France took the position of the politician. "I think that when the industry was actively competing in NASCAR racing, it learned a lot about handling and performance. In fact, more about its own cars than it had known before, even though it had built them. Consequently, I think the industry's participation will reflect favorably on cars to come. I feel that the automobile industry cannot divorce itself from the moral obligation which it owes to mechanically-minded, competitive American car owners."
"One thing I will say," noted France, "the industry's powers sure did play hard while they were playing." France subscribed to the theory that the factory withdrawal would encourage more independent teams to come back to the tracks. To help the teams compensate for the lack of factory dollars, France convinced individual race promoters to raise the purse of their events, especially to the winner. In the early part of 1957, winner's prizes were as low as $650. After the factories got out, first place went up to $1,000.
The first major event after the withdrawal was the Raleigh 250 at Raleigh's one-mile paved superspeedway. Posted awards were $14,300, and France felt he needed a huge field to prove to the Stock car racing fans that it was business as usual. The field was open to 60 cars, but only the top 30 would get official prize money. In order to guarantee a large field, France made a guarantee to the car owners. The NASCAR Prexy promised he would make sure every competitor got at least $300 for coming to Raleigh in the form of 'travel money.' Every team which finished below 30th got $300. Those drivers finishing 15th through 30th positions, which paid less than $300, would be given enough money to equal $300.
|Paul Goldsmith won the Raleigh 250, the first NASCAR race after the factory teams pulled out.|
Fifty-three cars started the Raleigh 250, which was won by Paul Goldsmith in a Ford. He won $4,000. France, promoter and director of the 13th superspeedway race in NASCAR history, paid 39 teams some $8,850 in 'travel money.' The 'travel money' cut deeply into France's profits. But his investment was not in the Raleigh 250 purse--France's investment was in the sport and the NASCAR members.
Buck Baker won his second Grand National championship in Chevrolets he groomed himself. He won 10 times in 40 starts for a total of $30,763.40 in point and prize money. The Charlotte veteran finished 38 of the 40 starts in the Top 10. At one stretch during the latter half of 1956 and the first eight months of 1957, Baker placed in the Top 10 in 35 consecutive events--a NASCAR record.
Ken Rush of High Point, who competed in both the Grand Nationals and Convertibles, was named Rookie of the Year by the sanctioning body. He was the first freshman driver so honored since 1954, when Blackie Pitt was named top freshman driver.
Photo credits from top: NCMS, CMS, NCMS