While we usually think of NASCAR when it comes to stock car racing, the roots of the sport can be found in another place. On October 31, 1909, a very different type of racing took place in a little town in California – and it wasn’t exactly gentle. Known as the Big Fourteen, the racing event was contested by drivers of all ages and abilities, and it featured drivers from all over the United States. The cars were somewhat smaller than those we’re used to seeing on the track today (a record of 6.38 liters, for example), and a lap at the time was considered to be around four miles. That’s fairly small for a racetrack! The cars were made famous for their bright paint jobs and huge stacks of spark plugs, and the races were sometimes called “The Great Rice Rerouting Derby of California.” Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see these cars gathered in historical races and conventions, but it’s still very much alive in the hearts of those who grew up watching it.
The Birth Of Stock Car Racing
The story of the Big Fourteen begins in 1907, when a group of visionary men got together to establish a professional stock car racing league. Known as the NASCAR Founders, the group consisted of William C. Durant, George E. Berry, Charlie E. Whited, and Ralph S. Grimsby. The four men were partners in the Gillette Safety Razor Company, and they wanted their company to be involved in more than just manufacturing razors. In 1907, they established the Automobile Racing Club of America (which would later become NASCAR) with the aim of bringing the art and athleticism of auto racing to the masses. To that end, they established tracks across the country and made sure the public had a place to attend their races. The founders also realized the value of television, and so they established the first ever national TV broadcaster in the industry – the Automobile Racing Club. This would later become the NBC network.
The first official NASCAR race was held on May 24, 1910, and was won by Louis Schneider. It wasn’t until five years later, in 1915, that the first official NASCAR Cup was contested. At that time, NASCAR had three classes of cars – Modified, Limited, and Open – with Modified being the smallest of the three. The first NASCAR Grand Prix was held on September 26, 1920, and was won by Alva Trimilesio aboard an Oldsmobile. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the cars got bigger and faster, with some reaching a top speed of over 100 miles per hour! Nowadays, we generally think of NASCAR as a thing of the past, limited to dusty circuits in the south, but the original concept of small-town fun in the summertime is as popular today as it ever was.
The Dawn Of Junior Stock Car Racing
The Big Fourteen wasn’t the only racing organization to emerge from the early 20th century, and in fact, stock car racing continued to grow in popularity through the 1920s. In 1922, auto racing was declared to be an official sport by the International Olympic Committee, and several prominent teams and drivers began competing in the sport internationally. One of the first major international competitions was the Grand Prix de Rouen, held in northern France in May of that year, with entrants from all over Europe and America. The winner was Georges Sadoul, an outstanding driver from France. Sadoul would go on to win the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1926, and then became the first driver to win the World Championship in the same year. (He died in an aircraft accident in 1928, just months after winning the World Championship for a third time.)
Junior stock car racing, or “kits” as they’re known in America, made its debut at the 1924 Los Angeles Olympics, with the first annual Los Angeles Junior Speedway Championship taking place a month later. (Some sources claim that the event was originally named the California Invitational.) The track was located at a place known as Pickfair Park, and it was 500 meters long, with the finishing straight being just over a kilometer in length. In order to win, a driver had to complete a lap within a time limit, with handicaps applied for rainy and snowy days. The first champion was Arlo Latham, and his son Homer would go on to win the event a record five times. (Arlo Latham died in 1936, and Homer Latham passed away in 1954.)
The Golden Age Of Stock Car Racing
The 1920s were an incredibly successful decade for stock car racing, and it wasn’t just due to the popularity of NASCAR. In fact, the number of tracks grew exponentially in the decade, and became known as Tracktowns, with tracks appearing in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Some of the most prominent tracks during this time were West Coast tracks like Santa Ana and Monterey, where the warm California climate was perfect for the flourishing of the sport. In fact, it was at one of these tracks, Riverside, that an exhibition race called the Indianapolis 500 took place on May 31, 1921, making it the first time the prestigious event was held outside of the Indy 500-certified tracks in Indiana.
The decade saw the emergence of several prominent NASCAR drivers, including Lee Petty, who began racing at the age of twelve and eventually became the first inductee to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame; Junior Johnson, who began working in automobiles at the age of thirteen and became the brains behind the incredible Johnson Engine Company, which built some of the engines that won races during this time and continues to produce engines for racing teams today; and George Brett, who began his racing career at the age of fourteen and eventually became a twelve-time batting champion and one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. (He was also the first player to achieve 1,500 hits.)
The popularity of the sport surged during the decade, with several factors contributing to this growth. First and foremost, there was the emergence of the automobile as the primary means of transportation in the middle of the decade. The early years of the century saw the dominance of the bicycle in American cities, but as automobile ownership increased, so too did the popularity of the sport. TV coverage expanded during this time, with stations showing races across the country, and the birth of the ‘talkies’ (movies with sound) helped too, as people wanted to experience the adrenaline rush of a race alongside their favorite driver.
Continued Growth In The 1930s
The great depression that began in 1929 saw the sport decline in the United States, as people wanted to save money, and there was less money to be made in automobile racing. However, international racing continued unabated, with events being held in countries such as England, where motor racing was popularized, and in Germany, which had several prominent tracks. While automobile ownership declined in Germany and England during this time, it jumped up by 17% in Japan, and track racing became a popular pastime for people of all social classes. (Track racing continued even during the Second World War, and continued to be popular after the war too, with several tracks holding races throughout the 1950s.)
Declining Popularity In The 1950s
The popularity of motor racing declined in the United States in the 1950s, with tracks closing down across the country due to lack of interest from the public. This was largely due to several factors. First, there was the emergence of the television, with many people wanting to stay home and watch TV instead of go to the movies. (The advent of TV also meant that the races could be viewed live, which undoubtedly contributed to their increased popularity at this time.) Second, there was increased fuel rationing in the country during the war, with people wanting to travel less and wanting to make these journeys on foot or by bicycle rather than in a car. This also meant that they were less likely to attend a race, so tracks closed down. (The situation was similar in Canada, where NASCAR would not become a popular sport until the 1960s.) Third, there was a rise in juvenile delinquency in the United States in the 1950s, with more young people being discouraged from participating in sports.
The number of tracks decreased in the United States in the 1950s, with many tracks either closing down or becoming speedways, holding occasional races. Some tracks that did open had outrageous names, such as the Big Wigwam and the Dunes Sea Breezes Motel and Golf Course. The last speedway in the United States, the Daytona Beach Tri-County Speedway, closed down in 1957.