Early NASCAR Stars were Masters of the Dirt
by Tom Jensen August 14, 2020
Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Buck Baker and other early NASCAR legends knew the fast way around dirt tracks.
In the beginning, there was dirt and pretty much only dirt.
When the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division (now the premier series) began racing in 1949, seven of the eight tracks the teams raced on were all dirt, the lone exception being the Daytona Beach-Road Course, which as the name implies was raced on a combination of a public road—South Atlantic Avenue—and the hard-packed, glistening sands of the Central Florida beach.
Every other racing surface was some form of natural soil. The largest of the original dirt tracks were the 1-mile Occoneechee Speedway oval in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and the round 1-mile Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway. Then came the 3/4-mile Charlotte Speedway, the track that hosted the very first Strictly Stock race on June 19, 1949, and the 0.625-mile North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. The remaining three tracks—Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Hamburg (N.Y.) Speedway and Heidelberg (Pa.) Raceway —were all half-milers. But the one thing they all had in common was dirt.
Each dirt surface, of course, was unique—some very smooth, others deeply rutted. And being fast on dirt required a specialized set of skills.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham (2018), a distinguished crew chief and team owner, worked with several top drivers who came up racing open-wheel cars on dirt, including four-time NASCAR premier series champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019), and Kasey Kahne, both of whom had extensive experience with sprint cars before moving to NASCAR.
A former driver himself, Evernham knows what it takes to be fast on dirt. “A guy on dirt has to have patience, and he’s got to understand about how the pedals affect what he’s doing,” Evernham said. “So he has to know when to get on the gas, off the gas, on the brake, off the brake. He's also got to know how to read the race track. The race track changes color, so you got to know where to look for grip and search around, and then adapt your driving style to every one of those grooves that opens up.”
The race track changes color, so you got to know where to look for grip and search around, and then adapt your driving style...
— Ray Evernham
In other words, a lot of different skills.
“If you had to ask me to wrap it up in one word, I’d say ‘versatile,’” Evernham said. “The ability to adapt, to recognize the race track and to recognize what his input into the race car does to affect that.”
Austin Dillon, who won the 2018 Daytona 500 driving for his grandfather, NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Childress (2017), said growing up racing on dirt tracks is an advantage to drivers as they progress through the NASCAR ranks.
“You have to change your driving style throughout a race in on a dirt track probably 10, 11 times, depending on what transition it goes through,” Dillon said. “So it's always changing. The track is changing. You're having to change with it, and that's what makes the guys being able to adapt to different tracks very good to have dirt experience.”
Since NASCAR started racing on dirt, it’s not surprising that the records for most dirt track victories all belong to NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers, according to Racing-Reference.info, a statistical service that provides data on NASCAR races.
In fact, the eight drivers with the most premier series dirt track victories are all Hall of Famers: Topping the list is Lee Petty (2011), who won a record 42 races on various dirt surfaces. Petty is followed by Buck Baker (2013) and Herb Thomas (2013), each of whom won 40 dirt races; and 36-time victor Tim Flock (2014). Then comes Ned Jarrett (2011), a 33-time dirt winner, 30-time victor Richard Petty (2010) and 23-time winners Junior Johnson (2010) and David Pearson (2011).
The track is changing. You're having to change with it...
— Austin Dillon
But NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood (2013) believes the best of all time on dirt was fellow Hall of Famer Curtis Turner (2016). “Nobody could control a car like he could,” Wood says. “He just had so much control of the car. I’ve seen him run upside of the banking and about turn over and get back and win. Rather than let off, he’d just sling it sideways to slow it down.
“He (Turner) was a super great dirt track racer,” Wood says. “He was good everywhere. He had a lot of control everywhere, but it seemed the dirt just fit his style.”
Wood cited a few other racers from the 1950s era: “Junior (Johnson) was good. There were a lot of good dirt racers—Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts (2014). Tiny Lund was good on dirt. Used to see him and Ralph Earnhardt run Charlotte Fairgrounds. Ralph would outrun the modifieds with a sportsman car. He used to run that thing wide open. And I used to love to watch my brother Glen (2012) run on dirt.”
Nobody could control a car like he [Curtis Turner] could.
— Leonard Wood
Evernham had his favorite, too, and he’s someone who drove for the Wood Brothers. “People in the garage area tell me one of the best dirt drivers ever was David Pearson,” Evernham says. “What he’s done and when you talk to the Wood Brothers, the patience he had.”
And certainly, let’s not forget The King. Richard Petty won 30 of his record 200 premier series victories on dirt tracks. Now 83 years old, Petty has fond memories of the old days before every track was paved. He owns myriad records in NASCAR, including his career race-win total, his seven Daytona 500 victories and his seven premier series championships, a mark Petty set first and Dale Earnhardt and then Jimmie Johnson later tied.
A lesser-known Petty honor is that he won the final premier series race to be run on dirt—the Home State Fairgrounds 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Sept. 30, 1970.
“I loved to run dirt; I know that,” Petty says. “We won a bunch of races on dirt. My dad (Lee Petty) won more dirt races than anybody. It was a lot of fun to run dirt. The deal there was the cars didn’t handle, so it was up to the driver to make up the difference. I always enjoyed that challenge.”