Thursday, May 9, 2013

Classic Sports Thursday

There was actually a time in the 1950's when the “have car will race” adage came to ragtops. A Midwestern organisation, the Society of Auto Sports, Fellowship, and Education (SAFE), started its Circuit of Champions for convertibles. These cars were a mix of the wild and not fairly well organised touring car divisions at the time (NASCAR was only developing after the Barkheimer Associates deal in 1954 into the national organisation), and SAFE's Circuit of Champions was gaining popularity in the regions they raced with the odd convertibles.

However, the stunning changes in motorsport in the United States after the 24 Heures du Mans disaster led to the end of motorsport's governing body, the AAA Contest Board, and led to major changes that still affect motor racing today. In the Midwest, SAFE was purchased by Big Bill France (NASCAR), leading to the development of the NASCAR Convertible Division, a division that raced until 1959 officially, racing mostly on short tracks, where drivers could be seen sawing their hands on the wheels of these cars. Some circuits included quarter-mile tracks inside football stadiums such as Winston-Salem's legendary Bowman Gray Stadium (still in operation today and was the real-life site of the short-lived documentary Madhouse) and the home of what is now the Arizona Cardinals (that played in Chicago at the time), Soldier Field (the Granitelli family organised the races; the track was removed following complaints by hippies, and stadium renovation when the Bears were forced to leave Wrigley Field because of a requirement imposed by the NFL after the merger stadia had to seat a minimum of 50,000 spectators).

With the hardtops already having established the Labor Day race that became known as one of saloon racing's four majors (the Southern 500) and the grandest in stature (first paved NASCAR circuit, Daytona was still running on the beach and road circuit until the end of 1958), Bob Colvin of Darlington International Raceway decided he was going to have a big race for the ragtops also. That ragtop race was declared to be a Confederate Memorial Day race that would be their grandest in stature on the (then) 1 3/8 mile egg (there were a few slight rebuilds, one in 1953 and a few in the 1960's – the current track measurement of 1.366 miles was not established until 1971; based on running 10 feet from the wall, now seven feet from the wall after the SAFER barriers were installed for the 2004 races).

Mr. Colvin's Rebel 300, a “Grand National Convertible Championship” race, would be established for May 11, 1957, the Saturday before Mother's Day, and the day after the Confederate Memorial Day (May 10; the state did not officially observe it until the 21st century, but in South Carolina it is a reference to the capture of Robert E. Lee and also Thomas Jackson's death). But an interesting dilemma took place after rain interrupted the event plans. South Carolina law prohibited racing on Sunday (the law was modified to carry a 250-mile / 402 km exemption or if it started after 1:30 PM in the 1980's), and even though the rain date was not mentioned, “next clear day” was attempted, which was Sunday, in violation of the law. Darlington County authorities arrested Mr. Colvin after pulling the safety car to pit lane to start the Rebel 300 that Sunday, which the promoter posted bond.

Curtis Turner looked on his way to winning when a “Big One,” as called today, took place within the first 30 laps, but crashed in that incident (future Grand Slam race winner Jim Paschal and future official Dick Beaty were also involved), leading to an easy lead change by Lap 33 for Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, who led all but one lap afterwards to win the inaugural Rebel 300 in the Ford super team organised by Peter DePaolo, who just 32 years earlier was the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 in less than five hours. The other members of the podium were distinguished racers themselves, with Tim Flock (no Jocko to mess around this time) and Bobby Myers filling out the podium. Roberts and Flock are Motorsports Hall of Fame in America members, and Myers, known for his exploits at Bowman Gray, would sadly be killed that September at the Southern 500. (Myers' brother Billy also raced, winning two premiership races but died of a heart attack the next year; both brothers are memorialised by the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award for lifetime achievement; Bobby Myers' son Danny became a well-known mechanic at Richard Childress Racing and in 1998 fueled both a Cup car and an IRL car at the Indy 500. It was the crying image of “Chocolate” best remembered from Kevin Harvick's tear-jerking 2001 Atlanta win three weeks after being hired by Childress to replace a legend, and Danny retired in 2002, becoming the Childress museum's curator. The Childress organisation also has a winery in the area also.) Roberts died in the 1964 Charlotte crash of burns, and Flock died in 1998 of cancer.

Other top five drivers were Bob Welborn, a legend in the division, with Buck Baker (2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee) as co-driver, with Lee Petty (patriarch of the family) in fifth.

The 1957 Convertible race at Darlington was the first of six, with the first three being full Convertible Division races, and the last three being Grand National races that required convertibles. When the Rebel 300 became a Grand National hardtop race in 1963, they actually tried it was two 150-mile races. That didn't work and the race since 1964 has been a full hardtop race for 300, 400, or 500 miles, depending on the year of the race, and since 2005 returned to Confederate Memorial Day as a 500-mile race, televised on Fox.

Whatever people call it, Saturday's Bojangles' 500 is the 57th edition of the Rebel 500, and has an interesting take as the only NASCAR Convertible Divison race still run as a full championship race in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. The “convertible race” of the 100-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 (now Budweiser Duel) was a championship race for convertibles in that year, but even after the division was discontinued, the two qualifying races format continued though it lost championship status in 1972.

An interesting thought as convertible racing was popular in the 1950's as the Rebel 500 takes the green Saturday night. 

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