The Early Days of Stock Car Racing
Stock Car Racing Part One: The Beginning
When most people hear the word stock car, an image of a modern-day Nascar, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch pop into their heads. But stock cars have been around for nearly a century now.
Have you ever wondered when--or where--stock car racing began? Its origins are pretty interesting, and go way back, so we thought we'd share some of the facts with you.
The 18th Amendment banned the production and possession of alcohol in 1920, triggering the beginning of Prohibition. It wasn't that drinking alcohol was illegal--it wasn't-- just buying or selling alcohol was. Not to be denied, many people staring crafting their own liquor, what we commonly call moonshine.
In order to avoid the consequences of disregarding the 18th Amendment, moonshiners got clever. Since transport was a big part of the process, they knew they needed to be inconspicuous and did most of their deliveries at night, in total darkness. Thus the term "moon runners" was born.
But even moon runners weren't immune from the law, and they had one big problem to solve: their cars were not fast enough to outrun the local police. The answer was clear: make modifications to their cars to make them faster.
Producers and runners would take ordinary cars and tweak them so they were capable of reaching high speeds. All the modifications were under the hood, so they remained inconspicuous. It worked, and soon they were leaving law enforcement in the dust.
It wasn't long before the moon runners began bragging about their exploits. They boasted of making nighttime trips on dirt roads at more than 120 mph (194 kilometers per hour) -- with no headlights. One thing lead to another, and before you know it, the boasters were racing on weekends to see who's car was faster. It was here that stock car racing was born.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, racing had become very popular, as did the practice of souping up cars. The sport continued to grow over the next 15 years. By 1948, it was a widespread sport, but different in every region. NASCAR formed in 1949 as a way to organize the chaos.
Organized stock-car racing began at Langhorne, Pennsylvania, in 1939. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), founded in 1947 at Daytona Beach, Florida, gave the sport its first formal organization. The sport had become popular on the beach at Daytona Beach from the 1930s, but the first organized racing in Daytona took place in 1948. By the 1970s several other organizations, including the United States Auto Club (USAC), also sponsored stock-car races. Automotive companies often sponsor racing teams in order to test performance and safety equipment.
When NASCAR was first formed by Bill France, Sr. in 1948 to regulate stock car racing in the U.S., there was a requirement that any car entered be made entirely of parts available to the general public through automobile dealers. Additionally, the cars had to be models that had sold more than 500 units to the public. This is referred to as "homologation". In NASCAR's early years, the cars were so "stock" that it was commonplace for the drivers to drive themselves to the competitions in the car that they were going to run in the race.
While automobile engine technology had remained fairly stagnant in World War II, advanced aircraft piston engine development had provided a great deal of available data, and NASCAR was formed just as some the improved technology was about to become available in production cars. Until the advent of the Trans-Am series in 1967, NASCAR homologation cars were the closest thing that the public could buy that was actually very similar to the cars that were winning the national races.
The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket V-8 with a displacement of 303 cu.in. is widely recognized as the first postwar modern overhead valve (OHV) engine to become available to the public. The Oldsmobile was an immediate success in 1949 and 1950, and all the automobile manufacturers could not help noticing its higher sales of the Oldsmobile 88 to the buying public. The motto of the day became "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday". 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 6-cylinder that used an old-style flathead engine, proving there was more to winning than just a more powerful engine.
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 then car buyers immediately began demanding more powerful engines.
In 1955 Chrysler produced the C-300 with its 300 HP 331 cu in (5.4 L) OHV engine, which easily won in 1955 and 1956. In 1957 several notable events happened. The Automobile Manufacturers Association (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.
At this juncture, stock car racing evolved into what is called "The Golden Age." Stay tuned for our next installment which will walk us through the next era of oval-track racing here in the US.
The Editors at the Encyclopaedia Britannica
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