Motor City’s NASCAR debut was rough and tumble
— The traffic piling up on northbound Woodward jammed at the right turn onto State Fair, as the heat intensified and the humidity oppressed.
In the accumulating swelter, many of the 16,000 people traveling to the State Fairgrounds funneled to the parking lot behind the worn grandstand of the thoroughbred racing track.
Built in 1899, the horse track had been renamed the Michigan State Fairgrounds Speedway for the day, August 12, 1951.
Organizers scheduled a stock car race called the Motor City 250 as one of the gala events celebrating the 250th birthday of the country’s flourishing industrial city, then at its zenith.
Before the green flag, scheduled for 2 p.m., throngs were bumper-to-bumper going to watch the first NASCAR Grand National race in The Automobile Capital of the World.
In its third year arranging a championship cup series it would eventually name Winston, Nextel and Sprint, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing was not generally known. As the decade progressed, it would still vie with the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) and the Midwest Association for Racing Cars (MARC) for tracks, dates, cars and drivers.
“Detroit played a major part in getting NASCAR off the ground, as far as what we know as the Cup series,” said Buz McKim, historian of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Folks do think it was all in the southeast, and it was founded in Daytona, and a lot of the racing was in the southeast,” McKim said. “But, early on, Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, wanted to take what we know now as the Cup series as far as he could.”
Five races in the top NASCAR classification in Michigan in the first six years stake the state’s claim of being present for the creation: In 1951, at the State Fairgrounds and the Grand River Speedrome in Comstock, just outside of Grand Rapids; in 1952, at the State Fairgrounds and the Monroe Speedway at the Monroe County Fairgrounds; and in 1954, again at the Speedrome, or as locals called it, “The Drome.”
Long before network television and high technology auto haulers, the early drivers were barnstormers, driving from event to event with their race car on a tow bar behind the family car, if they had the money.
If they did not, they drove their race cars to the race, like the 236-mile drive to Niagara Falls, Ontario, the next race after the first Motor City 250.
Bill France Sr. and automobile executives managing companies that speckled Detroit after World War II knew what Henry Ford knew when he piloted his car in a race on the one-mile oval at the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe 50 years earlier, vanquishing his rival’s more powerful car: Racing automobiles was a dynamic exhibition of engineering, power, handling and reliability that encouraged customers and investors.
“Bill France got the opportunity to hold a NASCAR race at the Detroit fairgrounds in August of ’51, and it was a major, major deal for him and the sport because it showcased all of the manufacturers’ products and in their own backyard,” McKim said.
And a wild affair it was.
Before the race, the southeast corner of the race track was smooth.
That evening, after four hours, 21 minutes and 28 seconds of raucous, repeatedly violent racing, the ruts and holes dug into the perilous turn by careening, braking, accelerating, crashing, flipping, catapulting race cars made it serrated.
A reporter for The Detroit News described the deteriorating, increasingly risky conditions during the race.
“The turn was rougher than the Detroit River with the wind blowing hard upstream,” Harry Leduc wrote. “It looked from the press box as if the cars were driving on seas, instead of soil.”
The ensuing mayhem was, at times, extreme, almost like the old newsreels of humans’ first attempts at flight.
“There were five leaders,” Leduc wrote. “The lead changed 12 times. There was one seven-car smash up and one five-car crash. There were numerous solo events with machines rolling over, plunging into fences, throwing wheels, blowing tires, boiling over.
“Spectators were alternately aghast and cheering, infield fans racing hither and dither to scenes of destruction with police on horses and on motorcycles checking the concentrations.”
When drivers wrecked, fans would leave their seats or positions in the infield to sprint to the scenes, often arriving before ambulances and wreckers, driven by a mixture of curiosity and compassion.
Among those rolling his car that day was Lee Petty, NASCAR great Richard Petty’s father. He did it on lap 90, losing his windshield.
But Petty drove his Plymouth 160 miles through the dirt and dust, wiping his goggles with his handkerchief, to finish 13th, 17 laps behind.
“It was all preceded by bombs and balloons and songs and band music and an old and new car parade and flag raising, and climaxed by the victory of a personable young man who definitely defeated 57 other drivers, all who came through without a scratch of any kind,” Leduc reported.
In a Chrysler Saratoga, Tommy Thompson, 29, of Louisville, Kentucky survived Curtis Turner’s attempt to run him off in a late-race collision to take the $5,000 first place prize by 37 seconds. The rest of the field divvied up $7,000 that remained in the purse.
“Curtis Turner had the reputation of being a rough-and-tumble driver, and they rough and tumbled in the last laps,” said Bill Nickels, of the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. “And Curtis Turner lost out, and Tommy Thompson went on to win.”
