NASCAR

Speed Reading: NASCAR's greatest all-star race

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 

On Saturday night at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, NASCAR's best will trade paint swatches and fender dents at roughly 180 miles per hour in racing's version of the midsummer classic. Twenty-two drivers will participate in the showdown, featuring former champs, defending champs, race winners, pole winners and one winner of a popularity contest. Even the winner among the losers will be in the mix.

Big deal.

On a steamy night nearly 50 years ago, a lineup of only 15 cars featured more legends, winners and studs than this weekend's all-star event could ever hope to have. Tom Higgins, the greatest NASCAR writer that ever walked the face of God's green earth, has long asserted that the 29th race of the 1958 season might well be the greatest single star-driven event ever held under the NASCAR banner... and the numbers back up his argument.

Nine of the 15 drivers in the starting field won a total of 239 NASCAR Grand National races. All combined, the entire tiny grid shared more than 1,000 top fives. Eight of the 15 went on to become Hall of Famers, including all top seven finishers. Four decades later, six of those eight would be listed among NASCAR's Top 50 Drivers during the league's 50th anniversary celebration.

Now that is what I call an all-star race.

This legendary bunkhouse stampede took place in front of hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, and was held at the most unlikely venue of all — a minor league baseball stadium in Asheville, N.C., 148 miles west of the Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The day was Saturday, July 12, 1958. The place was McCormick Field, a quirky little ballpark jammed onto the side of hill. Since its opening in 1924, McCormick had played host to the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In 1949, fans jammed the grandstands and hillsides to see Jackie Robinson take the field for the barnstorming Brooklyn Dodgers.

McCormick Field, Asheville, N.C.
July 12, 1958
*NMPA Hall of Famer
Pos. Driver Career wins
1. Jim Paschal* 25
2. Cotton Owens* 9
3. Rex White* 28
4. Lee Petty* 54
5. Jack Smith* 21
6. Junior Johnson* 50
7. Buck Baker* 46
8. Whitey Norman 0
9. Shorty Rollins 1
10. Barney Shore 0
11. Billy Rafter 0
12. R.L. Combs 0
13. Tiny Lund 5
14. Banjo Matthews* 0
15. Herman Beam 0
But on this night nine years later, McCormick Field had been transformed into a racetrack. For one desperate period in the late 1950's, the baseball-mad town of Asheville was forced to do without a professional baseball club. The Dodgers had ended their long affiliation in 1955, and it would be four years yet before the St. Louis Cardinals moved a ball club into the North Carolina mountains, followed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1961, a team headlined by some kid named Willie Stargell.

So enterprising promoters talked the city into laying down a quarter-mile asphalt oval on the very basepaths that would later become the proving ground of Cal Ripken, Craig Biggio and Todd Helton.

Local short track heroes were recruited for the weekend showdowns, including guys like Ralph Earnhardt, Barney Shore, Billy Rafter and legendary mechanic/driver Banjo Matthews. But the big break came when NASCAR released its 1958 Grand National schedule, just the 10th season for the sanctioning body's national stock car circuit. The last southern stop before the stars and cars headed north for the annual summer swing through New York and Canada would be McCormick Field.

And so it came to pass that on the morning of July 12, the living legends towed their '57 Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Fords into the gravel parking lot outside the old blue ballpark. Two-time defending national champion Buck Baker was there as was 1954 champ Lee Petty, who had already won four races over the season's first half. Junior Johnson, the bootlegger turned godfather of the sport, had decided to drive in from Wilkesboro, still riding the momentum of a three-race win streak in mid-June.


