Eldora Dirt Race Critics Need To Keep Their Shirts On

Charlotte, NC (December 17th, 2012) – NASCAR’s ‘Back To The Future’ scheduling of a 2013 Truck Series event on a dirt-racing surface at Eldora (OH) Speedway has drawn a lot of attention this off-season. After all, it’s been more than 40 years since Richard Petty bested 22 other competitors in NASCAR’s last major dirt-track event – the 1970 Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, NC.

That got us thinking – Since all NASCAR races were initially held on dirt tracks, when did the sanctioning body begin competing on paved tracks?

To find out, we decided to take a ride down History Lane.

Other than a handful of major speedways like the one at Indianapolis, few tracks were paved when NASCAR debuted its ‘Strictly Stock’ division in 1949. Accordingly, seven of the eight races in the inaugural 1949 NASCAR season were contested on dirt tracks. The eighth was the annual battle on the beach at Daytona – a 4.150-mile combination road and beach course.

While most consider the inaugural Southern 500 at Harold Brassington’s ‘all-new’ Darlington (SC) Speedway the first NASCAR race on an all paved track, the honor actually belongs to Dayton Speedway in Ohio.

Opened in 1934, Dayton Speedway was originally a 5/8-mile, D-shaped dirt oval that was designed after Ascot Speedway in California. Over the next seven years, the track was reconfigured twice before it closed from 1941-1945 when it was for the duration of World War II.

Eventually, Dayton Speedway reopened as a half-mile asphalt oval in 1946. By the time NASCAR first appeared at Dayton on June 25, 1950, the track was already famous having hosted several top divisions including AAA Midgets and ‘Champ Cars.’

Now called the NASCAR Grand National division, a total of 25 NASCAR stock cars took the green flag at Dayton on the sweltering hot June 1950 day. Pole sitter Dick Linder and NASCAR legend Curtis Turner swapped the lead twice over the first 100 circuits before Jimmy Florian – a Cleveland, OH driver – joined the mix.

Florian’s Ford was fast that day. Better yet, it was untouchable after passing Turner for the lead with 32 laps to go in the 200-lap event. Linder managed to come home second followed by Buck Barr, Turner and Art Lamey.

Florian’s win at NASCAR’s first-ever pavement race also produced two interesting sidebars. The victory also marked the first time a Ford had ever won a NASCAR Grand National event.

The second proved to be even more unusual.

When Florian exited his car in Victory Lane, he did so shirtless. The hot summer day proved to be even steamier inside Florian’s Ford, so he removed his shirt during the event. At the time, NASCAR had no rules as to driver apparel and drivers wore their regular ‘street clothes’ when behind the wheel. Technically, a helmet was not even mandated.

“It was awfully hot and I knew I’d be more comfortable without a shirt,” stated Florian after the race. “I’ve done it several times before, but not in the Grand Nationals.”

Florian was paid $1,000 for his win – his only victory in 26 career NASCAR Grand Nationals starts from 1950-1954. The winning run took 1 hour, 34 minutes and 42 seconds to complete. He averaged 64.543 miles an hour.

Later that year, Darlington and Winchester (IN) Speedway also held NASCAR pavement races – Darlington hosting the inaugural and now legendary Southern 500 on September 4 – and Winchester hosting a 200-lapper on a ‘dirt-oiled’ track on October 15.

Along with the Dayton event, the three races are considered to be the first ever NASCAR events contested on a ‘paved’ surface.

The 1951 season saw the NASCAR schedule jump from 19 to 41 events with four of those contested on paved tracks. The number of annual events contested on paved tracks continued to total less than a handful per season until 1956 when 13 paved-track races made up part of a 56-event grind.

By 1958, NASCAR events on paved racetracks grew to 22 – nearly equal to the 26 held on dirt tracks. With the construction of new, modern speedways at Daytona, Charlotte and Atlanta, the tables turned for good in 1960 as for the first time in NASCAR history, pavement races outnumbered those held on dirt tracks by a 23-21 margin.

By 1970, NASCAR dirt track racing was quickly fading into memory as all but three of the 48 races were held on paved tracks – two at Columbia (SC) Speedway (won by Petty and Bobby Isaac) and the final bow at Raleigh Speedway won by Petty on September 30 that year.

This year’s NASCAR Truck Series race will break that ‘pavement tradition’ when it returns to the dirt at Eldora on Wednesday, July 24. Ironically, the race will be held in Ohio – the same state that hosted the first NASCAR pavement race. As with any event that breaks with the norm, the Eldora Truck race already has some questioning the rationale of NASCAR making such a move – that it’s a promotional gimmick to prop up the Trucks – a division that has struggled to expand it’s footprint in recent years.

To that we say ‘keep your shirt on.’ After all, putting a race on pavement at Dayton in 1950 proved to be extremely memorable and seemed to work out okay for NASCAR in the long run. We’re thinking the Eldora race will do the same.

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