The Packard Motor Car Company also donated the pace car to Thompson.
Handed the public address microphone after he won, Thompson told the throngs who surged headlong to congratulate him, “Your track was just fine at the start, but it was murder at the finish!”
The average speed was 57.588 mph, though the leaders averaged above 70 for the first few laps before the devastation of the surface slowed the field.
“I remember both races in Detroit,” said Jack Miller, an auto historian and founder of the auto museum, which sits in his father Carl’s former Hudson Sales & Service dealership in Depot Town, established in 1927.
Hudson, with its massive assembly plant at Conner and Jefferson, was the first automaker to embrace NASCAR, offering cars to drivers like Marshall Teague to race. And it dominated the early 1950s.
Dealers got entry sheets, encouraging them to enter their own cars, and tickets.
“It was kind of dusty and dirty, because that old track would dry out,” Miller said.
“My dad knew I wanted to get a picture, so I was allowed to go down with my Browning camera,” Miller said.
“All there was was a fence between the track and the grandstand — a four foot high fence! And I got Herb Thomas coming along, and there was a Champion Spark Plugs banner hanging there.”
Thomas was the 1951 NASCAR Grand National Champion, in a Hudson Hornet. One of the Hornets he owned is in the museum.
The Hudson era
The Hudsons swept the top three positions in the second and final Motor City 250 at the State Fairgrounds in 1952, which was attended by 26,000 people, according to organizers.
Tim Flock won both the race and the 1952 championship.
It was part of four years of domination of the Grand National Series by Hudson, a company named for the Joseph Lowthian Hudson, the Detroit merchant who founded the massive Woodward Avenue store and provided original financing for the automaker. (Hudson also financed construction of the thoroughbred track at the State Fairgrounds.)
The triumphant stretch for Hudson ended in 1954 when the manufacturer was folded into American Motors, part of the great consolidation of the 1950s that saw independent automakers fade and The Big Three prevail.
“They were exciting times, especially for a Hudson dealer because they had these drivers coming in and driving competitive cars, especially Oldsmobiles, that couldn’t believe they were getting their butts kicked,” Miller said.
In addition to Hudson, Oldsmobile, Chrysler and Plymouth, many other manufacturers participated in the Motor City 250s: Buick, Cadillac, DeSoto, Ford, Kaiser, Mercury, Nash, Packard, Pontiac, Studebaker and Willys.
But, for four years, Hudson dominated.
A key to success was the car’s low center of gravity. Hornets were about six inches shorter than most cars, with drivers and passengers riding low, between the frame rails.
And they were tough, with a steering assembly that included four tie rods, outer and inner, rear leaf springs splayed so the front ends were closer than the trailing arms, and front and rear sway bars, all features that enhanced stability and durability.
The “Twin-H” dual carburetor engines generated power from six-cylinders that rivaled the “Chrysler Eights.”
Unlike today, when NASCAR racing vehicles are anything but stock, the early ones were essentially out of the showroom.
When the boys in the advertising department of the Hudson Motor Car Company realized the dominance of their car on NASCAR tracks, they took full advantage.
“Time and time again Hudsons are demonstrating their power and safety and the fact that they are the most durable cars money can buy,” the director of advertising and merchandising G.R. Brower wrote to “all zones, other distributors and dealers,” on June 3, 1952.
“The one-half mile dirt tracks over which most of the races are run provide the toughest proving grounds possible.“Hudsons have now won 17 of the 20 races in which they have entered.”
When Flock also won in a Hudson Hornet in Monroe, July 6, 1952, Stan Diroff was there.
“My dad did the sound at the track, and so when this race came in I went down there with him like I did for other races,” said Diroff, who owns stores in Monroe and is on the board of directors of the county fair.
“A lot of people fro
m around town where there, certainly. Mostly, it was people who were interested in cars and racing. But most people did not know about NASCAR or that sort of thing. They just knew it was racing.
“The dust and dirt that would come up was something to deal with. The track really dried out, and when the cars all came around the tires kicked up a lot of it, digging in and getting traction.”
“I remember there was a strategy of getting to certain seats early, because one of the corners was particularly exposed to all of this dirt that came up, blowing into the stands.”
Fans no longer go to showrooms to buy nearly the exact models their favorite drivers race, and then drive to the long straightaways of Woodward, Telegraph, Gratiot or the windy roads in Rouge Park to find out how it performs.
They stand and cheer in the tens of thousands at MIS and in the millions in North America and elsewhere watching TV in their living rooms, where no dirt is kicked up to their perspiring faces on hot summer nights.
ut once upon a time tracks in Detroit and Michigan nurtured NASCAR, when it was a toddler.