Friday, November 17, 2023

NASCAR’s Unique and Forgotten Racing Divisions: National Convertible

1959 Daytona 500 Photo of Richard Petty with 1957 Oldsmobile Convertible (Photo Credit Pattie Petty/RacingOne Multimedia/NASCAR Media)

Years of Competition: 1955-1959

Notable Drivers: Don Oldenberg, Bob Welborn, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty

Convertibles have always proven to be alluring automobiles. During the 1950s, the Detroit Three automakers regularly incorporated a drop top body style on the same platform as their two-door hardtops. With convertibles offered with the same V8 engine options as those with coupes, it was only natural for stock car racers of the time to want to race them. The NASCAR Convertible division was for the time of the mid-to-late 1950s a hotly-contested battleground for roofless vehicles.

The foundation for the division was founded in 1955 but was originally not part of NASCAR. Originally founded under Indianapolis-based SAFE (Society of Autosports, Fellowship and Education), the convertibles initially raced as the All Star Circuit of Champions. Competitors were required to win at least five races in hard top events before being eligible to drive in a race-prepped convertible. Don Oldenberg claimed the first and only title for the SAFE All Star Circuit of Champions. By the end of 1955, NASCAR and SAFE agreed to a merger that saw the tour to become the NASCAR Convertible division for the new year. Oldenberg’s championship is historically recognized as part of NASCAR.

The first official NASCAR Convertible Division event was a 39-lap event at Daytona Beach on the beach and road course. Curtis Turner driving a 1956 Ford won the race by more than a lap ahead of Fireball Roberts. A busy 47-race schedule shaped the 1956 Convertible Division’s season that included a visit to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition Speedway (Don Oldenberg won the 150-lap race finishing ahead of future NASCAR Grand National champion Joe Weatherly). Turner stormed to victory in 22 races but the 1956 championship was  Bob Welborn driving a Chevrolet. Welborn would repeat as winner of the season-ending crown in 1957 for what was a 36-race tour. 

Bob Welborn #49 1957 Chevrolet running at Bowman Gray Stadium (Bowman Gray Archives/NASCAR Media) 

Following the tragic crash at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, a group called the AMA(Automotive Manufacturers Association) consisting of the major car companies sought to cease open support for auto racing in the middle of 1957. NASCAR was justifiably concerned for the quality and quantity of fields for both the Convertible and the Grand National series. For 1958, an innovative “zipper top” (a removable steel top) could be run by competitors to allow them the same car to run in both major NASCAR divisions. Convertibles would often compete in Grand National races unaltered in a handful of events going back to 1956. 

The 19-race 1958 season for the NASCAR Convertible Division included Richard Petty’s first NASCAR outing at Columbia Speedway in South Carolina on July 12th (his proper Grand National/Cup debut took place in Toronto at the CNE Grounds on July 18th). The season ended with Bob Welborn as series champion for the third time taking eight race wins.

With the opening of the Daytona International Speedway in 1959, the NASCAR Convertible Division staged a 100-mile, 40-lap event. Shorty Rollins took the victory by two feet over Marvin Panch. A 1958 Edsel was among the 21-car field for the convertible event. A sizable number of convertibles also took part in the 59-car field that competed in the inaugural Daytona 500.

Joe Weatherly Drives #12 Ford Thunderbird Convertible in 1959 Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway (NASCAR Media)

Hosting Grand National stars such as Lee Petty, Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts, the NASCAR Convertible Division also served as a launch pad for many greats including Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Joe Weatherly who ran in the open-top series early before earning champions in what is now the NASCAR Cup Series. 1963 Daytona 500 winner Tiny Lund and Glen Wood (a founding member of the legendary Wood Brothers team that many drivers drove for including Lund) were also drivers in the NASCAR Convertible Division.

1959 was the last season for the NASCAR Convertible tour where Joe Lee Johnson took the final series crown. Although the series was popular with fans and competitors early on, decreased entries and lack of interest from promoters led to its demise. The Rebel 300 race at Darlington Raceway would run from 1960 to 1962 as the last convertible events but Grand National points were awarded.

With convertibles growing scarce through the 1970s ultimately ended any possible chance to revive NASCAR’s prominent open-top stock car division.



Rumblin' Ragtops: The History of NASCAR's Fabulous Convertible Division by Greg Fielden

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