News & Media

Aumann: Short-lived Convertible Division left indelible mark

July 24, 2011, Mark Aumann,

The debate about the significance of Kyle Busch's 100th NASCAR victory last weekend brought to mind NASCAR's short-lived Convertible Division, the introduction of qualifying races for the Daytona 500, Richard Petty's first win, and another North Carolina driver named Bob Welborn, who won three titles.

Convertible Division

Winners (1956-59)
Bob Welborn19
Joe Weatherly12
Frank Mundy6
Glen Wood5
Fireball Roberts4
Jimmy Massey3
Bill Amick3
Allen Adkins2
Gwyn Staley2
Possum Jones2
Billy Myers2
Lee Petty2
Joe Lee Johnson2
Tom Pistone2
Danny Letner1
Marvin Panch1
Fonty Flock1
Larry Odo1
Don Oldenberg1
Paul Goldsmith1
Tim Flock1
Billy Carden1
Ken Rush1
Ned Jarrett1
Shorty Rollins1
Richard Petty1
Rex White1

By the mid-1950s, NASCAR was successfully running its Grand National, Modified and Sportsman divisions on both sides of the country. But Bill France continued to look at expansion, particularly in the Midwest, and he found it in a series called the Circuit of Champions All Stars, an all-convertible car division.

After hosting one race at North Carolina's Bowman-Gray Stadium in 1955, France purchased the entire series from Midwestern promoter H.E. Redkey in December. France's plan was to run NASCAR-sanctioned convertible races as a companion division to the hardtop Grand Nationals.

It was a smashing success from the start. Fans were fascinated by the idea of being able to see the driver working the steering wheel inside the car, and the Convertible races began to draw attendance -- and fields -- equal to that of the Grand National events the following day.

The top factory teams of the day entered cars for their best drivers, and the list of Convertible race winners included stars like Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Glen Wood, Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Marvin Panch, Tim Flock, Paul Goldsmith and a scrawny 22-year-old kid named Richard Petty, who bested a field of 29 at Columbia Speedway in July of 1959 for the first of what would turn out to be a total of 201 NASCAR wins.

The new series debuted on the Daytona Beach and Road course in February of 1956, with Curtis Turner leading 34 of 39 laps in one of Pete DePaolo's factory Fords after pole-sitter and teammate Joe Weatherly broke a water pump. Fans would get used to seeing Turner's name at the top of the leaderboard all season, as he went on to win 22 of the 47 races.

But it was Welborn, a native of Denton, N.C., who took home the championship trophy in each of the first three seasons, thanks to his remarkable consistency. Welborn won nine Cup races in a 13-year period, but his forte turned out to be the ragtops. In 111 starts in NASCAR's Convertible Division, Welborn drove his Chevrolets to 19 wins and 87 top-10s.

While Turner was piling up the victories in '56, he also failed to finish 14 times. Welborn only won three times all season -- at Fayetteville, Hickory and Greensboro -- but he amassed 32 top-five and 39 top-10 finishes, good enough to beat Turner by 836 points.

Darlington Raceway got in on the convertible craze in 1957 with plans to host a 300-mile Convertible race in the spring to compliment the Labor Day Southern 500. Fireball Roberts won the inaugural Rebel 300 in front of 17,000 fans, leading 181 of the 219 laps and lapping the field twice.

While Turner nearly doubled Welborn's win total that season, scoring 11 victories to Welborn's six, Welborn only finished outside of the top 10 seven times in 36 starts. Welborn's closest competition instead turned out to be Weatherly, who won four of the first nine races and had a solid lead in the points until he blew an engine at Martinsville and finished 27th. Weatherly still had a chance to catch Welborn with five races remaining, but consecutive DNFs at Charlotte, North Wilkesboro and Norfolk wrecked any hopes of unseating Welborn.

But with the pullout of factory support midway through the 1957 season, the Convertible Division was the hardest hit. The schedule was pared from 36 to 19 races and fewer teams had the money to run both series. Still, Welborn added eight more wins and a third Convertible title to his resume, earning him a chance to run as teammate to Lee Petty in 18 Cup races, of which he won four.

Imagine including the Nationwide Series in the Daytona 500. That's about what France did when the brand-new Daytona International Speedway opened in February of 1959. France included both hardtops and convertibles in the inaugural Daytona 500 field. In order to set the lineup, France decided to hold a pair of qualifying races -- one for each class -- and Welborn earned the pole by winning the Convertible sprint race. Since then, the Daytona 500 field has always been set by a pair of qualifying races.

Welborn's championship streak was snapped at three by Joe Lee Johnson in 1959, the final season for the Convertible Division. Ned Jarrett won the final points race, on the half-mile dirt track at the Charlotte Fairgrounds, as only 15 races were held.

However, that wasn't the end of convertible racing in NASCAR. Darlington's Rebel 300 was a convertible-only Cup points race until 1962, with Weatherly, Fred Lorenzen and Nelson Stacy winning the final three events. The race was switched to hardtops beginning in 1963, eventually expanded and is now run as the Saturday night Southern 500, usually on Mother's Day weekend.

Welborn, who made his final Cup start in 1964, was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame in 1982. He died in 1997, one year before NASCAR listed him as one of its 50 greatest drivers in 1998.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.