NASCAR’s New Season Didn’t Always Wait For The New Year

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 12/16/11

With the big raceways sitting silent and fans counting the days to the start of the major racing seasons, the question comes to mind as to just why we see so little racing in the winter months.

The obvious first answer is the weather.  Traditionally, NASCAR and other larger touring series have always taken the winter months off to keep teams and fans from having to deal with cold winter weather.

But that’s not necessarily true.  Yes, usually December has been a quiet month for the stock car set, but racing used to continue throughout November and pick back up in January, even in the Deep South.

In fact, a look at the history books shows that, in the case of 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup series seasons, the first points paying race of the season took place during the previous year.

1954 NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) champion Lee Petty scored the first win of the 1955 season - which happened to be run in Nov. of 1954. Photo courtesy GRHOF

The first time this occurred was in 1955, when the first points paying race of the season actually was held on Nov. 7, 1954 at Tri-City Speedway in High Point, NC, with Lee Petty taking the win.  The second race of the season was held on Feb. 6, 1955 at Palm Beach Speedway in West Palm Beach, FL, with Herb Thomas scoring the win.

The 1956 season would get underway late in 1955, with the first four events taking place before the New Year.

The 1956 season opener was run on Nov. 13, 1955, less than two weeks after the conclusion of the official 1955 season.  1955 Grand National (now Sprint Cup) champ Tim Flock picked up the win Hickory.  Fonty Flock would score the win in the second race of the season, held Nov. 20, 1955, at Charlotte.  Chuck Stevenson would win the third race of the season, held at the Willow Springs Speedway road course in Lancaster, CA on Nov. 20.  Herb Thomas would win the fourth race of the season, held Dec. 11, 1955 at Palm Beach.

The first race of 1956 was actually the fifth of the season, run Jan 22 at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, AZ, where Buck Baker took the win.

The 1957 season saw see three points events occur in late 1956, with Marvin Panch winning at Lancaster, PA in November and at Concord, NC in December.  Fireball Roberts would win at Titusville, FL on Dec. 30, the latest date known in the calendar year for a Sprint Cup event to be held.

Most of the seasons that would hold races prior to the New Year only saw one or two events held.  Two seasons would be the exception, and both would prove to be interesting footnotes in racing history.

Jim Paschal drove a Petty Enterprises entry to victories in two of the first three races of the 1963 season, with Richard Petty winning the third. All three were held in 1962. Photo courtesy the Ray Lamm collection.

For the 1963 season, three events were held in late 1962.  The first points paying race of the season was held on Nov. 4, 1962, just a few days after the 1962 season finale, held on Oct. 28.  Jim Paschal won that “season opener”, which was held at the fairgrounds in Birmingham, AL.  Richard Petty would win the next event, held Nov. 11, 1962, at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa, FL.  The third race, the final of 1962, would be held at the quarter mile Tar Heel Speedway in Randleman, NC on Nov. 22, 1962, with Paschal again winning.

The interesting part is that all three events were won by Petty Enterprises entries, with the last win coming just up the road from the Petty shops in Level Cross, NC.

The 1964 season would see four events held in 1963.  The first occurred just seven days after the 1963 season finale.  It was held on Nov. 10, 1963, with Ned Jarrett winning the season opener at Concord, NC.

The second event of the ’64 season occurred on Nov. 17, 1963 at the new three-mile road course at Augusta, Georgia.  Fireball Roberts would score the win.  It would prove to be the final of his famed career, as he would be badly burned in a crash at Charlotte in 1964, passing away weeks later.

The third race of the season would prove, retrospectively, to be one of the most important events in NASCAR history.

Wendell Scott became the first African American to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup event by scoring a 1963 season event at Jacksonville, FL late in 1962. Scott was declared the winner several hours after the event following a protest. The incident was recreated for the film "Greased Lightning", and was filmed at the Athens Speedway in Athens, Georgia (pictured). Photo courtesy GRHOF

It came on Dec. 1, 1963, at Jacksonville, Florida.  Buck Baker had been flagged the winner, but after a protest was lodged, officials announced that Wendell Scott had actually won the race, making him the first and to date the only African-American to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup event.

The day was not the triumphant one it should have been, as officials made sure to wait until after most of the crowd and journalists covering the event had left to give Scott the victory.  He never did get the actual trophy for the win.

The fourth race of the ’64 season was held in Savannah, Georgia on Dec. 29, 1963 (second latest date in the year of a NASCAR Sprint Cup event), with Richard Petty taking the win.

1965 would be the first year since ’54 that a season opener would not be held during the previous year.

In 1966 and 1967, the season openers occurred during the previous year.  Two events from the 1968 season would be held prior to the New Year in 1967.

The final year for this practice came in 1969.  The season opener was held on Nov. 17, 1968, with Richard Petty winning at Middle Georgia Raceway in Macon, Georgia.  The second event of the 1968 season was held on Dec. 8, 1968 at Montgomery, Alabama, with Bobby Allison scoring the win.

From there on, all races for a season were held within that calendar year.  In 1972, the season was even trimmed down as Winston came on board to add to the season points fund.

But it goes to disprove the weather theory.  In truth, after such a grueling season, teams and drivers need some down time so they can focus on the task at hand, as they try to win races and championships.

But some of the smaller tracks in the southeast could certainly benefit from some of the warmer weather we’ve seen recently.  I can think of nothing nicer on a relatively cool afternoon than watching some great short track racing here locally, can you?

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing

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