News & Media

Retro: Tulsa was a dusty adventure for NASCAR in 1956

December 16, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Large dust storm leads to furious Petty climbing from his car, waving the red flag

Sometimes there are unforeseen circumstances that force the postponement of a race. Usually, it's caused by inclement weather. But in rare instances -- such as the Florida wildfires of 1998 or the 9/11 attacks of 2001 -- events outside of NASCAR's control have required the sanctioning body to reschedule.

But an outright cancellation? There may be only one instance in NASCAR's Cup history where a race was started and never completed -- that being the scheduled 100-mile event on the half-mile dirt track at the Tulsa Fairgrounds in 1956, when a dust storm created a nightmare for drivers and officials alike.

"Petty pulled his Dodge into the infield, ran across the track, climbed into the flagstand, grabbed the red flag from the starter, and began waving it to stop the race."


In an effort to generate interest in that era, NASCAR scheduled races anywhere and everywhere. Many times races would be held on back-to-back nights as the series barnstormed through different regions of the country.

That was the case in August of 1956, as NASCAR scheduled a two-race visit to a pair of Oklahoma dirt tracks. To say there weren't many takers might be an understatement. Just 12 cars started the race at Oklahoma City -- a record for the smallest Cup field ever -- which paid all of $850 to winner Jim Paschal.

Lee Petty had led 168 laps before he broke a differential with seven laps to go, so he was already in a bad mood by the time he pulled into Tulsa. So imagine the surprise and disappointment that he and the other teams had when they realized the fairgrounds "track" was nothing more than a large expanse of dry hard-pan clay, set off with traffic cones to demarcate the turns. And even worse, according to one report, the only lights were a pair of bulbs that lit the grandstand area.

The 12 drivers from Oklahoma City who towed to Tulsa -- plus John Schipper, who entered his convertible -- reportedly argued with the promoters about their safety concerns, particularly after seeing the amount of dust kicked up during qualifying. But the weather was clear and a crowd of about 6,000 people showed up for the race, so the decision was made to go on with the show.

Almost immediately after the green flag dropped, the 13 cars began to create a huge dust storm, which covered everyone in the grandstand in a layer of red clay and made it almost impossible for the drivers to see more than a yard in front of them. As the sun began to set, the visibility got worse, as two cars crashed in the first 17 laps. At that point, no one dared try to make a pass for fear of unintentionally running into one another.

By Lap 32, Petty had had enough. According to reports, Petty pulled his Dodge into the infield, ran across the track, climbed into the flagstand, grabbed the red flag from the starter, and began waving it to stop the race. That set off an argument between the drivers, NASCAR officials and race promoters as the crowd became more and more unruly.

Local authorities were called in to restore order, the promoters eventually relented and refunded money to the fans, and NASCAR packed up and left. Although Speedy Thompson led all 34 laps from the pole, the race was declared abandoned and removed from the official record. No prize money was issued and no points were given.

Despite his mid-race mutiny, Petty was not reprimanded by NASCAR. In fact, his impertinence was probably welcomed, as Tulsa never returned to the schedule.

However, Tulsa's racing reputation was restored with an indoor race for open-wheel midget cars called the Chili Bowl, which uses much of the original clay surface from the fairgrounds -- albeit heavily watered.

And just to show that Mother Nature has a sense of humor, the race that followed -- NASCAR's first visit to Road America in Wisconsin -- is the only Cup race believed to be run to its full completion in a steady rain. Thanks to grooved tires -- and the standard windshield wipers on his 1956 Mercury -- Tim Flock won by 17 seconds over Billy Myers. It was Flock's 39th and final Cup victory.