Friday, November 17, 2023

NASCAR’s Unique and Forgotten Racing Divisions: Speedway Division

1952 Photo of Buck Baker and his #87 Penny Mullis Cadillac Special (ISC Archives/NASCAR Media)

Years of Competition: 1952-1953 

Notable Drivers: Buck Baker, Jack Smith, Ralph Liguori

Staging competition on race tracks, NASCAR was competing in a battle of its own at the points of its formation. Holding motorsport events since 1902, AAA (American Automobile Association) possessed a prestigious position of sanctioning many popular auto racing events in United States until 1955 from cross-country runs to closed circuit events for open wheel roadsters and stock cars. The crown jewel of AAA’s influence in motor racing competition was their role with the Indianapolis 500.  

Announced November 10th of 1951, the NASCAR Speedway Division was described in the 1953 NASCAR Record Book as a response to competitors “who wished to test their skills in the big cars”. Although NASCAR’s history is rich with competition among modified category vehicles (a race car type that could be described as open wheel), the Speedway Division featured machines using older Indianapolis-style race car chassis with some boasting past Indianapolis 500 linage. Speedway cars were powered by production car-based engines to keep the sport more economical. Cadillac, Ford, Mercury, Hudson and GMC truck engines were among the powerplants installed in the vehicles.

The auto racing public got their first taste of the NASCAR Speedway Division at Daytona Beach in February of 1952. Part of the year’s Speed Week program, Speedway vehicles competed in one-mile runs down the beach course. At the end of three days of runs, Buck Baker took the $1,000 grand prize prevailing in the showdown on February 8th. Baker’s 140.41-miles per hour average speed in his Cadillac-propelled Wetteroth beat Fireball Roberts who drove a Ford-powered machine. 

Image from NASCAR Program of Speedway Cars at 1952 Daytona Beach Speed Week

The first proper race for the 1952 NASCAR Speedway Division took place at Darlington Raceway. In the 200-mile event consisting of 19 cars and resulting in 15 lead changes, Buck Baker won the contest with a four-lap lead. The Darlington Raceway event would be the only paved oval event during the 1952 campaign. While the Indianapolis-style cars attracted crowds throughout the 1952 Speedway Division campaign, the fields were comparatively smaller to the stock car racing tours.

A total of seven races made up the inaugural season for the series with Buck Baker carrying on early momentum to take the year’s title. The Speedway Division provided crucial success for the young Baker who was still chasing a first victory in NASCAR’s Modified or Grand National series prior to 1952. Going on to named to being one of NASCAR’s 50th Greatest Drivers in 1998 (alongside his Daytona 500-winning son Buddy), Buck Baker’s career including two championship in what is currently the Cup Series.

Image from NASCAR Program of Sam Waldrop and his Hudson Special at 1952 Daytona Beach Speed Week 

Although the first year of the NASCAR Speedway Division appeared to show some promise, a number of issues almost immediately started to cripple the tour. The 1952 season was cut short due to a steel strike as well as an extremely hot summer that cancelled races past June. The NASCAR Speedway Division returned for the 1953 season but the future prospects for the tour was threatened. Not including a second visit to Daytona Speed Week where Buck Baker defended his speed trial win, only four events would be held for the tour.

Sprint car driver Pete Allen won the 1953 Speedway Division championship by a three-point margin. Runner-up in the points standing was Ralph Liguori, prolific driver with an astonishingly long racing career that included competition in multiple USAC divisions and would retire in 2008 at the age of 70. Allen also won what turned out to be the final race at Champion Speedway located in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

While the Speedway Division concluded operations, NASCAR to continue to explore the territory of AAA/USAC competition with the Midget series starting in 1953.



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