BUICK WON THE FIRST STOCK CAR RACE
by Larry Roberts
February 6, 1998
This is the 50th anniversary of the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) and in the last decade the organization has exploded into a merchandising behemoth. It licenses the sale of everything from NASCAR driver baseball/bubblegum-type collector cards to NASCAR approved (and logoed) clothing to NASCAR cuisine served in NASCAR restaurants.
But it has gone far beyond it's original mission statement of providing races for standard American sedans to prove which make is best as well as to provide a good show for paying fans.
To the dismay of purists, the cars racing in NASCAR Winston Cup events are not "stock" and their ground-up construction is carried out with the same care and high technology that goes into other big-buck types of racing. If the Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Ford Taurus' and Pontiac Grand Prix's that compete in today's Winston Cup races were required to be showroom-stock, they'd make for some pretty boring albeit crash- filled events. In standard form, they're all six-cylinder, front-drive family sedans and as such are a long way from being satisfactory race track fodder. Their NASCAR namesakes are all purpose-built front-engine, rear drive race cars with V8 engines and share only a vaguely similar design profile with their showroom cousins.
But this specialization is understandable. In the early days of motoring, it was apparent that the racing of passenger cars as they came from the factories were inappropriate for wheel-to-wheel competition. They were too tall, too heavy and too fragile. By the turn of the century, auto makers were competiting with each other but with specially built machines that were lower, stronger, lighter and much faster than the cars the company built for the public. The winner of the first Indy 500 was a Marmon but being a single-seater, it bore little resemblance to the Marmon Model 32 roadster production car.
Only sporadically were races held for production-line stock cars over the years. In 1924, a 250-mile race was held at Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles and was billed as a contest between drivers of "stock" cars and those driving true racers. It was promoted that way to build a non-existent rivalry between the two in the minds of the spectators.
A more serious race (and possibly the first organized race for truly stock cars in America) was held on the one mile dirt track in Langhorne, Penn. on the Fourth of July, 1939. Billed by the sanctioning American Automobile Association (AAA) as the "...first oval track, late-model stock car event in U.S. history," the prize money was $6000. It fielded 42 strictly stock American passenger cars that ranged from a tiny Willys Model 77 to a patrician Packard 120. The premiere event was won by Mark Light driving a big '39 Buick Century. The Langhorne stock car race was held in 1940 as well, and ironically, Bill France Sr., the man who later fathered NASCAR, took second place in the event.
The promotional concept of NASCAR its had humble beginning in the early '30s when France was campaigning his home-built sprint car on tracks on the Eastern seaboard. France (father of Bill France, Jr., current head man of NASCAR), along with many other drivers, had been often been short-changed by track promoters who either absconded with the prize money or paid out less than the amount that had been posted.
While living in Daytona Beach after World War II, France began promoting races for stock cars on the long, sandy coastline of Daytona Beach. France attempted to interest the AAA into again sanctioning a stock car class to compliment its Championship Car and Midget divisions but was turned down. In response, he formed NASCAR which held its first sanctioned race in 1949 and remembering his early experiences, he made sure all the announced prize money went to the drivers.
Stock car racing has come a long way since 1939 when a Buick Century won our first stock car race. The cars are no longer stock, but NASCAR fans really don't care. They come 6-million strong to be entertained and are never disappointed.