Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

Stock Car Racing Magazine

September 1973

Tales from the Beach

They took a hard-packed beach and turned it into a road and raced cars on it and everyone thought they were a little daffy. Some of them were. But a little daffy goes a long way.

Most present-day auto racing fans sit and listen—enthralled—to the tales that pour from the occasional old man of the tracks, the fellow who seems to be a million years old, who was taking in racing when the present-day fan was a child and who is still taking in races, wearing the same old, faded, black Wynns Oil Additive jacket. Often times, the old fellow sits at the same place in the same dingy grandstand as he was sitting in when first the present-day fan laid eyes on him when Uncle Jack took the present-day fan to his first local stock car race.

"He's been around a long time," Uncle Jack said at that time. "He's almost as old as auto racing itself." The present-day fan—a mere youngster taken up by the color and noise and excitement of his first race—might have just filed away that comment, being more taken up by the old fellow's dusty shoes with the casually-tied shoe-laces, the baggy trousers and bewhiskered visage, the lined face and the sad, rheumy eyes that never seemed to be bothered by the flying dust and rubber, as though his multitude of years at the track had given him an invisible force-shield that defended him against all of the evils of the short dirt track that served to make present-day fans keep their eyes squinted and watery.

As the present-day fan persisted in coming back to the track, he perhaps found occasion to park his posterior near the venerated location which the old man frequented. On those occasions, a short conversation might have developed between the two, between, as it were, the Old Racing and the New Racing. Eventually, after enough afternoons and evenings of casually and unintentionally sitting down next to the old fan, the present-day fan might broach what seemed to be a delicate subject:

"Why is it, old timer, that you can sit here, week after week, and never be bothered by the dust in the air?"

The old man might give the present-day fan a quizzical look, squint his one eye down just a little bit to give him the appearance of Popeye, and comment: "Geeze, young feller, this here ain't no dusty track. Fact, this here track's mighty clean when ya compare it ta some of the tracks I used to go to back in the '20s."

From that moment, a conversation might generate itself. Usually a conversation, after some casual comments on the present-day drivers plying the gritty clay, that put the old timer into the mood to talk about the Old Days.

On one of those occasions, which would seem to keep you distracted enough to slightly annoy you but not make you annoyed enough to want to brush the old fellow aside, you'd likely hear about the rough-shod drivers and the inevitable stories about the crooked track promoters.

He'd tell you, his captive audience, about how some sharpie, a real slick feller of a con man, would come into town, stay at the fanciest hotel, eat the best meals, and eventually make a deal with one of the farmers in the area to 'rent' his fallow cornfield for an automobile race.

Naturally, with little else going on to distract one's attention, the slicker would be able to talk up the forthcoming race, generating a whole bushel of interest, getting all the spunky young fellows in the area just about spittin' at the mouth to get ahold of their old man's jalopy so they could show the town folks what kind of a driver they were against Huey Johnson down the street. Naturally, they had to show off for their favorite girl and all that, too. And maybe Amos Phillips down at the service station would prick his ears up at the mention of an automobile race down in Staley's field and feel that, as the town's chief wrench-twister, he'd have a little bit of an edge in getting the old sedan behind the garage ready for a go at all the young punks who thought they were so sharp.

And then there was the $200 purse.

The itinerant promoter was sure to mention that in the course of the conversation. And the two hundred dollars was not something to sniff at in those days. "Hell," the old timer'd say, "you could almost buy yerself a new car fer that kinda money."

There was, then, no need for a big advertising campaign to get the show off the ground. Mentioning it in the barbershop—"You do remember what barbershops are, don't ya?"the old timer interjects—and in the hotel lobby and down at the service station was enough to get it around to everyone that mattered.

Come the day of the race there were enough cars there to make a caravan to the next town, although some of the biggest talking fellows found at the last minute that their fathers would have none of it and kept the keys to the car safely in the back pocket of their workin' jeans as they sat in one of the makeshift seats at the 'track' waiting for things to happen.

Well, more often than not, something happened all right. The race got off to a start, the cars jumping and jolting through tractor ruts in Staley's field, the high ground clearance the only thing that saved the bottoms from being left on the ground as the cars nearly got hung up in the rises.

The rivalries always made for a lot of excitement as the young fellows gave Amos Phillips a hard time of it. Maybe Amos'd have to stop and tighten one of his wheels during the race, working on it right there at the track, but whatever the case, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of action, and a lot of screaming and shouting and a good time, well worth the four bits for admission.

