Today marks the 65th anniversary of a day that changed the course of racing history forever.
June 19th, 1949. 31 men and two women prepare to take part in a race at a three/quarter mile dirt track in Charlotte, NC. The race is sanctioned by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and called the Strickly Stock Series. You may know it better as NASCAR, and you call it the Sprint Cup Series (or Winston if you're one of those traditionalists).
There are Lincolns, Fords, Buicks, Hudsons, Oldsmobile, Mercurys, a couple of cars they called Kaisers, and even a Cadillac. Their pilots? Well, we got bootleggers, moonshiners, chainsmokers, business men, dreamers, war vets, adrenaline junkies, brothers, cousins, and even a wife driving her husband's car. It was quite a sight.
13,000 people came by to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon of racing, oblivious to the fact that they are witnessing history that future generations can only dream of seeing with their own eyes. Early in the afternoon, the race is on and NASCAR's premier division is instantly born.
Georgia native Bob Flock leads the way from pole position, only to exit with engine issues five laps into the race; leaving his two brothers to try to finish in the money. The cars roar through the corners sideways, slinging dirt and bits of rubber at the enticed onlookers in the stands. By the time the race is half over, nearly half the field is out of the race.
One of the victims of the high attrition rate is Lee Petty. An eleven year old Richard Petty looks on as his dad Lee suffers a mechanical failure, causing his Buick to somersault through the air. Lee Petty walked away with only minor injuries. That eleven year-old kid would go on to become the most successful driver stock car racing has ever seen.
Bill Blair didn't pay much attention to all that though. The 37 year-old High Point, NC resident is too busy wheeling his big 'ol '49 Lincoln around this tiny little dirt track, out in front of the entire field. The pencils of the race scorers are smoking as they try desperately to keep up with the action. Their predicament worsens as the two ends of the pack meet and an endless cycle of cars start whipping around the circuit; lappers and leaders all mixed together as one loud entity.
With just 50 laps remaining, Blair's Lincoln finally gives up on him and as he falls out of the race. Gastonia, North Carolina's Glenn Dunaway takes control and gives the blue oval some time in the spotlight as the laps click away. Dunaway seems posed to take home the checkered flag and as the 200th lap is completed, he is enveloped by the rapturous applause from the crowd as he claims the checkered flag.
There's just one problem. You can't win a race in this so-called 'strickly stock' series unless your car is, well, strickly stock. NASCAR official Al Crisler quickly uncovered that car owner Hubert Westmoreland shored up the chassis by spreading the rear springs. The man that finished three laps behind Dunaway, Christian David "Jim" Roper, is credited with the victory.
Roper was only present for the race because he read about it in a local newspaper one day. The Kansas-born racer was never seen competing at a NASCAR race after that season in 1949, but it didn't matter, he still left an indelible mark on the history books that could never be washed away.
The grounds on which this historic race was run is now known as the Douglas International Airport, but a marker remains to remind everyone what happened there, 65 years ago on the 19th of June, 1949. On that day, millions of lives, most of which aren't even conceived yet, are forever changed, and a multi-billion dollar sport is born.
Not too bad for a Florida dirt racer with an idea, a ukulele, a pencil, and some napkins in the winter of 1947. Not too bad at all...