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NASCAR Hall of Fame probes stock car history with new exhibit

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Red Vogt, who suggested the NASCAR name. Photo courtesy NASCAR Hall of Fame.

By no means did stock car racing start with NASCAR. Rather, a patchwork of stock car racing organizations blanketed the country before and immediately after World War II, and hardly any of them agreed on rules, race structure, or driver eligibility. Promoter Bill France aimed to rectify that situation, and his efforts – along with those of many others – forms the basis of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s upcoming exhibit, “1948: Proving Grounds.”

“Most of the exhibits in our great hall are more contemporary, but with the 70th anniversary of the first NASCAR season, we wanted to look at what was a largely forgotten season of the series,” said Dan Simone, curator for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

France, originally from Washington, D.C., migrated to Florida in 1934 and, after placing fifth at one of the first – if not the first – stock car race on the sands of Daytona Beach in March 1936, he took over promotional duties for the race.

While France had a world-class track on his hands (literally, given the number of land-speed racers who made their way to the sands of Daytona and nearby Ormond to etch their names in the record books), he didn’t exactly have the sport of stock car racing to himself at the time. Other promoters pushed races as far away as Elgin and California; meanwhile in France’s corner of the country moonshine runners capable of outrunning highly modified stock-appearing cars proved well suited to the sport and filled the ranks of other stock-car racing sanctioning bodies like the National Stock Car Racing Association and the U.S. Stock Car Drivers Association.

According to Simone, as many as a half-dozen stock car sanctioning bodies operated in the Southeast alone during the late 1940s, a direct result of the boom in interest among all types of motorsports shortly after World War II.

Except, as noted above, their rules all differed. Some wouldn’t allow racers from other sanctioning groups to compete in their own events. Some cared little for safety. And it wasn’t unheard of for fly-by-night promoters to skip town without paying out race winners’ earnings. Without any kind of organization or cooperation, France reasoned, stock car racing could never become a truly national sport.

So in 1946 he proposed his first solution to the situation: the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, with a guaranteed payout of $1,000 to the year’s champion. According to the Auto Racing Research Associates, Ed Samples won the 1946 season while Fonty Flock beat out Samples, Red Byron, and even Marshall Teague for the 1947 championship.

By the end of 1947, France – emboldened by two successful seasons of NCSCC racing – convened a few dozen stock car racers and race promoters in the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach to present his ideas on how to improve the NCSCC, which to that point had only run one race outside the South. France’s big idea for the new series – aside from guaranteed payouts, a uniform set of rules, providing for insurance coverage, and crowning just one national stock car racing champion – was to introduce three divisions: Stictly Stock, Modified, and Roadster.

Those in attendance agreed, so France dissolved the NCSCC and replaced it with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, for which Cannonball Baker would serve as commissioner and Teague treasurer. Though France officially incorporated NASCAR on February 21, 1948, the first NASCAR race ran six days earlier at Daytona Beach. Byron won that event in a Ford coupe and went on to win the Modified championship that year even though Flock took 15 of the year’s checkered flags in Modified.

According to Simone, France succeeded where the other stock car racing associations didn’t due in part to France’s insistence on paying out points bonuses at the end of each season and to NASCAR’s aggressive race schedule that in some cases visited multiple tracks within a state during a single season. “He really brought racing to the people,” Simone said.

The Roadster division ultimately proved unpopular, but Strictly Stock – its debut postponed until June 1949 – found its fans and eventually gave way to the Grand National division as NASCAR officials permitted modifications for both safety and speed. The 1949 season would also see at least three women enter the ranks of stock car drivers: Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley, and Louise Smith.

Simone said that putting together an exhibit on NASCAR’s first season proved difficult largely because so few artifacts from that time exist today. “Even when you get to 1949 and 1950, there’s a lot more floating around,” he said. “And unlike MLB or NFL, it’s not that easy to look up statistics. We know who won those early races, but if you go down the standings there’s not so much.”

One of the cars in the exhibit, a 1939 Ford coupe, does have period stock car racing history, though Simone said it’s unknown whether it competed in that first NASCAR season. Another car replicates on that competed in the short-lived roadster series while other cars typify the various other motorsports NASCAR competed with on a national level.

“There was a lot of uncertainty going into the season – not just in getting through the season, but also in what the 1949 season held in store,” Simone said. “It was really striking to see how much of an experiment it was.”

The exhibit opens July 11. For more information, visit