Virginia International Raceway - April 1, 1962
On April Fool's Day 1962, NASCAR-style stock car racing came to Virginia International Raceway. 'The American Road 250' was the brainchild of NASCAR superstar Curtis Turner. Turner was promoting the VIR race under the sanction of the Midwest Association for Race Cars (MARC).
A NASCAR veteran since that organization was formed in 1949, the hard-driving businessman and racer had recently built Charlotte Motor Speedway and had encountered unexpected costs that caused him extreme financial hardships. He expected to have to remove some rock from the construction site but his crews had encountered a large formation that cost him an extra $500,000 that was not in his budget. Desperate to avoid financial ruin, he borrowed against his successful lumber business and leaned heavily on his investors and traditional motor sports money interests such as Champion Spark Plug Company. Finally, in a last ditch effort, he sought a loan from the Teamsters' Union in exchange for his attempt to organize NASCAR drivers into a union. The reaction was strong and swift. NASCAR founder and czar Bill France banned Turner and two time champion Tim Flock from the sport for life in 1961.
Turner turned to the less popular Midwest stock car racing formats. Under the USAC stock car racing banner he competed at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb and the companion road race at nearby Continental Divide Raceway from 1961 to 1963. He finished second in the Hill Climb in 1961 and won the event in record time in 1962.He joined and became a vice president of MARC in 1962.
Perhaps misjudging his star power and ability to draw a crowd, Turner recruited enough of his Midwest friends to field a race and moved back to the Southeast in the spring of 1962 in an attempt to compete head to head with NASCAR. He scheduled a stock car road race at VIR for April 1 in direct competition with the regular event at Richmond the same day. Most of the NASCAR regulars either chose to compete at Richmond or were afraid to incur the wrath of Bill France by entering Turner's event. In addition to Turner, Tim Flock who had been NASCAR Champion in both 1952 and 1955 was entered along with three times NASCAR Convertible Champion Bob Welborn. Future Holman Moody star Dick Hutcherson entered from the Midwest. Hutcherson was later to hone his road racing skills as co-driver with Ronnie Bucknam in the Holman Moody Ford Mark II at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing third in the famous Ford 1-2-3 photo finish. Hutcherson also later became a NASCAR super-star for Holman Moody.
Turner's pre-race promotions billed the contest as the beginning of a new age in American racing. He publicly predicted a crowd of 50,000 fans and issued statements about widening the access road entering the track to three lanes to accommodate the traffic. He also indicated that grandstand seats for 1500 to 2000 fans had been ordered. Privately, his predictions were less optimistic. In later years track operator Col. E. Paul Rembold often recalled Turner's comments to him as race day approached. He told Rembold, " Paul, I'm not going to have enough money to pay them boys purse money unless I win the race and earn top money. If I see that I'm not going to win, I'm going to stop over there on the backstretch where my airplane is parked. When you see me take off and bank over the pits as I leave then you'll know that paying them is your problem."
The public comments had generated much excitement in the Danville area. Local newspapers were quoting area fans as expecting the success of the race to lead to the building of an oval track on the premises and greater expansions in the future. Local newspaper columnists were predicting an exciting, crash-filled race as the heavy stock cars with their drum brakes attempted to master the art of road racing. John Fowler, in his 'Hotrods' appearing in the Commercial Appeal commented that he didn't think Danville had enough wreckers or ambulances to take care of a road race at VIR. Eddie Allgood agreed in his column in the Danville Register.
Perhaps Turner's comment to Rembold about not being able to pay the purse came as the weekend approached because a low-pressure weather system had settled over the area and by Friday rain settled in. Qualifying had been scheduled for both Friday and Saturday afternoons. Friday's session was cut short after Tim Flock took the pole position with a best lap of 74.1 mph and Midwest drivers Harlan Richardson and Dick Hutcherson managed to post their times before the rains came. Saturday's sessions were more of the same. Dick Freeman and Greensboro's Bob Welborn managed to complete their runs but when Turner took to the track for his warm-up lap the wet weather returned and he spun two times before starting his timed run. The remainder of the field agreed to draw lots for starting positions. On Sunday morning the weather continued to threaten but the sun broke through just after noon .The race was only slightly delayed from the scheduled 1:30 start time.
Flock jumped to an early lead from his pole position but his success was short-lived. His engine blew after only a lap and a half. Turner soon charged to the front and remained there for the balance of the contest except for a brief spell when Bob Welborn took over the top spot during Turner's pit stop for gas and tires. Turner won and escaped the riot that he predicted would have followed if his prize money checks had bounced. Welborn finished second after a lengthy pit stop for his crew to repair his failed brakes. Dick Hutcherson was third.
Pre-race predictions of a demolition derby did not come true. The entire 250-mile race saw only one yellow flag when Jack Bowsher rolled his 1962 Ford coming down the hill from Oak Tree Turn. He was unhurt but both car and driver were a mess when trackside mud filled the interior *. In general, fans were treated to an entertaining show as the oval track drivers struggled to control their heavy cars with inadequate brakes. The starting field included three drivers, Turner, Wellborn and Flock who later were inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame. Turner started the race lapping near the 73/74 mph qualifying times but had slowed by 5 mph by race end. There were 13 finishers out of a starting field of 16.
Veteran racing publicist Bill Fishburne attended and remembers the weekend. "I was a student at N.C. State at that time and several of us headed up to VIR to watch the stock car boys have at it. My pals and I were recruited as corner workers in the esses up the hill from the drive-over bridge. We had no training or experience. We just stood there and waved at Curtis and his pals as they drove by. Since they ran the course counterclockwise the cars came by us downhill in what we always describe as the 'uphill esses'. They had to run the course backwards because the cars were set up to turn left and also because they dumped gas out their fuel tank vents when they tried to turn right."
Turner's vision of using his fame to attract 50,000 paying spectators turned out to be an April Fool's joke on him. The local papers on Monday morning estimated the crowd at 6,000. His bright spot was winning the race and being able to pay the $12,500 purse.
Turner returned to VIR for his final appearance on July 31, 1966 when he co-drove the Cocoran Ford Mustang with Trans Am regular Peter Lake in the VIR 400 Trans Am race. That contest featured a number of NASCAR regulars recruited to serve as co-drivers with the Trans Am teams in hopes of attracting the NASCAR fan base that predominates the VIR area. Once again Turner was able to defeat his fellow stock car rivals by limping home with a hole in the side of the block of his blown engine. He and Lake were driving the last car running at the finish, but Turner was the highest placed NASCAR driver.
* Comment from ARCA/USAC driver Jim Welty: "I saw Jack Bowsher's '62 Ford when it came home----totaled--and full of mud !!! Even worse, the crew's luggage was still in the trunk, as they arrived late----also muddy."
RESULTS: American Road 250- Virginia International Raceway -April 1, 1962
|1- Curtis Turner (1962 Ford)|
|2- Bob Welborn (1962 Pontiac)|
|3- Dick Hutcherson (1962 Ford)|
|4- Jim Washburn (1961 Ford)|
|5- Iggy Katona (1962 Ford)|
|6- Clyde Parker (1961 Chevrolet)|
|7- Phil Cronin (1961 Ford)|
|8- Dick Freeman (1961 Chevrolet)|
|9- Curley Mills (1960 Ford)|
|10- Bob Bachler (1961 Ford)|
|11- Harold Smith (1962 Ford)|
|12- Ernie Derr (1962 Pontiac)|
|13- Jack Price (1961 Plymouth)|
|14- Harlan Richardson (1962 Ford)|
|15- Harold Dunlaw (1960 Ford)|