Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: First Race at Money-Strapped Charlotte Wasn’t Pretty

The first 600-mile race at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway was held on June 19, 1960.

It wasn’t a glorious debut event for NASCAR or the new track. The fact is, it was an uncompetitive mess.

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Sixty cars started the race and only 16 were running at the finish, largely due to engine failure, other mechanical maladies and a disintegrating track surface. The race was slowed by eight caution periods for 45 of its 400 laps – and it took over five and one-half hours to complete.

Averaging just over 107 mph, Joe Lee Johnson of Chattanooga, Tenn., won the race by four laps over Johnny Beauchamp.

Johnson should have never won.

Jack Smith, a veteran from Georgia, was leading comfortably by five laps (he had already led 139 laps) when a flying chunk of asphalt flew into his fuel tank. Johnson led the final 72 miles.

Smith wasn’t the only driver to suffer from an asphalt missile. The track had been crumbling almost from the start of the race.

Given all the trials, tribulations and financially exhausting calamities that spawned during the track’s construction, it’s not incorrect to speculate the race should have never been held when it was.

In fact, it had already been delayed once due to lagging construction. Another postponement to address the many problems would have been appropriate.

But the track’s owner/operators, entrepreneur Burton Smith and NASCAR veteran driver Curtis Turner (whose popularity was due to his leadfoot racing style) couldn’t afford to wait. They needed to generate desperately needed cash.

The concept of a new, handsome superspeedway in the Charlotte area seemed to be appropriate. It was conceived by the construction of the massive Daytona International Speedway, which staged its first race, the Daytona 500, in February 1959.

The race was so successful it prompted other enterprising entities to think that another race on a big track – and not on another half-miler that littered the NASCAR Cup Series schedule – could be fan appealing and thus, financially successful. 

To that end, it had to be built at a much larger venue than some hamlet located in Georgia or the Carolinas.

It evolved that three such speedways were under construction in 1959, in Atlanta, Charlotte and Hanford, Calif.

The California entity had an interesting, if brief, history. Built by an extravagant sportsman named H.L. Marchbanks, who named the track after himself, the 1.4-mile Marchbanks Speedway held its first race one week before Charlotte.

Just 7,000 people attended the race in 104-degree temperatures. The field was composed of drivers from the ARCA Menards Series West circuit. Cup regulars from the East considered the purse – about $17,500 – not enough to make the cross-country trek.

Marchbanks Speedway staged another race in 1961 and then was gone from NASCAR.

Smith, a man of ambition and vision, pictured the Charlotte superspeedway as one of fan accommodation and competitive superiority. Its first race, the World 600, would be the longest in NASCAR and offer a purse of well into six figures.

Ground was broken on the new speedway on July 29, 1959. And then everything hit rock bottom, so to speak.

The initial construction budget of $1 million disintegrated quickly. Moving earth went smoothly until boulders were discovered.

The cost of moving them was quickly surpassed when it was revealed that boulders weren’t the only problem. A half-million yards of granite was.

As a result, expenses rose to more than $500,000 over budget, which included fees for dynamiting. 

Smith and Turner sought additional funding from outside entities and potential investors. The seemingly never-ending process continued well into 1960.

The 600-mile race was originally scheduled for May 29. As the date approached, crews worked 12-hour shifts to complete paving. Temporary lights were installed so that the frantic work could be finished.

The race was postponed until June 19.

Paving was completed on the morning of qualifying. But drivers knew trouble was brewing. They knew that the asphalt wouldn’t hold together for 600 miles.

To avoid as much damage as possible, and to hopefully keep flying chunks of asphalt from going into the driver’s compartment, cars were outfitted with big screens over the grille and windshield. Some were equipped with flaps over the tires.

“Damn cars looked like tanks,” Richard Petty said. 

“Pretty sure you could park a Chevy in some of the holes,” said Buck Baker.

NASCAR officials weren’t blind to the situation. They encouraged the makeshift protective equipment and urged competitors not to plow into the infield between the track and pit road. There was no grass there and it would create a massive dust storm.

The race had barely started before trouble arose.

On the fourth lap, Junior Johnson spun in the fourth turn, spun through the infield – exactly what NASCAR did not want to happen – plowed into the temporary victory lane structure and ended up in his pits. Once work was completed, he continued to race.

Then Petty did exactly the same thing, except he didn’t take down the victory lane structure.

“Junior had already done that,” Petty said.

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Five days later, NASCAR reprimanded Johnson, Petty and several others, and then told them they were disqualified for an improper entrance into the pits.

“An improper entrance?” Petty said. “What was I supposed to do after I spun like that?”

Prior to the race, NASCAR had insisted that to enter the pits by any other means than the correct one, via the entrance to pit road, was worthy of disqualification.

Which meant for Johnson, Petty and others accused of the infraction, the race awarded no money and no points.

Close to race day, Smith and Turner managed to gather enough cash to keep the creditors at bay. But they didn’t have enough on hand to pay the purse.

But at the last minute, Turner secured about $106,000 and avoided doom. It wasn’t certain how, or from whom, he got the money and he wasn’t talking.

Suffice it to say that as a businessman, Turner was just as lead-footed as he was a driver. He made many rapid, speculative deals – not all were successful.

The first World 600 wasn’t pretty, but it was completed. The crowd of about 37,000 (it was announced at over 75,000) eased the debt somewhat but it was still sizable.

Smith and Turner continued their hunt for income.

Not long after the race, Turner called on a potential investor who would become the catalyst for one of the greatest confrontations and controversies in NASCAR history:

The Teamsters Union.

But that’s another story.

About the author

Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Joshua

I love Waid’s World. Always obscure topics and stories from NASCAR’s history. Thanks Waid!

DoninAjax

Curtis Turner stories usually have an R rating but there was one where he was at a track walking in the pits in a white suit and asked to drive a car and said he didn’t want money. Needless to say he won the feature and gave the winnings to the driver. The next week a guy asked the driver if he could drive the car and he was told “No, I’m waiting for the man in the white suit.” Then there are the stories about the parties.

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