Friday on SPEED
1 p.m. ET: Nextel Open final practice on SPEED
2 p.m. ET: Nextel All-Star Challenge final practice on SPEED
3 p.m. ET: NASCAR Live on SPEED
5:30 p.m. ET: NASCAR Live on SPEED
6 p.m. ET: Nextel Open qualifying on SPEED
7 p.m. ET: Nextel All-Star Challenge qualifying on SPEED
8:30 p.m. ET: Craftsman Truck race on SPEED
11 p.m. ET: Trackside on SPEED
Saturday on FX/SPEED
5:30 p.m. ET: NASCAR This Morning on SPEED
6 p.m. ET: Nextel Pit Crew Challenge on FX
7 p.m. ET: Nextel Open/All-Star Challenge on FX
11 p.m. ET: NASCAR Victory Lane on SPEED
Midnight ET: NASCAR Performance on SPEED

Jack Smith was sitting second in the series point standings behind Petty. Jim Paschal was running only a part-time schedule, but had come down the road from High Point, N.C. to remind his old rivals that he still had some skills left in the glove box. Cotton Owens traveled north from Spartanburg, as did Rex White, who would go on to win the 1960 series title. Fellow South Carolinian Tiny Lund dared come over the mountain as well, a hungry giant of a 22-year old still looking for his first big league win.

Every driver listed above would go on to become legends of their chosen craft. On this night, of course, no one knew that. And the future non-Hall of Famers in the field could have cared less.

In the two preliminary heat races, little-known local knights did the partisans proud. Lewisville's Barney Shore won the first heat race while Winston-Salem's Whitey Norman won the second. It was closest the either driver would ever come to visiting a points-paying NASCAR Victory Lane.

When the green flag dropped on the 150-lap main event, Paschal, Owens and White set a blistering pace. Paschal — bound and determined to make a statement about his semi-retirement — looked back at Owens lap after lap, daring the diminutive driver to come and get him. Owens, who would later gain fame as the car owner who discovered David Pearson, repeatedly closed to within inches of Paschal's rear bumper through the turns, only to lose ground on the tiny basepath straights.

One lap back was Petty, who considered it a miracle that he was even in the field for the final. During his heat race, a run-in with Owens had resulted in his blue Oldsmobile blasting off of the track and directly into the third base dugout. Smith, Matthews and Tennessee racer Herman Beam also suffered severe damage in the prelims, but each had repaired their rides enough to compete in the final.

Perhaps the largest crowd of the night had gathered around Matthews as he attended to his Pontiac before the main event, necks craning to watch the Monet of mechanics. Matthews was an Asheville resident and had been begged by promoters to come out for the race, knowing that his mere presence would guarantee solid ticket sales. As good as he was behind the wheel — he once won 13 consecutive events at a local short track — he was even better with a wrench in his hand. After his retirement from driving, he went into the stock car construction business, and between 1974 and '85, Banjo Matthews cars won 262 of 362 Winston Cup races, including all 30 races of the '78 season.

But now the drama was at the front. White made a furious charge to within a car length of Owens and Paschal but was undone by a faulty transmission. In a cloud of tire smoke and brake dust, the menacing red No. 6 of Owens continued to threaten Paschal lap after lap. But after 48 minutes and 27 seconds of failed assaults, it was Jim Paschal who flashed under the checkered flag, winning by less than car length.

The win was the seventh of Paschal's 25 career victories. For his efforts, he received a check for $570, almost exactly the cost of a Pit Crew Suite ticket to Saturday night's Nextel All-Star Challenge. The total purse for the night — $3,555.

Petty finished fourth, one lap down, widening his points lead over fifth-place Smith en route to the second of his three career championships. Lee Petty's two sons, Richard and Maurice, were in attendance that night. Richard made his driving debut one week later in Buffalo, N.Y.

But the Pettys were only a part of McCormick Field's phenomenal lineage.

By the time the last driver in the July 12 field had hung up his helmet — 57-year old Buck Baker made his last start in 1976 — their combined career numbers were nothing short of mind-bending. 3,149 starts, 239 wins, 1,083 top fives, 1,629 top 10s, 198 poles and 13 championships. Nine of the 15 racers at McCormick Field won at least one Grand National event, six of them winning 20 or more and two winning 50 or more. Petty, Johnson and Lund all went on to win Daytona 500's. The top seven finishers in the race are all enshrined in the NMPA Hall of Fame, five of whom were also named to NASCAR's list of its Top 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. Owens and Johnson became wildly successful car owners, Owens winning the 1966 title with Pearson, and Johnson winning three each with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

Let's see Saturday night top that.


Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images and Senior Producer of NASCAR Nation on SPEED Channel. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.

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