With the opening of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 and Holman-Moody, the racing arm of Ford Motor Company, basing its operation near Charlotte Douglas Airport in that same decade, the Queen City quickly became known as the “Stock Car Racing Capital of the World.” The nickname was further enhanced by the numerous teams and drivers that resided in the area during the sport’s first two decades.
By 1994, the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame had opened 30 miles north of Charlotte in Mooresville, and the Charlotte area had become the mecca of stock car racing. People from throughout the world began relocating to the Charlotte area in their efforts to establish a stock car racing career. When NASCAR decided to commit to a Hall of Fame, Charlotte earned the honor of being home to the Hall based on the deep passion for racing and racing culture that is so embedded in the city and surrounding area. NASCAR implemented a formal bid and responses were drawn from several cities, including Atlanta, Daytona, Richmond, and Kansas. NASCAR would award the bid to the City of Charlotte on March 6, 2006.
Opened in May 2010 at a cost of $150 million the NASCAR Hall of Fame is licensed by NASCAR, owned by the City of Charlotte, and operated by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. Its exhibits chronicling NASCAR’s history include a moonshine still, designed, built, delivered, and installed by NASCAR Hall of Fame inaugural inductee Junior Johnson. A Wilkes County, N.C., native, Johnson was well known for his bootlegging skills before becoming a stock car racing star.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Uptown Charlotte about 15 miles from Pineville where a 1.25-mile board track was located 1924-27. However, it’s less than 10 miles from where NASCAR’s Strictly Stock (now Cup) Series made its debut on June 19, 1949.
Located on Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte, the rough, three-quarter-mile dirt track surrounded by an undressed lumber fence was known as Charlotte Speedway. Initially, the short track presented quite a challenge for NASCAR President Bill France Sr. Watering the dirt track failed to reduce the dust in the turns and large amounts of red clay began coating Wilkinson Boulevard, which at that time was the main highway from Gastonia, N.C., to Charlotte.
In addition to coating the highway, it covered the windshields of passenger vehicles passing the track. A few minor accidents resulted in the North Carolina Highway Patrol ordering France to cancel the race if he couldn’t find a way to stop the dust. Charlotte motorcycle racer Buck Brigance suggested France mix calcium chloride with the dirt. It had resolved the dust issue at a recent motorcycle race. Fifty bags of the compound were taken from a shed near the track’s scoring stand and then graded into the track’s surface. N.C. State Highway Patrol was satisfied with the solution, but the race was still incredibly dusty.
The race was open to anyone with a full-size, American-made passenger car. Thirty-three drivers from across the United States showed up for the event that featured nine different automobile makes – Lincoln, Cadillac, Kaiser, Hudson, Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Ford, and Chrysler. Race day created a massive traffic jam for fans who sat bumper-to-bumper in a line that stretched for five miles. Lee Petty competed in a friend’s Buick Roadmaster that he had driven from the family’s home in Level Cross, N.C. Accompanied by his young sons Richard and Maurice and his brother J.H. “Julie” Petty, the four eventually had to hitchhike their way home after Petty destroyed the Buick in the race. A sway bar broke on the car and sent it rolling over four times. Two wreckers were needed to remove the car from the track.
Sara Christian, described in early NASCAR press releases as “the leading woman stock car driver in the country”, traveled from Atlanta to compete. She qualified 13th but was relieved by Bob Flock during the race. However, since she started the race, she was credited with a 14th-place finish.
C.D. “Jim” Roper III, a Halstead, Kan., resident, learned of the race in the syndicated comic strip “Smilin’ Jack”. Eccentric moonshiner Hubert Westmoreland had planned to make his racing debut in the event, but Gastonia native Glenn Dunaway convinced Westmoreland to allow him to race his 1947 Ford.
Dunaway was flagged the winner, but during post-race inspection, NASCAR officials found that his Ford was equipped with “altered rear springs.” He was disqualified and the win was given to the 33-year-old Roper whose overheating Lincoln had finished second, three laps behind Dunaway. Westmoreland was furious and filed a $10,000 lawsuit against NASCAR. It was the first test of the sanctioning body’s authority. The judicial system sided with NASCAR and dismissed the lawsuit.
France had hit on a successful formula for NASCAR. With that day’s success, he moved NASCAR to the top of the list of no less than five other stock car racing sanctioning groups that existed at the time. One of those was the National Stock Car Racing Association, which was vying with France for the same drivers and cars in the same general area. Heading that organization was an ambitious, young North Carolinian named Bruton Smith.
Today, a historical marker sits at the original Charlotte Speedway’s location at the corner of Wilkinson Boulevard (U.S. Highway 74) and Little Rock Road.
- Contributed by Deb Williams