News & Media

Retro Racing: Earnhardt patriarch makes first start as fill-in in '56

November 15, 2012, Mark Aumann,

With the 2012 season finally winding down, including one more race weekend and then the postseason banquets, it's interesting to look back to a time when it seemed like the schedule never took a break.

Starting in 1954 and continuing for the next decade, NASCAR's schedule makers defied the Gregorian calendar. The first race of the 1955 season was actually run at High Point on Nov. 7, 1954 -- two weeks after the 1954 season ended at North Wilkesboro.

By the time the rest of the world rang in the New Year for 1964, NASCAR already had run four races that counted toward that season's standings.

But the oddest of all had to have been Nov. 11, 1956, when not only did NASCAR run two races on the same day in different regions of the country, but one was the next-to-last race of 1956 while the other was the 1957 season-opener.

The Buddy Shuman Memorial 250 at Hickory Speedway had been scheduled to run on Oct. 6, but wet weather left the dirt track unusable, and the race was moved back a month. However, that date conflicted with the 150-mile race scheduled for the road course at Willow Springs Speedway in Lancaster, Calif.

Fireball Roberts had planned on running both, but was forced to make a choice. Since Buck Baker had already wrapped up the 1956 championship -- and Roberts was running for the 1957 title -- he went west. In that race, Roberts finished second to teammate Marvin Panch.

But that left owner Pete DePaolo needing to find a replacement driver for the No. 22 Ford, someone who knew the fast way around Hickory's tight little dirt bullring. He turned to 28-year-old Ralph Earnhardt, a favorite of Hickory fans and just coming off his third track championship.

Earnhardt made DePaolo look like a genius when he won the pole at a speed of 68.278, faster than either Ralph Moody or Bill Amick in the other Ford factory cars. And even though Baker's Chrysler beat Earnhardt's Ford to the first corner to take the lead, Earnhardt stuck right with the leaders.

Junior Johnson eventually passed Baker, but when his engine developed vapor lock on Lap 81, it was Earnhardt who took over the point. He held it for the next 15 laps before Speedy Thompson, who had won the Hickory spring race, worked his way up from ninth position to get by Earnhardt.

Thompson went on to lap the field, including Earnhardt. However, with five laps to go, Thompson realized he may not have enough fuel to make it to the finish. So he made a beeline for the pits as Earnhardt unlapped himself.

Thompson's crew dumped just enough gas in the car in a 5-second timed stop to get him back on the track in front of Earnhardt -- but most of the 3,500 in attendance, including the DePaolo organization, thought Earnhardt had the lead and pandemonium broke out when the two cars flashed across the start/finish line 4 seconds apart.

So who won? No one seemed certain, as Thompson and Earnhardt waited for official confirmation. NASCAR's timing and scoring crew quickly went back through the scoresheets to double-check their math, and declared Thompson the winner.

Unlike last weekend at Phoenix, when it seemed everyone but the fans were fighting, the joy in the Hickory grandstands that day soon turned to anger. The fans began to boo Thompson as he accepted the winner's trophy -- and things were about to turn even uglier when Earnhardt stepped in.

He announced to the crowd over the public address system that he was satisfied with NASCAR's decision, and that calmed things considerably.

The 1956 season finally finished one week later at the Wilson County Fairgrounds in eastern North Carolina, with Thompson dominating the race, only to lose the lead with 15 laps remaining. That left Joe Weatherly and Baker to duke it out in the closing laps, with Baker taking the lead for good as the two came down for the white flag -- a fitting finish to his season championship.

Ralph Earnhardt posted six top-fives, including a best of second place twice, and 16 top-10s in 51 Grand National starts from 1956-57 and 1961-64 for the likes of Petty Enterprises, 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Cotton Owens (seen here in 1961 at Darlington) and Robert Smith, among others. (Smyle Media)

Earnhardt went on to win five Hickory track championships -- and posted six top-five finishes in NASCAR's premier division during an eight-year span. But he never came as close to winning a Cup race as he did at Hickory Speedway in the season that wouldn't end.