The 1958 Season
NASCAR Needs a Superstar and Finds a Fireball
By Greg Fielden
Fireball Roberts was awarded the Florida Sports Writers Professional Athlete of the Year Award in 1958.
As the 1957 Grand National season came to a close, NASCAR was experiencing one of its most difficult transitional periods. The sport had caught the fancy of American auto enthusiasts and American car builders who were largely responsible for pulling Stock car racing out of the backwoods and onto the threshold of acceptability. The sport and its athletes were crossing into another mainstream.
Factory backed teams were plentiful as the 1957 season got underway. But as of June, they were gone--leaving drivers with equipment but no incoming dollars. The drivers--many who had suddenly become car owners--played the year out. Figuratively, NASCAR made it to the end of the year--on wobbly knees. The heroic drivers of the early '50s were rapidly decreasing in numbers. The pioneers--men like Herb Thomas, Tim Flock, Fonty Flock, Dick Rathmann, Marshall Teague, Frank Mundy, Hershel McGriff, Curtis Turner, Al Keller, Bob Flock and Bill Blair had collectively won 152 of the first 277 races through the 1956 season. Now they were fading fast. Not one of those crowd-pleasing stars won a race in 1957.
Statistically, the 1957 season didn't live up to 1956. There were 33 events which were conducted in both years. In 20 of these the qualifying speeds were faster in 1956. Speeds had increased each and every year--until 1957. Twice at Langhorne and Martinsville, and at Darlington and Daytona--all major events--pole winning speeds were faster in 1956 than in 1957.
The jury was still out on whether Stock car racing could maintain its public appeal while speeds were leveling off. In Darlington's Southern 500, 50 cars started in 1957--a significant drop from the 70 which started the annual biggie in 1956. Fewer cars, new faces and relatively inexperienced drivers were coming out of the woodwork. Fonty Flock, who was seriously injured in the 1957 Southern 500 and never to race again, said "amateur" drivers were cluttering up Stock car racing's major league tour.
Flock contended that "two amateur drivers forced me into a spin" in the early stages of the Darlington race. Bobby Myers and Paul Goldsmith crashed full bore into Flock. Myers died in the accident. NASCAR badly needed a new star to replace the dozens who had vanished--a fresh face who could draw admiration from the fans and take the sport to a higher plateau. A single creator, it has been said, gives a show its characteristic look, sound and momentum.
Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was NASCAR's savior in 1958. Roberts, who lost the 1950 Grand National championship by a narrow margin and immediately returned to the speedy Modified wars for five years, came back to NASCAR's premier series in 1956 with the blessing of Ford Motor Co. When the Automobile Manufacturers Association withdrew entirely on June 6, 1957, Roberts became driver and car owner. Having no intention of paying the bills, he sold all of his equipment at the end of the year.
The 29-year-old Daytona Beach driver was in the market for a full time ride. After finishing ninth at Daytona's Beach-Road finale in a Bob Fish Buick and then running third in a Beau Morgan-owned Ford at Atlanta, Roberts hooked up with Frank Strickland of Atlanta. Strickland, owner of the Atlanta Tune-up Service, had a 1957 Grand National Chevrolet which had been carefully groomed by future Hall of Famer Paul McDuffie.
The Strickland, Roberts and McDuffie team went on a rampage. In eight Grand National starts for Strickland in 1958, Roberts won six times, including all three superspeedway events. He led 380 of the 500 laps on Trenton's one-mile paved oval, led the final 57 laps to win the Raleigh 250 at the banked one-mile track, and took the Southern 500, leading for 196 laps. Roberts lapped the field in all three superspeedway races and was five laps in front at Darlington.
Earnings for the year came to $32,218.20 in only 10 starts. In 1958 dollars, that was a small fortune. He finished 11th in the final Grand National point standings despite missing 41 of the 51 races. Of the 2,601 laps he drove, he led over 1,200 of them. For his deeds, the Florida Sports Writers voted Roberts the Professional Athlete of the Year for 1958, the first time the coveted award went to a race car driver. The trophy he received would be one of Roberts' most prized possessions until the day he died. He felt the award helped Stock car racing finally make the mark in the sporting world.
