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Stock cars race around the bases

TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010

First in a five-part series on NASCAR races that remain special in my memory, events that I would like to cover all over again. There never seems to be a time machine around when you need one. The race stories will run in chronological order.

Lee Petty came speeding toward home plate, slipped wildly and went crashing into the first-base dugout.

No, the patriarch of NASCAR’s most famous clan wasn’t playing baseball.

Petty was competing in a heat race preliminary to a 150-lap, 37.5-mile Grand National event at McCormick Field, a grand old park in Asheville, N.C.

I was in the press box on July 12, 1958, to cover the action as a raw rookie reporter for the Asheville Times, an afternoon daily.

The Grand National Division was destined to eventually become today's Sprint Cup Series. McCormick Field, dating to 1924, still stands and is home to Asheville’s minor league baseball team.

Many of baseball’s most famous stars played there, including Babe Ruth.

As a baseball-crazy teenager growing up during the 1950s in mountainous Burnsville, 35 miles away, I often went to games with similarly passionate pals to watch the Asheville Tourists play.

The team was affiliated with the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers at that time, so some fine players who eventually made it to the major leagues were on the rosters. I particularly remember catcher Joe Pignatano and shortstop Dick Tracewski.

In one post-season exhibition game at McCormick Field matching American League and National League stars, the best I recall the lineups included Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider for the NL. Luke Easter and Larry Doby played for the AL.

Easter slugged a towering home run into the high, ivy-covered bank behind right field. The ball must have gone 450 feet or more.

Racing replaces baseball

Never, in my wildest imagination, could I have foreseen a race track being created at McCormick Field. And neither could most anyone else.

But when the Tri-State League that included the Tourists folded after the 1955 season, speculation began among some businessmen about turning McCormick Field into a speedway.

Jim Lowe of North Wilkesboro made it happen, leasing the facility from the city.

The man whose family founded what has become Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers – now among five-time champion Jimmie Johnson's sponsors – won rights to the ballpark, with about 3,000 seats.

Lowe had a quarter-mile track paved with asphalt around the perimeter of the field. The start/finish line was at the hairpin “home plate corner.”

Lowe promoted sportsman and what amounted to jalopy shows at McCormick Field, mostly weekly. His star attraction was Banjo Matthews, a big winner in Florida modified races who had moved to the Asheville area.

Matthews once won 13 in a row at McCormick Field, a streak that ended in a wild tangle in center field with Ralph Earnhardt, whom he hated – and the feeling was mutual.

Earnhardt, chasing NASCAR’s national Sportsman Division championship, had arrived a McCormick Field for a special “double points” event. Also racing that night was a driver sporting a hairstyle popular at the time, a crew cut on top and duck tails on the sides. That “Hickory Hotshoe” was Ned Jarrett.

Lowe enticed NASCAR founder/president Big Bill France to bring the stars of his Convertible Division to Asheville in September of 1956 and May of '57. Curtis Turner, a legend even then, won both races.

I saw neither. I was still at Brevard College, trying unsuccessfully to hit the curve balls thrown by conference opponents. I had no interest in racing.

That changed when I joined the sports staff of The Times in late August of 1957 and was assigned motorsports as one of my beats.

I covered the first race I ever saw on Sept. 8 that year, at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. Lee Petty won the 100-miler. Sons Richard and Maurice were part of his pit crew.

I also wrote about Rex White winning at Asheville-Weaverville on June 29, 1958.

I had gotten excited about the sport and its colorful cast of characters. So it was with much anticipation that I awaited to see how they’d do at the tight confines of McCormick Field.

Bob Terrell, the late, great Asheville sports editor and columnist – one of my journalistic heroes – had termed races at the track “demolition derbies in the round.” He added: “When 25 cars start on a quarter-mile track, something has to give.”

It certainly gave for Lee Petty in that July heat race as he battled Cotton Owens.

It was “heat” all right, as Petty’s Olds briefly caught fire as fans in the packed grandstands stood and gasped in astonishment.

Incredibly, the car was pulled from the dugout and repaired in time for the main event. Jack Smith, Herman Beam and Matthews had also crashed in the heat races.

Matthews’ accident prevented him from delighting his many followers in the crowd by “beating the big boys.” Matthews was wildly popular in Western North Carolina, both because of his success and some of the antics attributed to him.

As one story goes, Matthews was said to have dressed as a woman to enter a “Powder Puff” race. When one of the cars came through the turns sideways and on two wheels, Matthews was black-flagged.

No one but Banjo could drive McCormick Field that way, it was figured, and his race was over. Said Lowe, according to the story: “Banjo is a fine driver, but he makes one ugly woman.”

If all this happened, I wasn’t there to see it. And I didn’t miss many races at McCormick Field.

Out front all the way

Time finally came for that Grand National main event and a field of 15 cars lined up, stretching from the home-plate turn to where third base would have been.

Jim Paschal held the pole position in a '57 Chevrolet fielded by Julie Petty, Lee’s brother. Owens had the other front-row spot in a Pontiac.

Many speculated the pole winner wouldn't be passed if he didn’t experience any trouble. This proved to be true.

Paschal immediately pulled out front and no one could get around him. He led all 150 laps, but the race was. Owens stayed right on Paschal’s rear bumper and was the runner-up by only a car length. White finished third, Lee Petty fourth and Smith fifth. Right behind came Junior Johnson and Buck Baker.

Matthews wound up 14th after crashing and completing only 54 laps.

Paschal averaged 46.440 mph.

The jovial “Jaunty Jim,” who died at 77 in 2004 was to score 25 victories in 431 starts during his career, including back-to-back wins in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s World 600 in 1966-67.

Eight of the 15 drivers who started that long-ago race at Asheville are in the National Motorsports Press Association Hall Of Fame, located at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Included are Paschal, Owens, White, Lee Petty, Smith, Johnson, Baker and Matthews.

“We ran at a lot of unusual places back in those days,” Johnson said recently. “Dog-racing tracks, old airports, just about anywhere that Bill France figured he could make some money. Why, there even were races at Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Bears play football.

“Imagine anybody crashing into a first-base dugout! Much less it being Lee Petty.”

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