by Tom Jensen March 06, 2021
When NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France wanted the sanctioning body to head out west, it opened up whole new opportunities for the sport.
For today’s NASCAR fans, the annual late-winter West Coast swing shortly after the start of the season has been a staple of the premier series schedule in recent years.
But back in the infancy of stock-car racing, heading west was a big deal.
NASCAR was founded in 1948, but the Interstate Highway System did not launch until 1956, meaning going cross-country was an expensive and time-consuming process for racers.
Nevertheless, NASCAR founder and Chairman William H.G. France (2010) pushed to take the sport nationwide. So this week’s Top 10 list is all about West Coast milestones during NASCAR’s first decade, from 1949 to 1958.
10. First West Coast Race
After staging eight premier series races in 1949 and 19 more in 1950, Big Bill France boldly expanded the schedule to 41 races in 1951. And with the expansion came five races on the West Coast. The first of those came on April 8, 1951 at Carrell Speedway, a 0.500-mile dirt oval at Gardena, California. There, Marshall Teague led all 200 laps in his Fabulous Hudson Hornet to defeat a 20-car field in front of 9,000 fans. The top six finishers all drove different brands of cars: Behind Teague’s Hudson came cars from Nash, Plymouth, Ford, Pontiac and Mercury.
9. First Arizona Premier Series Race
Exactly two weeks after his victory at Carrell Speedway, Marshall Teague doubled up with a victory on the 1-mile Arizona State Fairgrounds dirt track in Phoenix. This was the first West Coast race with Hall of Famers competing: Tim Flock (2014) finished third in an Oldsmobile, while Herb Thomas (2013) was 22nd in his Plymouth and Lee Petty (2011) wound up 33rd, also in a Plymouth.
8. First Bay Area Race
The 35th of 41 races on the 1951 premier series schedule took place at Oakland Stadium, a 0.625-mile dirt track. The winner was a little-known racer named Marvin Burke, who won in his first series start. Driving a 1950 Mercury owned by Bob Phillippi, Burke led 156 of 250 laps and finished more than three laps ahead of runner-up Robert Caswell. Neither Burke nor Phillippi ever entered a premier series race again.
7. First West Coast Driver to Finish Top 5 In Points
In 1952, Los Angeles native Dick Rathmann posted five victories and 14 top-five finishes in 27 starts, which was good enough to earn him fifth place in the premier series points standings behind champion Tim Flock (2014), Herb Thomas (2013), Lee Petty (2011) and Tim’s brother Fonty Flock.
6. First Hall of Famer to Win a West Coast Race
Driving one of the all-conquering Chrysler 300s owned by Carl Kiekhaefer, Tim Flock (2014) won the 13th race of the 1955 season, a 100-lapper at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix. Flock would go on to win his second premier series championship that season as well as a career-high 18 races.
5. First Black Premier Series Driver
Although this is an unofficial record, Elias Bowie of San Mateo, California, is believed to be the first Black driver to compete in a premier series race. On July 31, 1955, at Bay Meadows Speedway in San Mateo, Bowie raced a maroon 1953 Cadillac four-door sedan owned by his wife. Bowie completed 172 of 252 laps in the race, which was won by Tim Flock (2014).
4. First Las Vegas Race
While Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a staple of the premier series calendar since 1998, NASCAR first raced in Sin City on October 16, 1955, at Las Vegas Park Speedway, a 1-mile dirt track. Norm Nelson won the race in one of Carl Kiekhaefer’s Chryslers, finishing two laps ahead of Bill Hyde. It was Nelson’s only victory and the only race the track hosted.
3. First West Coast Road Race
Willow Springs Speedway, a 2.50-mile road course in Lancaster, California, played host to the first West Coast road race on November 20, 1955. Though it took place in late 1955, the race was actually the third race of the 1956 season. The winner was Chuck Stevenson of Sidney, Montana, who was making his second and final premier series starts.
2. First West Coast Season Opener
On November 11, 1956, Oakland native Marvin Panch won what was actually the first race of the 1957 season. The race took place on the 2.5-mile Willow Springs Speedway road course in Lancaster, California. Driving for DePaolo Engineering, Ford Motor Co.’s factory supported team, Panch bested teammate Fireball Roberts (2014) by more than 11 seconds to win. For the season, Panch finished a career-best second in points.
1. First Riverside Race
From 1958 to 1988, Riverside International Raceway in Southern California hosted a total of 48 premier series races on its road course. The Crown America 500, the inaugural Riverside race, took place June 1, 1958, with Eddie Gray winning in a 1957 Ford owned by Vel Miletich. It was the first career victory for both the owner and the driver.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Schedule your visit at NASCARHall.com/tickets.