Fonty Flock, who won the 1952 Southern 500, was seriously injured in 1957 and never raced again.
Fireball Roberts became the first driver to become the most talked about competitor without having run most of the races. Roberts' prowess took up the slack in other areas. Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, at a mile-and-a-half the biggest oval track to host the Grand Nationals for four years, failed to open for the 1958 season. Track owners Clarence Camp, Nat Epstein and Harold Woolridge opted to close the often troubled facility when the Arkansas Highway Dept. began construction of a major expressway on the outskirts of the speedway.
Located at LeHi, AR, Memphis-Arkansas Speedway hosted five Grand National events. Buck Baker, Fonty Flock, Speedy Thompson, Ralph Moody and Marvin Panch won each of the races, ranging from 200 to 300 miles in length. Clint McHugh and Cotton Priddy died trying to do so. Original plans called for a 1.5-mile paved oval. But construction costs and delays tapped the financial resources and paving was continually postponed. Recurring dust problems haunted the track. In the final NASCAR event staged at the track on July 14, 1957, almost half the crowd walked out during a 56-minute yellow flag while a utility vehicle watered down the track. Its days were numbered. The Arkansas Highway Dept. simply drilled the last nail into the coffin.
Riverside International Raceway, a massive road course in Southern California, conducted a NASCAR race on June 1, 1958. It was a much celebrated presentation. Three 500-milers were on tap for the weekend--a 500-mile Big Car race, a 500-mile event for Sprint cars and the 500 for NASCAR's Grand National stocks. Promoters Gelard "Al" Slonaker and Charles A. Curryer invested some $60,000 in the project. They lost about $50,000.
A young Cale Yarborough took his car for a "swim" at the Ashwood Speedway in 1958.
In 1958 it was difficult to attract an audience out in the desert in the summertime--the kaleidoscope of 500-milers notwithstanding. In a bold promotion, the 190-lap contest on the 2.631-mile, 11-turn course was open to 75 cars, including foreign makes. Also eligible were Continentals, Imperials, Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce. The "Crown America International Stock Car Race" attracted 46 cars, including four foreign cars. No one attempted to qualify a Rolls Royce.
The start of the race was held up by Bill France for over an hour. France, who had flown West to protect the best interests of his drivers, noticed that the sparse crowd wouldn't generate enough gate receipts to cover the $20,000 purse. He insisted that promoters Sloanaker and Curryer post the purse before the race got underway. All the money from the ticket booths surrounding the track was collected. It came to $16,570--right down to the last quarter. France accepted a personal check from Sloanaker for $3,430 to cover the balance and the race got underway. Eddie Gray won the event after Parnelli Jones crashed with 43 laps to go.
There were plenty of happenings in the Modified and Sportsman races in NASCAR. On April 12, 1958, Billy Myers, the 1955 NASCAR Sportsman champion and winner of two events in his 1956 rookie season on the Grand National trail, died of a heart attack during a race at Winston-Salem's Bowman-Gray Stadium. Myers was leading the race when the seizure occurred. He was able to slow the car and aimed it safely off the track. He was slumped over the wheel when rescue workers reached him.
Curtis Turner survived a violent spill in a Modified race at the Charlotte Fairgrounds. The throttle of his Ford hung open and Turner sailed through the fence. He suffered seven broken ribs and was out of action over a month. Finally, a pudgy kid named Cale Yarborough had an anxious moment at Ashwood Speedway in Bishopville, SC in May. The 18-year-old farm boy flipped his Limited Sportsman car outside the track, and it happened to land in a lake. Cale stood on top of the car and dove in--making it to the shoreline with waterlogged shoes. "I got wet when I flipped," remarked Yarborough, "so I figured I might as well have a swim. I'll get 'em next time."
Photo credits from top: CMS, Courtesy Tim Flock, CMS