News & Media

Retro: NASCAR tripled the action one day in 1951

June 17, 2011, Mark Aumann,

With points leaders scattered across U.S., Burke comes from nowhere for win

The recent doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway featuring open-wheeled cars brought to mind a time when NASCAR did that one better, running three races on the same day in 1951.

Bill France was determined to spotlight the "national" in his fledgling -- but mainly regional -- National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing. With the success of the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington the previous season, drivers around the country began to show interest in stock cars and tracks in hosting races.

NASCAR already had strong ties to the Northeast, having run several races in Pennsylvania and New York during the first two Cup seasons. And 1950 champion Bill Rexford -- who turned 23 that season -- was a native of Conowango Valley, N.Y.

But the sanctioning body wanted a West Coast presence, and in 1951, France found a handful of tracks in California willing to run races under NASCAR sanctions. However, most of the big-name drivers running for the championship were unwilling (or unable because of the costs involved) to tow across the country, leaving mostly California-based drivers to fill the fields out west.

So on Oct. 14, 1951, NASCAR sanctioned three races: a 100-mile race on the dirt at half-mile Martinsville Speedway, a race of similar length at a half-mile dirt track north of Pittsburgh known as Pine Grove Speedway and a 250-miler at high-banked Oakland Stadium in California.

With a tight battle for the championship, the top three drivers in the points standings each chose a different venue. Points leader Herb Thomas and most of the Cup regulars stayed close to home and comprised the 23-car field at Martinsville. Fonty Flock towed Frank Christian's No. 14 Red Devil out west, while brother Tim Flock -- running third in the standings -- chose to make the trip to Shippenville, Pa.

Martinsville turned out to be a race in which it wasn't necessarily advantageous to hold the lead. Thomas started on the pole in his Fabulous Hudson Hornet and led the first 28 laps before crashing, leading to an 18th-place finish. Curtis Turner then took over the top spot, only to have a tie rod break. That left Billy Myers in front, but soon he was passed by Leonard Tippett.

Tippett soon fell victim to mechanical issues when his Hornet broke a driveshaft. That handed the lead to Atlanta's Frank Mundy, who had been tabbed as a fill-in by owner Ted Chester in the No. 7 Gray Ghost Oldsmobile. Despite pressure from Lee Petty and Myers, Mundy led the final 114 laps for his second win of the season and the $1,000 first-place check.

Tim Flock, driving Chester's other car -- the Black Phantom -- had a much easier time of it up north. Rexford went out early and Flock was never headed, beating John McGinley, Billy Carden, Jimmy Florian and Lloyd Moore for his sixth win of the year, also worth $1,000.

Imagine a short-track Talladega Superspeedway with twice the steepness in the corners. That pretty much describes Oakland Stadium, a tremendously fast five-eighths mile with turns banked at an incredible 62 degrees. Bob Sweikert, who went on to win the 1955 Indianapolis 500, once turned a lap at over 108 mph there in a roadster.

The fastest way around Oakland Stadium was much like running Darlington. The groove was right up against the outside wall, making passing incredibly difficult. Once a driver grabbed the lead, it was his until he made a mistake or broke something.

Fonty Flock had the newer, more powerful Oldsmobile, but the locals had the advantage of being more familiar with the track, and that eventually paid off for Marvin Burke, who grew up in nearby Pittsburg, Calif., and had raced competitively in the area for several years after World War II. The 33-year-old Burke led 156 of the 400 laps in his 1950 Mercury, beating two other Bay Area natives -- Robert Caswell and Wood Brown -- to the finish line. Flock wound up a distant 11th.

Burke never competed in another NASCAR race, leaving him with the rare distinction as the only driver in NASCAR's history books to be undefeated. Burke, who died in 1994, was recently inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Martinsville was later paved and remains on the NASCAR schedule, but the other two tracks have been long gone from the racing scene. Pine Grove never hosted another Cup race and eventually was shut down in the late '50s. However, the outline of the track can still seen south of Shippenville on satellite images. Oakland Stadium hosted two more NASCAR races in 1954 but fell victim to development shortly thereafter.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.