NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1950-1959)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IJanuary 21, 2010

In the earliest days of stock car racing, horsepower was king. The bigger and badder the engine, the better the driver's chances were of winning and dominating races. However, in spite of the fact that several competing engines were more advanced, the aerodynamic and low-slung Hudson Hornet managed to win in 1951, 1952, and 1953 with a 308 cu. in. (5.0 L) inline six cylinder that used an old-style flat-head engine, proving there was more to winning than just a more powerful engine.

In 1950, the "NASCAR Grand National Circuit" became the new title for the previous year's "Strictly Stock" racing division. Entering its second season, NASCAR's Strictly Stock late-model division was renamed the "Grand National" division because, NASCAR president Bill France explains, "Grand National indicates superior qualities."  Though only eight Strictly Stock races were staged in 1949, this newfangled late-model racing circuit was already a hot commodity. It became NASCAR's No. 1 series, replacing the Modifieds as the headlining attraction.

Automobile manufacturers began to take notice, and with accelerated research and mechanical development, were producing more powerful passenger cars with high-compression, lightweight V-8 engines for the public. The first manufacturer to really invest in NASCAR's Grand National Circuit was the Nash Motor Company. The company offered cash prizes as contingency money in a few races and promised to deliver a new Nash to the 1950 NASCAR Grand National champion.

At the time, it typically took three years for a new design of car body or engine to end up in production and be available for NASCAR racing. Most cars sold to the public did not have a wide variety of engine choices, and the majority of the buying public at the time were not interested in the large displacement special edition engine options that would soon become popular. However, the end of the Korean War in 1953 started an economic boom, and car buyers immediately began demanding more powerful engines again.

The 1950 title chase was quite memorable. In the 19-race campaign, the points lead changed hands nine times among seven different drivers. Bill Rexford took the points lead in the next-to-last race at Winchester, Ind., and finished 110.5 points ahead of Roberts. 

Roberts, the 21-year-old youngster out of Daytona Beach, could have won the title with a fifth-place finish in the season finale. With Rexford on the sidelines, Fireball elected to charge to the front rather than employ a conservative approach. Roberts led twice for nine laps, but blew the engine in his Oldsmobile and wound up 21st.  

In addition to Rexford and Roberts, other drivers to lead the standings during the season included Curtis Turner, Lloyd Moore, Tim Flock, Red Byron, and Harold Kite. The following chart compiles the complete standings for 1950.

The 1955 NASCAR Grand National season was pivotal for the future of NASCAR. It started when Mercury Outboard magnate Carl Kiekhaefer appeared virtually overnight with a powerful Chrysler 300. He brought the car to Daytona without a driver, but Tim Flock, who quit NASCAR in 1954 after he was disqualified from the Daytona victory, was the logical choice. A deal was struck, and Flock won the 1955 Daytona race in his first start with Kiekhaefer.

During the 1955 NASCAR championship season, Flock won 18 races and Kiekhaefer Chryslers won 22 of the 39, dominating the championship by 1,508 points in front of runner-up Buck Baker. But he didn't take the points lead until the 33rd race of the season in mid August. Flock's record of 18 wins wasn't surpassed until 1967 when Richard Petty won 27 races.

Consistent Lee Petty led the points standings most of the season, but was no match for the determined Flock, who drove the powerful Kiekhaefer Chryslers. Petty's consistency kept him on top of the points standings, but he tapered off in the second half of the season. Petty won six races and wound up third in the final standings.

By late 1955, GM and Ford were pulling out all the stops to derail the Kiekhaefer/Chrysler express. The big showdown came at Darlington's Southern 500, NASCAR's premier super speedway race and, to date, the only 500-miler.

The battle of the Big Three manufacturers so captured the fancy of Southern racing fans that a frenzied peak of anticipation grew each day. The entire Darlington race grandstand seats were sold out more than 24 hours in advance, as Herb Thomas won the race driving a Chevrolet.

1957 saw several notable events happen; chief among them, the AMA banned manufacturers from using race wins in their advertising and giving direct support to race teams, as they felt it led to reckless street racing. This forced manufacturers to become creative in producing race parts to help racers win.

Race teams were often caught trying to use factory produced racing parts that were not really available to the public, though many parts passed muster by being labeled as heavy-duty "Police" parts. Car manufacturers wanted to appear compliant with the ban, but they also wanted to win.

NASCAR tracks at the time were mainly dirt tracks with modest barriers, and during the 1957 season a Mercury Monterey crashed into the crowd. This killed many spectators, and resulted in a serious overhaul of the safety rules, which in turn prompted the building of larger more modern tracks.

Also in 1957, Chevrolet sold enough of their new fuel injected engines to the public in order to make them available for racing (and Ford began selling superchargers as an option), but Bill France immediately banned fuel injection and superchargers from NASCAR before they could race. However, even without official factory support or the use of fuel injection, Buck Baker won the championship in 1957 driving a small-block V-8 Chevy Bel-Air throughout the 50-race season.

Lee Petty dominated much of the 1958 championship season, driving an Oldsmobile and winning by 644 points in a 50-race season over Buck Baker.  The season also marked what would become the first of many milestones in a young Richard Petty's long and storied NASCAR career by starting his first race on July 18, 1958 in the 100-lap race at Toronto's Canadian National Exposition Speedway. The 21-year-old Petty finishes 17th in the 19-car field after hitting the fence on the 55th lap.

The 1959 NASCAR Grand National season was full of excitement as the very first Daytona 500 was held on a massive new, 2.5-mile speedway in Daytona Beach. The Feb. 22 show turned out to be better than a Hollywood production.

For 500 miles, devoid of a single caution period, America's finest machinery battled around the new Daytona International Speedway in dizzying fashion. Speeds were alarming—certainly faster than any stock car had gone and within a whisker of the top speeds turned at Indy.

In the late stages, the race boiled down to a three-car struggle between Lee Petty's Oldsmobile, Johnny Beauchamp's Thunderbird, and Joe Weatherly's Chevy. The finish was so close Bill France stepped in to announce the results were "unofficial" until all available evidence could be studied in the form of photos and film. After 61 hours, Lee Petty was declared the official winner, by about one foot. Petty averaged 135.521 mph, 33 mph faster than any other NASCAR Grand National race.

The Daytona 500 was an electric success that generated more publicity than any other stock car race to that point in history. A trackside audience of 41,921 watched as NASCAR stock car racing was about to venture into a whole new chapter of ultra-fast super speedways, ushering in the Golden Age of stock car racing.

* Many thanks to wikipedia, about.com, and NASCAR.com for some of the data for this article .