During the excitement, enough of a diversion would be created for the slimy dog of a promoter to make a clean getaway into the next county. Might be that the best competition was after the race in Staley's field was over and the winner and his friends hopping into the steaming, wheezing car, and took it down the main road in hot pursuit of the promoter, trying to catch him to collect their prize money.

"Wall, son," the old timer would pick up at that point, "them was the good old days. 'Taint like that no more, though—not since NASCAR got into stock car racing. Nope, they sure straightened that out quick."

At that point, after taking a draw on a battered pipe that looks as old as the old timer himself, it would be time for the folksy tale of how Big Bill France made the trek down to the South and started stock car racing as we know it today.

Problem with the folksy tale is that, shoot, it's all true.

It goes something like this:

"Big Bill France—well, he wasn't really big then—was born on September 26, 1909, in Horse Pasture, Virginia. Yep, that's what I said, son. Horse Pasture. Now don't look at me funny like that, so, this is a true story. All right. That's better.

"Now, as I was saying, he was born in 1909 and went to school in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. Went to D.C. Central High School 'en he was good at playin' basketball, being he was six-four.

"His daddy worked at a bank 'en Billy worked part-time during high school at the Washington Commercial Bank. After graduation, though, his interest in cars started ta surface. He took a job at a gas station in D.C., where he was a battery and electrical system repairman. From there he got himself a job at a Ford dealership and then he moved to a Buick place. He was a good front-end alignment man.

"During that time he found that he liked to take the family car to the races around D.C. and Baltimore. Now I don't mean to watch the races. No serrie, he was there ta run 'em.

"Now along comes the romance part of this here tale. Anne Bledsoe, from Nathan's Creek down in North Carolina, was a student nurse at the Children's Hospital School of Nursing, and they met at a dance Billy was attending at Anne's school. Sure enough, as easy as the proper lug nut goes onto the proper lug, they got married on June 22, 1931.

"Now that, as you may have read in your history books, wasn't a good time ta be married or nothin'. And to make things worse, Anne and Billy had a kid. Called 'em Billy, Jr.

"Yep, Billy Senior, he knew about money, 'en he knew there weren't much to be had in Washington about that time. So's he packed Annie and Billy, Jr. and his tools into an old car and trailer that was battered as everybody else's, and he headed toward Miami, where he thought there'd be some money to be made. He had $25 with him, and $75 salted away in a bank in Washington.

"Well, anyone who tells ya that fate ain't got no hand in things, you tell 'em to look me up, 'en I'll set 'em straight. Because let me tell ya this, in October of that there 1934 Bill France found that although he wanted to go to Miami, his car had done quit on him in Daytona. The car had so done quit that even Billy's wrenches couldn't stroke it back into life. So he parked it there and they began looking around for work.

"He had some car working background to draw on, so he opened a service station, where he sold gasoline and did front end and electric work on cars.

"Now Billy found that he'd broken down in the right town. Daytona was already a car place, what with the Beach right there offering a great natural race course since 1903. At low tide, with the water out and the sand hard, the course was 500 feet wide and about 23 miles long.

"During 1936, the money people in Daytona decided to put on a stock car race. They were goin' to use regular street cars and put up a little money for the winner, but the people, they wanted the race ta bring in people ta stay at the town ta put money inta the registers.

"Well, although he only placed fifth and didn't make any money from it, Bill France liked the race and his banking sense put dollar signs in his eyes, even though the next year's race lost money for the promoters.

"Well, sonny, by 1938 the promoter of that there beach course race was none other than Big Bill France himself. And he admits ta making a 'little profit' offa that one. The next year he made a little more and then even more the following year.

"Then the war came and there wasn't no racing. Billy worked in a plant making submarine chasers instead of checkered flag chasers.

"After the war, though, as I'm sure ya remember, people had some money. 'En where the beach races had made money for Billy France before the War, they were really successful after the War.

"So good, in fact, that he began expanding his races ta include some in North 'en South Carolina 'en Georgia. Naturally, I know ya'all heard about Junior Johnson 'en fellers like that outrunnin' the revenuemen. So them people up there knowed about fast race cars.

"'En the same folks what raced them with bottles a corn whiskey in 'em, came to see 'em race around a track. A course that was the times I was tellin' ya about earlier. When promoters would scare up a race 'en cheat everybody who got close.

