With the addition of Kentucky Speedway to the 2011 NASCAR schedule, Kentucky is once has a presence in the NASCAR Cup Series. The last time that NASCAR held a Cup race in Kentucky, it was 1954.
I don't have much to say about another 1.5 D shaped track being added to NASCAR. The racing here seems like it will be lots of fun, but the track was built in 2000. So how about we take a peek at the last time NASCAR wandered through the Bluegrass State. 1954 had some interesting developments in NASCAR both on and off the track. The Pure Oil, Co. manufactured and sold a new tire specifically for stock car racing. Until then, drivers were using the same tires that were used on every day cars. Safety measures were being made, even in the earliest years of NASCAR.
1954 also saw the introduction of specialized helmets which were designed specifically to protect the drivers from concussive forces. Along with safety measures designed to protect drivers from impact injuries, a fire-proof overall was introduced and became a common feature in the garages. While the safety features of stock cars in the 1950s may seem laughable when compared to the high tech modern safety developments, the very fact that NASCAR, as a sport, was influencing safety design and innovation is extraordinarily impressive.
Even this early on in American popular culture, NASCAR had a television presence. In 1952, 1.4 Million Americans had a television set. (That information is sourced from Wikipedia. That number may or may not be correct, but it is probably close) Even in this early market, stock car racing had a foothold. Three television programs featured stock car racing. New York City broadcast a show called Wire Wheels, Desert Dirt featured racing news and aired out of Phoenix, Arizona, and Autorama broadcast out of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Perhaps these are not the television markets that one would expect to feature stock car racing news, but I think that it speaks to the nationwide interest and growing national presence of NASCAR.
What of the race tracks? Similar to Kentucky Speedway, the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway was designed and built specifically to host stock car races. Active from 1954 until 1957, the track just outside of Lehi, Arkansas was a high banked, fast, and dangerous one and a half mile dirt track. The high price of building the track forced the opening race to be pushed back to the fall of 1954. The track also faced the same problem that many of the dirt tracks of the time had, dust control. Clouds of dust were so intense that often the track became completely obscured and the race needed to be slowed down. Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, delayed in opening was also closed due to a construction troubles. A promised highway near to the track would have created a much easier access point to the track, but it was never built. In the end, the cost of paving the track was too great and the track was shuttered after only five NASCAR races.
1.5 miles? Sure. D-Shaped? Yup. Cookie cutter? Why, the answer to the that is a pretty firm "heck no!" The banking of the dirt track was high, especially for a dirt track. The track also had a feature that adds to the romanticism of Darlington, but proved deadly for Memphis-Arkansas. The track had ponds both outside of the track and in the infield. While drivers like Lee Petty went over the banking and into the pond during the races, Clint McHugh lost his life in a crash into one of the lakes.
There are many tracks like this in the history of NASCAR, stop overs, one-shots, tracks that were meant to be glorious and instead spend a few seasons with the sport before they are left behind. It is indeed an interesting sport, always going somewhere new, not always for the better, but always trying to find ways to expand the sport.
Best wishes to the folks at Kentucky Speedway. And NASCAR, thank you so much for not dropping one of the dates from Martinsville. This column would have been very different this week if that had happened.
Field Trip! Let's go visit Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, shall we? Click here for quick trip down the 40!