NASCAR History: The Good Old Days, Pennsylvania Style

Marc BolandAnalyst IJune 7, 2008

(NOTE: This is another in a series of posts on the “Good Old Days” of NASCAR, this week's entry centers on the state of Pennsylvania, site of this week's Sprint Cup event at Pocono International Raceway.)

While Pennsylvania has been featured in NASCAR's recent and modern history with events held at Pocono International Raceway since 1974, the state's NASCAR roots go back to the sanctioning body's earliest days.

Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh has the honor of holding the first NASCAR event: a Strictly Stock race in October 1949. Lee Petty recorded his first NASCAR Strictly Stock victory in the 100-mile, 200-lap race. Sara Christian finished fifth, the best finish ever for a female driver in NASCAR's premier stock car racing division.

Christian, an Atlanta housewife, was also among the 33 starters in the inaugural NASCAR Strictly Stock race at Charlotte held earlier that year. Heidelberg held additional events in 1951, 1959 and 1960. Herb Thomas, Jim Reed and Lee Petty respectively, won those events.

The dirt half-mile also held a single Convertible Series event in 1956 that was won by Joe Weatherly.

Langhorne Speedway (Langhorne, Pa.) is perhaps the most famous with arguably the most colorful history of the old NASCAR tracks in the state having run sanctioned events continuously, starting with the Strictly Stock division, then Grand National from 1949 until 1957 with two Convertible events in '56-'57.

The track's unique circular layout earned Langhorne the name "The Big Left Turn" and features a virtual who's who of NASCAR's greatest drivers having won on the 1-mile dirt.

Dick Rathmann led all the way to win the International 200 at Langhorne Speedway in June 1953. It was the first NASCAR event open to both domestic and foreign cars. Lloyd Shaw won the pole in a Jaguar but faded to a 23rd place finish.

The top foreign made entry was a '53 Jaguar driven by Dick Allwine in sixth place with a pair of Porsches finishing eighth and ninth. The most unusual entry was wheeled home by Dick Hagey to 19th after starting his Volkswagen in 32nd.

Another oddity at Langhorne was a win by Tom Cherry in June 1952. Cherry won a 100-mile NASCAR Speedway Division race at Langhorne, the final event staged for the then new open-wheel class. A paralyzing nationwide steel strike and a blisteringly hot summer are factors in the early demise of the once-promising NASCAR series.

The first event of the Speedway Division the preceding month at Darlington was won by Buck Baker in a Cadillac-powered open-wheel car in the 200-mile event.

Dick Rathmann prevailed in the accompanying 100-mile NASCAR Grand National race, which was added to the program to boost attendance. Baker eventually ended the '52 season as the Speedway Division champion.

Lincoln Speedway (New Oxford, Pa.) still operates today with a program that features one classes of Sprint Cars and a 358 Late Model class. Lincoln's NASCAR history dates to June 1955 in a 100-mile event won by Junior Johnson.

The win was his second career win after capturing his first NASCAR Grand National victory at Hickory Speedway in North Carolina the preceding month.

Other Grand National winners at Lincoln were Buck Baker (twice, in 1956-57), Marvin Panch, Lee Petty, David Pearson and Dick Hutcherson who won the last GN event held at the track in 1965.

Hutcherson won nine events that year as a rookie, a record that may never be broken. A single Convertible Series event was held at Lincoln in 1956 and won by Curtis Turner.

Reading Fairgrounds (Reading, PA) held two NASCAR events in 1958 and '59 both won by Junior Johnson and both in 1957 Fords. The '58 win was the third of three consecutive following wins at Bradford (Pa.) and Columbia (S.C.).

The '59 event was his second of the year and followed a win at Wilson Speedway in North Carolina. Less than an hour before the Wilson race, the wooden grandstand caught on fire and burned to the ground. No one was injured, but the 8,000 spectators had to watch the race while standing along the catch fence.

Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, Pa.), also still in operation today, held a single NASCAR event in June 1954 won by Herb Thomas at the wheel of a 1954 Hudson Hornet, closely followed by Dick Rathmann in a second Hudson.

Several other Pennsylvania tracks held single events during the Fifties, including Sharon Speedway (Sharon, Pa.). Lee Petty in a Petty Enterprises '54 Chrysler took a 1954 win touring the 200 laps on a .500 mile dirt track ahead of Buck Baker and Dick Rathmann.

Petty claimed seven races and finished in the top 10 in 32 of his 34 starts in 1954. In another interesting side note to the season, then NASCAR president Bill France was escorted out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area in May. AAA chief steward Harry McQuinn said at the time, "We have a long-standing disagreement with NASCAR on what constitutes good racing."

At Bloomsburg Fairgrounds, Herb Thomas won the only event held at the Bloomsburg, PA dirt half mile. The Oct. 3, 1953 event saw Thomas take the checkers ahead of Dick Rathmann and Buck Baker. Lee Petty (sixth), Fonty Flock (15th) and Jim Paschal (16th) also were in the starting field that day.

New Bradford Speedway (Bradford, Pa.) held a single Grand National event in June, 1958 that was won by Junior Johnson over Lee Petty, Bob Duel and Jack Smith.

Pine Grove Speedway (Shippenville, Pa.) was also a one-hit wonder, for lack of a better term, with a one time only Grand National event held in October 1951. Two-time NASCAR Grand National Champion (1952, 1955) Tim Flock won the event in his famous Black Phantom '51 Oldsmobile owned by Ted Chester.

As seen NASCAR's historical record goes far beyond what some claim to be a "Southeastern" sport. Far from it, the sanctioning body's first days featured events held in the northeast, the far western United States, Canada and Mexico (story here []).

In fact, the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto was the site of King Richard's first start. He finished 17th.

Further NASCAR commentary can be read at Full Throttle (rated as one of the ten most influential NASCAR Blogs by Sports Media Group), F1 Commentary at F1 Rage! and Asian Motorsports news at Asian Motor Sports.