"Some of the driver were just as bad as the promoters. They'd make a deal with one promoter ta run at his track 'en then if another promoter came along with a bigger fist full a cash, they'd take that 'en forget about the original deal. It was just a plain mess. Racing had a real bad name, 'en it looked like it'd keep goin' like that for a long time. Hell, in some places it's still like that ever once in a while.

"Anyhow, everybody got mad at somebody. If the promoter skipped with the gate money before the race, the drivers wouldn't run for no money, 'en the fans who'd paid to see 'em run would be mad. If the promoter skipped during the race, the race'd get done 'en the drivers would be mad. 'En there weren't no rules that held fer more 'en one track—'en when there were rules, no one paid much attention to 'em anyway.

"Well, to state it as it was, it was a perfect time for someone like Big Bill France ta happen.

"And he did.

"It was December 14, 1947, when France called a meetin' at the Ebony Bar of the Streamline Hotel, which France had some interest in moneywise. Well, it had ta be a open meetin', so France couldn't bar the promoters and fly-by-night who happened to show up ta see what was goin' on there. A good number of the hustlers came ta the meetin', but so did a lot a good men who were really interested in seeing stock car racin' develop in somethin'.

"Let's see now, this is important, so let me think 'a who was there exactly—of the good guys, that is. There was Bill Tuthill from up in New Rochelle in New York, 'en there was Louis "Red" Vogt from Atlanta, who built some of the cars Bill France drove, 'en there was Joe Littlejohn, Alvin Hawkins, Harvey Tattersall, Sam Packard, Bob Osiecki, Buddy Shuman, Marshall Teague—I'm sure ya heard of him—'en Bill Street, Bob Richards 'en Tom Gallan.

"Well, Tuthill and Billy France were the men behind this thing, 'en from the start the hustlers and crooked promoters saw right away that what was goin' on wasn't goin' ta do them no good. After all, 'en I want ya to believe that this is how it was then, so, there wasn't much way ya could dupe people—drivers 'en fans alike—if ya were workin' under rules 'en being honest.

"Even some a the legit people couldn't see how somethin' like was being suggested could work. Something as—what's that word everybody is usin' these days? Nebulous, is it?—nebulous as racing just wasn't goin' ta sit still while a bunch of men told it what ta do. After all, if there was ever an individual in America, it was the race driver. He didn't like ta be told what ta do or ta be told how ta do where he already thought he already knew how ta do. Wall, it didn't seem too promisin' a suggestion. But what did they have ta lose? The feelin', after it was all thrashed out, was that if they didn't do somethin', someone else would.

"They tried ta come up with somethin'. What they did was ta set up some committees, just like other groups do.

"So they put Ed Samples of Atlanta in charge of a Technical Committee ta set up rules for displacement, 'en they put Fred Dagavar in as chairman of the Competition Committee, which was ta set up rules on how a race was ta be run. In turn, Fred nominated Bill France as President of the governin' body. The nomination was carried, 'en Bill France was it.

"Then they suggested that they write down everybody who was there so that, if a book or a story was ever written—I think they was tryin' ta be funny about this—that everybody's know who was there. The only ones who were there who I didn't already mention were Red Byron, Fred Horton, Eddie Bland, Ed Bruce, Chick Dinitale, Frank Mundy, Joe Ross, Tommy Garback 'en Bill Perry.

"Then they had ta pick a name. Red Byron said let's call it National Stock Car Racing Association, but there was already one 'a them in Georgia. So Bill France said let's everybody write down a name 'en we'll pick from that, but nobody'd second that motion. Red Vogt then suggested The National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing. The two names, NSCRA and NASCAR, were put ta the vote. Seven ta four, NSCRA won. Then they started sayin' again that there was already a NSCRA. Ed Bruce said let's forget the NSCRA thing altogether, 'en call it National Association of Stock Car Racing, incorporate it in Florida, 'en get on ta other things. 'En that's how it got named," the old fellow finished.

The explanation had spent the old fellow. He sat there, sort of looking out at the racing that was going on as though he were looking at it from across a great sea of time. He relit his pipe, sighed, and suggested that I do some reading on my own on the organization, that he was sure that there were some parts of his tale that were maybe reversed or told wrong—after all, his memory wasn't what it used to be and all that.

Actually, though, if you'd have taken time, as a present-day fan, to explore what the old fellow had said, you'd have found that he was pretty much right in what he'd related about NASCAR's founding days and about the conditions of racing at the time.

