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Retro Racing: Factory support no sure thing

As Detroit’s “Big Three” looks for ways to cut costs, their across-the-board support of auto racing will likely be a target for the chopping block.
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During the 1958 NASCAR Grand National season, many recycled
1957 models were raced, especially on the short tracks. Here,
Johnny Mackison lines up his Camp Hill 1957 Ford for the start
of the June 25, 1958, 100-miler on the half-mile dirt Lincoln
Speedway at New Oxford, Pa. It’s possible the car was an ex-factory
machine from the previous season. Mackison didn’t fare well,
finishing 28th out of 31 cars, thanks to transmission trouble.
(Phil Hall Collection photo)

As spiraling problems of Detroit’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers continue to build, cost cutting will expand into many segments of their business. Their across-the-board support of auto racing will likely be a target for the chopping block.

Although the extent of racing cutbacks is not known at the time of this writing, it will not come as a surprise if we see support of NASCAR teams diminish before the start of the 2009 season in February.
Factory backing of NASCAR racing teams has waxed and waned over the years, and the sport has gotten through each of them. Of the cutbacks, perhaps that of mid-1957 in the top Grand National division was the most severe.

Involved in the horsepower race at the time, factories found entering race cars in events a help to promote their performance image and sell cars. At the time, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” came into use.
Today, NASCAR’s Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford-backed teams are all independently owned. Factory support comes in the form of sponsorship dollars and engineering assistance, as the race engines are no longer related to production cars. Bodies and chassis, for that matter, are also no longer related to the specific brand being raced.

Back in 1957, the actual stock cars and (more or less stock) components were production items. Factory involvement varied per make. Chevrolets were factory owned and under the direction of Frank Del Roy and entered under builder Hugh Babb. Drivers and crewmembers were hired by the factory.

Ford had a similar situation with Peter DePaolo calling the shots and John Holman building the cars. Ditto for Mercury with Bill Stroppe running the show.

Pontiac let Ray Nichels call the shots, while Oldsmobile hired Petty Engineering, headed by Lee Petty, to field its cars. Olds was the last to enter the fray.

Chrysler Corp.’s operation was less clear. After Carl Kiekhaefer fielded its products with success in 1955 and ’56, he was gone for ’57. Ronney Householder saw to it a lone Plymouth was ready for 1957 with Johnny Allen as its driver.

It was a great show while it lasted, as several performance packages for racing were cataloged for the 1957 season. Chevrolet’s mechanical fuel injection boosted its 283-cid V-8 to an equal number of horsepower.

Ford countered with a supercharger option for its 312-cid V-8, Olds’ J-2 Rocket option had triple two-barrel carbs, as did Pontiac’s top option. Plymouth’s V-800 version of the 318-cid V-8 had a pair of four-barrel carbs, as did the M-335 option for the Mercury 368-cid V-8.

Rumblings of an impending federal government crackdown on the horsepower race, and a rising death toll on the highways, led to a NASCAR edict in April of 1957, limiting all cars to a single four-barrel carburetor.
It would get worse, as the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) was mulling withdrawing the factories from auto racing. The mulling turned to decisive action after a May 19 crash at the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway when Billy Myers in a Stroppe Mercury crashed into the crowd injuring several spectators. On June 6, the AMA set down a rule for factories to cease performance promotion and, among other things, owning or backing racing teams.

Cars and equipment had to be sold, often at nominal prices, to the drivers. Each team had to pay its own bills. At first, many ex-factory drivers entered their own cars, but for various reasons, many cars and drivers went their own way.

Smokey Yunick, a late factory conquest, continued to enter Fords for Paul Goldsmith and others to drive. Driver-owned Fords included Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and Marvin Panch.
After the Chevrolet breakup, Buck Baker, Jack Smith, Speedy Thompson, Frankie Schneider and others ran their own teams.

At Mercury, Myers and Jim Paschal were among those entrusted to the Stroppe machines.

Of all the manufacturers, Pontiac, under the direction of General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, probably ignored the ban the most, leaving Nichels to continue to receive back-door support for his Pontiacs.
For the rest of the 1957 season, the lack of factory promotion (which was quite extensive) hurt crowds and probably cost a few cars in the starting fields.

For 1958, there were relatively few new ’58 models on the track, as independent owners had no reason to update their cars. Paul Goldsmith won the Daytona Beach/Road race Feb. 23 in a Smokey Yunick ’58 Pontiac. Curtis Turner finished second in a Holman & Moody ’58 Ford.

With a new, larger X-frame chassis and all-coil springs, building a 1958 Pontiac took courage, but then again, maybe Yunick had some encouragement from the Pontiac folks.

Fords for 1958 featured a new FE block 352-cid V-8, which was an improvement over the ’57’s 312, so therein was a reason to update. Chevys received a new W-engine 348-cid V-8 for ’58, but the X-frame and all-coil setup meant significant development time, something not attractive to most Chevrolet entrants, especially early in the season.

At some short track races, there wasn’t a ’58 model in the field. NASCAR, indeed, survived, but seeing the new cars in a field of late-model stocks was greatly diminished from the past few years.
With the possible exception of Pontiac, factory support did not return until the 1960 season.

When the new 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway opened in February of 1959, NASCAR wanted to showcase new cars and offered a $5,000 bonus to any driver who won with a ’59 model.
Holman & Moody built customer ’59 Ford Thunderbirds and sold them. Several ’59 Chevrolets replaced ’57s, and Lee Petty bought a new ’59 Oldsmobile and installed his long-used ex-factory parts and won the 500 in the famed photo finish.

Various factory-backed operations came and went over the following years and decades, but outright ownership, as was the case in 1957, never returned in any volume.

Should 2009 be another of those withdrawals, it won’t be anything as dramatic as 1957. NASCAR will go on, although a few sets of decals (which today is about all that differentiates the bodies) may be changed.

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