The way I figure it," drawled Lee Petty, a grizzled veteran of the stock car racing circuits, before the start of an extraordinary event last weekend, "this race will be won by the driver who can go the fastest the slowest."
Petty was talking about a 250-mile stock car race on the nation's finest road circuit, the punishing four-mile Road America course near Elkhart Lake, Wis. It was extraordinary because it was held on a road course, a thing so rare in recent American stock car racing that some oldtimers were casting back to the Elgin, Ill. races of more than two decades ago for a suitable precedent.
Moreover, the race, which was a $15,000 leg on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's Grand National championship, had been given the blessing of the F�d�ration Internationale de l'Automobile and was to undergo the personal scrutiny of Hubert Schroeder, secretary of the Commission Sportive Internationale, the sporting arm of the FIA. And beyond that, the race was to be witnessed by the top brass of the U.S. organizations most often mentioned as possible successors to the race-sanctioning authority that was relinquished by the AAA after last year's Le Mans, namely NASCAR's Bill France; Duane Carter, of the United States Auto Club; and Jim Kimberly, of the Sports Car Club of America.
There was plenty of speculation on how the U.S. stock cars would stand up on a road course. They still had to prove that their brakes were tough enough and their suspension systems sturdy enough to endure the 62�-lap grind. This would be no customary spin around a flat oval track, where all the turns are to the left.
Practice for the 250-mile race scotched a widespread assumption that American cars would not handle well enough on Road America's tight corners and rugged grades to maintain respectable speeds. Lap times as low as three minutes six seconds were reported—a healthy 77.4 mph average that compared better than expected with some of the fastest tours by high performance sports cars. At starting time on Sunday, delayed 35 minutes by rain, 25 American cars were lined up, followed by a Jaguar Mark VII sedan, winner of NASCAR's 100-mile race for under 3,500 cc. cars (it was to tool steadily, if hopelessly, through the race) and four Renaults.
Up front were the fastest qualifiers, including three cars from the stable of Carl Kiekhaefer, the volatile Wisconsin manufacturer whose greatest pleasure is defeating the factory teams. Despite his many victories Kiekhaefer has become disaffected with the racing game, but only the foolhardy would have discounted his chances Sunday. With Elzie (Buck) Baker, current leader in Grand National point standings, in the pole car (a Dodge D-500 which averaged 76.3 mph in the qualifying three-lap heats), Junior Johnson in the second row in a Ford and Al (Speed) Thompson in the third row in another Dodge D-500, Kiekhaefer was in his usual strong position.
At the dip of the starter's flag Baker sprinted into the lead in the white Dodge, closely pursued by wiry Tim" Flock, last year's NASCAR champion, in one of four bright red-and-white factory Mercurys and Marvin Panch's hot Ford. Mechanical trouble soon forced Junior Johnson's withdrawal, but Baker increased his lead doggedly through the early laps.
From back in the pack came Curtis Turner, Virginia lumberman, charging up to second place in a yellow-and-white Ford.
For a time a flurry of pit stops for refueling obscured the issue. Then the race became a dogfight between Baker, Turner and Panch, with Panch taking over on the 15th lap for a long run. Speedy Thompson pushed the second Kiekhaefer Dodge along steadily in fourth place until Baker ran out of gasoline on the 20th lap, nearly a mile from the pits. No man to leave a teammate in distress, Thompson eased his machine up behind Baker's and pushed it to the pits, losing valuable time, of course.
When Turner lost his brakes a few minutes later and skidded into the hay-bales on the last corner the Virginian was out of the race and Thompson was back in contention, followed by Frank Mundy's Chrysler 300-B and Flock's sweet-running Mercury.