You'd also find that his explanation, which had tired him considerably, had started your curiosity working overtime. And from that, a little research into the rest of the story might be worthwhile.

You, as the present-day fan, would find that the organization, at that momentous meeting, felt that a strongman was needed to be the pilot of the organization. Someone who would be honest and forceful enough to see the group through what would have to be some trying years. It was suggested that a racing stalwart like E.G. "Cannonball" Baker was needed to help the organization get to its feet and begin walking. The move was voted in.

Further discussion that day included such items as insurance coverage, championship point systems, geographical zones, etc. In addition, elections for remaining officers were held, with the following results: Bill Tuthill was named secretary, Eddie Bland became vice-president and Marshall Teague was elected to treasurer.

The group was starting out with basically no money, and the prime movers saw that what was needed in such a tenuous organization was some legality. So, the problem was to find a qualified lawyer who would work with the organization for mere peanuts. The hunt was a very short one, for on Main Street in Daytona lived a man who was honorable and who enjoyed auto racing. His name was Louis Ossinsky, and the fledgling organization engaged him on a promise-to-pay basis to get the organization incorporated and rolling.

NASCAR was set up as a regular, run-of-the-mill Florida corporation, with the papers filed on February 21, 1948. The group stated that its business was to "sanction" races for stock cars. The sanctioning clause was the only one put into the corporation; there were no provisions for the group to do other gainful activities within stock car racing; no racing cars or negotiating for drivers to drive the organization's car or for owning race tracks. Just sanctioning of stock car races, pure and simple.

The move was a wise one by the major stockholders, who were France, Tuthill, and Ossinsky. It was especially good from an idealistic viewpoint, as the organization would not enter into any hassles where there could possibly be a conflict of interests. In addition, it was a wise business move on France's part, for with the organization not getting into the business or race tracks, he was left free to form his own organization that would get into the business of building and running the race tracks.

The situation put France in what might be termed a precarious position, but it was one the likes of which Big Bill France thrives on. During the first year, 1948, NASCAR sanctioned nine big races. Needless to say, one of those races was going to be the race promoted by Bill France on the Daytona Beach Road & Beach Race Course.

The 1948 season saw the first set of rules published, which started off with 1.) Care eligible—1937 models and up through 1948. '37 and '38 models must have 4-wheel hydraulic brakes to 35.) Regulation crash helmets must be used.

The first race was run before the incorporation papers were through the courts. Run on February 15, the race on the Beach Course was run with the winner being Red Byron, second place going to Marshall Teague, and third to Bob Flock.

During 1948, there were 52 races sanctioned, with seven at Greensboro, N.C., six in North Wilkesboro, N.C., five in Lexington, N.C., four each at Charlotte, N.C. and Macon, Georgia, and various others in such diverse locations as Langhorne, Pennsylvania and Occoneechee, N.C.

That first year there were some interesting names in the winner's circle:

The second full year of operation saw the number of sanctioned races increase to 87 races, with the NASCAR headquarters moving to 800 Main Street in Daytone Beach from 29 Goodall Avenue.

Besides moving the office, 1949 saw the introduction of a division that was to become very popular. The division was to be called the Grand National division, and the first race was a 150-miler at Charlotte, sanctioned by none other than Bill France, promoted by—you guessed it—Bill France. While France was promoting Grand National races at North Wilkesboro, Daytona Beach, Martinsville, and Langhorne, Ed Otto was promoting them at Pittsburgh, Pa. and Hambug, N.Y. There were eight GN races that France and Otto promoted, and they paid out something like $40,000 in prizes, hardly enough to cover the coffers in one of the short-track Grand Nationals today.

There was suddenly a lack of fatalities in racing, and France credited it to the enforcement of NASCAR rules and regulations. The [auto racing] pond was not about to be that quiet and contented, however.

There was a big blow about to come off when five drivers were charged with conduct detrimental to racing in the wake of a Charlotte race. Four of the men were suspended, while the fifth, Jimmy Thompson, was found innocent; one of the suspended drivers, Marshall Teague, was reinstated later in the year. The remaining three drivers were suspended for the entire year, and word began getting out that NASCAR's bite was as bad as its bark.

