News & Media

Retro Racing: NASCAR built from the ground -- and dirt -- up

June 07, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Tony Stewart's charity race at Eldora Speedway inevitably brings up the question: "Why don't Cup cars race on dirt?"

There was a time in NASCAR's distant past when it was unusual to find a pavement race on the schedule. All seven oval races in the inaugural 1949 Strictly Stock season were run on dirt. And the Daytona beach and road course only used a portion of paved State Route A1A, with the rest of the circuit made up of packed beach sand.

The first pavement race in Cup history came the following season at the half-mile in Dayton, Ohio, which provided Jimmy Florian with his only victory. Later that year, Harold Brasington's "modern" Darlington Raceway -- the South's answer to Indianapolis -- held the first Southern 500.

The second-largest paved track in the southeast opened in 1952. Raleigh Speedway, a 1-mile oval shaped like Martinsville, only with 16-degree banked corners, hosted seven Cup races between 1953 and '58.

Tim Flock's monkey mascot, Jocko Flocko, rode in the car for the final time in the 1953 race. Flock was leading when Jocko somehow got loose from his harness and went berserk inside the car, forcing Flock to make an unscheduled pit stop to have the monkey literally removed from his back.

Dirt tracks dominated the schedule throughout the 1950s, with 40 of the 45 races in 1955 being run on dirt. The reasons were simple: It was much cheaper to build and maintain a dirt track, plus a number of the venues large enough to host a NASCAR event were either former or active horse tracks.

But spectators would, more often than not, leave the track caked in dust and grime. And the complaints he received -- particularly from female fans -- led to Martinsville Speedway's Clay Earles making the decision to switch from dirt to pavement for his fall race in 1955. Two years later, the owner of North Wilkesboro, Enoch Staley, came to the same conclusion.

Still, it took a construction boom in superspeedways -- beginning with Daytona in 1959, and followed by Charlotte and Atlanta in '60 -- to tilt the scale in favor of pavement races. Even then, a significant number of events were held on dirt ovals throughout the decade.

But by 1968, when Richmond's fairgrounds track was paved between the spring and fall events, there were little more than a handful of dirt races left on the schedule. And on the last day of September 1970, the half-mile oval at the North Carolina Fairgrounds in Raleigh hosted NASCAR's final dirt-track race.

Given that most of the Cup regulars didn't have a dedicated car for dirt, only 23 cars made the starting grid. That included Richard Petty, who leased a year-old former Petty Enterprises-owned car that had been sold to Don Robertson. The car had been repainted red, white and gold -- although the No. 43 had replaced Robertson's No. 23 -- so it was one of the few times the King drove a car not adorned in Petty blue.

John Sears won the pole and led the first 10 laps before his engine let go. That gave the lead to Benny Parsons, who led the next 78 before the race's only caution came out. Petty's crew serviced his car 4 seconds quicker than that of Parsons', and Petty left the pits in front.

Seven laps later, Parsons pulled in with a broken A-frame, and Petty eventually lapped the field twice on his way to his 117th Cup victory and 30th on dirt. James Hylton, still racing in his 70s, is the only active driver from that race.

Only a tiny portion of the Fairgrounds track exists today. The main grandstands are used to host demolition derbies and other events during the North Carolina State Fair's run each fall.

According to statistics provided by Racing Reference, there were a total of 489 Cup races run on dirt between 1949 and '70. Not surprisingly, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is well-represented on the all-time winners list.

Lee Petty led all drivers with 42 wins on dirt ovals, followed by newly elected Hall of Famers Buck Baker and Herb Thomas, each with 40. Flock had 36 and Ned Jarrett recorded 33.

Driver Wins DriverWins DriverWins DriverWins
Buck Baker40 Marvin Panch5 Bill Amick1 Dick Passwater1
Herb Thomas40 Marshall Teague5 Johnny Beauchamp1 Tom Pistone1
Tim Flock36 Bob Flock4 Marvin Burke1 Marvin Porter1
Ned Jarrett33 Paul Goldsmith4 Red Byron1 Jim Reed1
Richard Petty30 Hershel McGriff4 Jim Cook1 Bill Rexford1
Junior Johnson23 Ralph Moody4 Darel Dieringer1 Shorty Rollins1
David Pearson23 Eddie Gray3 Joe Eubanks1 Jim Roper1
Speedy Thompson17 Frank Mundy3 Lou Figaro1 John Rostek1
Fonty Flock15 Gwyn Staley3 Danny Graves1 Leon Sales1
Jack Smith14 Bill Blair2 Al Keller1 Wendell Scott1
Joe Weatherly14 Lloyd Dane2 Elmo Langley1 Buddy Shuman1
Curtis Turner13 Parnelli Jones2 Paul Lewis1 John Soares1
Fireball Roberts12 Danny Letner2 Fred Lorenzen1 Donald Thomas1
Dick Rathman10 Dick Linder2 Tiny Lund1 Tommy Thompson1
Dick Hutcherson8 Eddie Pagan2 Lloyd Moore1 Danny Weinberg1
Cotton Owens8 Gober Sosebee2 Billy Myers1 Jack White1
Jim Paschal7 Bob Welborn2 Norm Nelson1 Cale Yarborough1
Rex White7 LeeRoy Yarbrough2 Bill Norton1 Emanuel Zervakis1

Two other Hall of Famers -- Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough -- each scored one win on south Georgia clay. Yarborough's was the first of his 83 wins, coming at the half-mile Savannah Speedway in 1965. Allison won two years later at half-mile Valdosta Speedway.