TOP DOWN AND FULL THROTTLE
by Tom Jensen October 25, 2023
In the 1950s, Detroit’s Big Three automakers provided the fast convertibles that NASCAR drivers used to thrill race fans on Daytona Beach and throughout the South.
In the 1950s, virtually every automaker in the United States offered at least one convertible model and most had many more than that. With post World War II optimism high, convertibles were all the rage with Detroit’s Big Three automakers General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp.
The convertibles were sportier and more stylish than the staid coupes and sedans of the day. Not surprisingly, they were targeted toward younger and more spirited buyers, many of whom were race fans. And that meant automakers wanted to see their convertible models win on the race tracks of the Southeast to stimulate showroom sales. Hence the phrase, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
If you want to see a NASCAR Convertible Division car in person, the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Glory Road: 75 Years” exhibit features a Ford Galaxie Sunliner convertible, which was lovingly and meticulously prepared by Wood Brothers Racing as a replica of an actual team car Curtis Turner (Class of 2016) raced.
Back to the story.
NASCAR founder and Chairman William H.G. France (Class of 2010) was adept at spotting trends, one of his many strengths. So, in 1955, NASCAR acquired an organization called the Society of Auto Sports Fellowship and Education. SAFE, as it was known, owned and operated an all-convertible racing series, which NASCAR took over with the acquisition.
In 1956, NASCAR launched its Convertible Division, which in its first season ran an ambitious 47-race schedule, starting, appropriately enough on the old Daytona Beach & Road Course on Feb. 25.
Here are 10 fun facts about the NASCAR Convertible Division:
10. The First Race
Driving for the factory Ford Motor Co. team owned by Pete DePaolo, Hall of Famer Curtis Turner (Class of 2016) lapped the field to capture the first Convertible Division race ahead of teammate Fireball Roberts (Class of 2014) and a Chevrolet ragtop driven by Herb Thomas (Class of 2013). The victory was worth $3,525, big money back in the day. Seven different automobile brands, all subsidiaries of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, compered in the first race: Ford, Mercury, Plymouth, Dodge, Chevrolet, Buick and Oldsmobile all raced on the beach.
9. The First Season
One mind-boggling Convertible Division stat comes from the first season of 1956: Curtis Turner won 22 of the 42 races he entered that season but didn’t win the series championship. Why? Because in the 20 races Turner didn’t win, he had 14 DNFs. The popular racing phrase “go or blow” certainly applied to Turner, who seemed to always either win or tear up his car trying to.
8. The First Champion
Here’s an even more mind-boggling stat from the first year of the Convertible Division: North Carolina native Bob Welborn won the first series championship in 1956, despite finishing on lead lap only five times in the 45 races he entered. In fact, Welborn didn’t finish on the lead lap of the final 30 Convertible Division races he ran in 1956.
But what he did do was finish in the top five 32 times and the top 10 a total of 39 times. In fact, Welborn had only two finishes worse than 15th all year long. So despite posting just three victories to 22 for Turner, Welborn won the crown by being far more consistent.
7. Family Affair
The 1957 Convertible Division season saw Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood (Class of 2012) win a career-high four races. While the Wood Brothers team didn’t run for Cup Series championships in the 1950s. Glen ran a full Convertible schedule in 1957, posting 23 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 36 races to finish third in points behind repeat champion Bob Welborn and Joe Weatherly (Class of 2015).
6. Final Hurrah
The last major NASCAR victory for two-time premier series champion and Hall of Famer Tim Flock (2014) came in the 1957 Convertible Division race on the Daytona Beach & Road Course, where he bested Joe Weatherly and Flock’s teammate Billy Myers. Flock and Myers drove Bill Stroppe-prepared Mercury convertibles and the automaker produced a remarkable 20-minute video about the 1957 Daytona experience, which can be viewed here:
Despite what appeared to be two very successful seasons, NASCAR pared the Convertible Division schedule back from 47 races in 1956 to 36 in ’57 and just 19 in 1958. The schedule may have shrunk, but the champion stayed the same. For the third consecutive year, Bob Welborn took the title. In fact, the 1958 season was Welborn’s best year, as he won eight of the 19 races on the schedule.
4. Petty Matters
Not surprisingly, the Petty family competed in the Convertible Division. Family patriarch and Petty Enterprise founder Lee Petty (Class of 2011) had 28 starts, 2 wins and 14 top-five finishes in the droptops, while son Richard (Class of 2010) won his first NASCAR race in a Convertible Division battle at Columbia (South Carolina) Speedway on July 18, 1959. A little-known fact is that Julian Petty, Lee’s younger brother, was the championship car owner for Bob Welborn’s third and final title in 1958.
3. Fireball Scores
Although he didn’t compete in a lot of Convertible Series races, Fireball Roberts (Class of 2014) ran well whenever he did. The Daytona Beach native won four ragtop races in just 16 starts, with nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Roberts’ best year was 1958, when he had two victories, two runner-up finishes and five top fives in just seven starts.
2. Daytona Duels
The Daytona 500 is the only race in NASCAR that has two preliminary qualifying races, a format that dates back to 1959, the year the track first opened. In 1959, the two Daytona 500 qualifying races were 100 miles each and counted as points races. The difference? One of the qualifying races was for hardtops, the other for convertibles. Shorty Rollins won the Convertible Division qualifying race, so he qualified on the outside of the front row next to Bob Welborn, who won the hardtop qualifying races. Both front-row starters had engine failures during the Daytona 500, though, with Rollins finishing 38th and Welborn 41st.
1. The End
Although some tracks would stage races for convertibles as late as 1962, the last Convertible Division championship season was 1959. Joe Lee Johnson won the title that year, while eventual Hall of Famers won nine of the 15 races. The final official race of the series was August 23, 1959, at the Charlotte Fairgrounds 0.500-mile dirt track, where Ned Jarrett (2011) was victorious in a 1957 Ford.