Of the three men suspended, one was to raise some legal questions for the new organization. He was suspended when his car was found technically wanting at the Charlotte race, and he went so far as to take NASCAR to court, claiming that France and NASCAR were running a monopoly. His feeling was that if General Motors was not allowed to operate a monopoly on cars, then France and NASCAR could not run a monopoly on racing. The hearings lasted two days, but the court threw out the suit, and NASCAR passed its first legal test.

Since NASCAR is a closed corporation, no one ever says much about who holds what stock. It was assumed, however, in 1949, that France and Tuthill each owned 40%, while lawyer Ossinsky held the outstanding 20%. In a move by Tuthill to get more racing moving, he wanted other promoters to be brought into the group and to be given parts of the organization's stock. France was agreeable to having promoters buy in, but did not want to give any of his stock away. Tuthill, who wanted the strength of Ed Otto's association for the organization, gave Otto half of his 40% for free, if Otto would affiliate himself with NASCAR. Which, of course, Otto was happy to do. After all, the price was certainly right. Otto in turn used his influence to lure other promoters into the NASCAR fold, further strengthening it at a time when Tuthill felt it needed strength, while France felt that, despite the fact that it sanctioned only 85 races in 1949, it was quite strong as it was.

Following the stock realignment, the headquarters of the group was moved to 42 South Peninsula Drive. In new headquarters, the first order of business was to look about for insurance for the race car drivers and for the NASCAR officials who took their chances on pit road and in the garages and on the track.

With the image that stock car racing had at that time, no one was beating down the doors at 42 South Peninsula Drive to write insurance policies. So France went out on a public relations campaign, trying to convince the insurance agents that, due to NASCAR's strict rules on safely, the group was a good risk—at a reasonable price.

France hit New England insurance man John Naughton with a two-pronged attack: 1.) claims would be kept to a minimum due to NASCAR's rather careful and rigid rules and 2.) that the business of insuring stock cars would become Big Business within a few years.

Naughton came up with a policy which would require NASCAR to pay a minimum premium of $30,000, or roughly $100 per race if NASCAR could manage to sanction 300 races. The job then was to find slightly more than 200 additional races to sanction—in all honesty, and with the NASCAR rules—for that year so that the minimum premium could be met.

Without lowering NASCAR standards, they made a search, and managed to line up some 395 sanctioned events for the year. That year, 1950, was important for more than insurance, however.

It was the year of the "superspeedway."

Darlington, S.C. residents awoke one day to find that they were the hometown of the first track build specifically for the quickly advancing stock cars that had been battling each other for several years on carefully-sanctioned but relatively small race tracks. Some 1.25 miles long, its promoters wanted to stage a 500-mile stock car race, an entirely new concept jelling competitive stock cars with a track especially designed for them. NASCAR examined the proposal and saw a lot of pros and cons, specifically the track—and the race—could really give stock car racing a boost by the prestige of the new track and the speeds and competition possible on such a specially built track, but, on the other hand, it could harm NASCAR's efforts if it were allowed to be run without very strict enforcement of NASCAR rules.

Negotiations were set up and the track met the NASCAR rules, one by one, finally climbing the final hurdle when, a month before the race, it deposited a check for $25,000 in assured prizes.

The fastest qualifier for the first superspeedway race was Wally Campbell of Camden, N.J., who drove his Olds 88 to a record of 82.35 mph, but who did not manage to last the 500 miles. Eventual winner was Johnny Mantz, who drove a 1950 Plymouth. The race took better than 6½ hours, and it can be assured that there were a lot of pauses in each of the spectators' attention to the action of the race. The average speed for the race, by the way, was 76.26 mph, and Mantz took home $10,510.

It is claimed, by many historians, that the running of the first Southern 500 at Darlington officially made NASCAR a national organization, and the Grand National division truly national, with entries having been filed from the South, certainly, but also from such states as New York, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, California, and Pennsylvania.

As has become common knowledge, the Darlington race became the standard-bearer for NASCAR. Darlington was to NASCAR what Indianapolis was to USAC. The track was NASCAR's fastest, grandest, and the catapult that made NASCAR's future on 'superspeedways' certain. Indeed, Darlington became the flagship of NASCAR's fleet of increasingly fine tracks.

The advent of Darlington has had many very consequential influences on the direction of NASCAR, especially as far as the Grand National division has gone, which, in the main, is the backbone and mainstay of the entire NASCAR organization. The faster speeds and the more sophisticated attitude toward stock car racing in the South, which had had such haphazard and humble beginnings, made two things grow very much in union: the gate receipts and the number of superspeedways.