NASCAR on a Horseracing Track? It Happened in the Late 50's!

Posted on: 2013-08-17

When you absolutely love auto racing, you manage to find ways to associate it with other things you love.

For instance, you’ve probably considered naming a pet after a famous driver or a car part. Racing terminology has penetrated into your daily vocabulary. Phrases like “10-4” and “hitting the chip” are a few that I use on a regular basis.

On a much deeper level, I’ve noticed that you can pretty much discover auto racing history no matter where you grew up. You tend to love the things you remember from your childhood, and when motorsports are a part of that, and you didn’t even know it when you were a kid, well, that just makes it all the more special. I discovered that the stomping grounds of my youth actually played host to three Grand National NASCAR events in the late fifties, which simply melts my heart in all of the right ways.

MY FIRST TRACK WAS FOR HORSES

I spent many weekends at a place called Bay Meadows Racecourse in Belmont, California when I was a kid. My father was a huge horseplayer and loved to bet on horseracing when he wasn’t working. It wasn’t too difficult for him to tow me and my brother along to the track. We lived only a few blocks away from the train station in Sunnyvale, and that train would take us right to the doorstep of Bay Meadows.

This was a pretty frequent practice for the men of my household. By the time I was in my early teenage years, I could interpret a Daily Racing Form, which for the infrequent horseplayer is like translating the Rosetta Stone. Bay Meadows made efforts to bring in a younger crowd, notably with something called “Friday’s Alive” during their racing meets. Friday’s Alive was a simple concept: offer dollar draft beers, dollar hot dogs, and dollar sodas, and the crowd will come. It was an excellent promotion, because it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do: bring in a crowd of people who are not regular horseplayers, get them intoxicated, and maybe a handful of them will become regulars. It would be a great concept for a local short track, and I’m sure there are hundreds of dirt and pavement auto racing tracks that have used a similar practice to boost attendance.

While these were fun nights, and we surely enjoyed the heck out of them, the crowd was somewhat of an annoyance to experts like me, my father, and my brother. They had no idea what they were doing. The amateurs were betting on horses because they were the odds-on favorites. At the age of sixteen, nothing would make me roll my eyes quite like a phrase like this, as uttered by an intoxicated young female rookie horseplayer:

“I’m gonna vote for the three because his name is _______ and the three horse always wears blue and that’s my favorite color.”

Her equally intoxicated boyfriend would likely assure her that this was the way to play the horses. Sigh…

Meanwhile, whether it was on a Friday’s Alive night or not, my brother would study the Daily Racing Form and have dozens of notes scribbled all over it. He was barely past the legal age of gambling, yet he could out-“handicap” many of the seasoned degenerate gamblers that frequented the racetrack.

On August 17th, 2008, five years ago at this time, Bay Meadows shut its doors in favor of selling the very valuable land on which it was built to a property developer. It was a very sad day for the track regulars. For many of them, their home was their second home. Their first home was Bay Meadows. For guys like me and my brother, it was somewhat like watching your favorite playground get bulldozed, but you would have to multiply that feeling times fifty. We grew along with the place. There was ample space on which we could run out our youthful energy, and the food was rather appealing to our undeveloped palates. Back then, even only twenty-something years ago, that would get me excited enough to go to the race track. I feel bad for the children nowadays who can’t get that excited about running space and junk food, because there are too many other stimuli in their lives. You have to sweeten the bargain beyond those things that I thought were so incredible back then.

(However, when I see kids at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, North Carolina, I regain my faith. Many of them are running around on a sugar-high, screaming like banshees, and they are just having a blast. No technology required. Good for them!)

And grow along with the Bay Meadows we did. By our respective eighteenth birthdays, we both were highly effective gamblers. Well, “effective” may not be the proper word. We lost more than we won, which is very standard in the gambling realm. Was it healthy? I don’t know. You be the judge. My brother made a career out of horseracing. Not as a professional gambler, but he now makes a living based on his lifetime of experience around horseracing, which you could say paid him dividends in the long run.

I took a different path towards auto racing, but I still have a major soft spot for horseracing nonetheless.

NASCAR HISTORY DIES WITH THE TRACK

After the track shut down, I investigated into its history out of nostalgia, and I came across a very intriguing tidbit: NASCAR’s premier series ran three races at Bay Meadows in 1954, ’55, and ’56. Names like Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker, Hershel McGriff, Tim Flock, Marvin Panch, Parnelli Jones, and Fireball Roberts all adorned the entry lists for those races. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody told me that those legends ran on the zero-degree, one-mile dirt oval of Bay Meadows. For the most part, if you speak those names with authority in the San Francisco Bay Area, most people will look at you like you are smoking crack cocaine on the regular. The people of the Bay Area are typically not die-hard NASCAR fans, (They’ll talk your ear off about “organic” and “cage-free, however.) so those names are essentially meaningless to them. For me, those names are all on my “If I could have a beer with…” list.

The winners of the 250 milers at Bay Meadows were McGriff, Flock, and a west coast driver named Eddie Pagan.

I truly wish that I could tell you more about those races. I really wish I had pictures. Yes, once upon a time, the ponies and the stock cars could run on the same track. Incredible!

That’s the saddest part about this whole thing. Aside from the fact that the hoof prints of Seabiscuit (Yes, the world’s most famous racehorse ran at Bay Meadows on many occasions) are now covered with apartment homes for the masses, this part of auto racing history is essentially left to the stat books. We know it happened, we know who finished where, but we don’t know anything else.

While weeds and chain-link fences have surround places like North Wilkesboro, at least we know that the track still exists, and the possibility of it becoming a glorious race track once more is still there. Yet, there are so many places, like Bay Meadows, that have simply vanished off the face of the Earth, along with much of their history. If I tried to dig up more information about NASCAR racing at Bay Meadows, it would be a relatively unfruitful search.

At the same time, there is beauty in having lost history, believe it or not. It means that this sport of auto racing has been established long enough for it to leave things about its past undiscovered. Not-knowing adds intrigue, and because I will never see one piece of footage from the Bay Meadows 250, I can never be disappointed with the quality of those races.

If you love racing history, you will surely find a lot of satisfaction in discovering YOUR racing roots. How can you connect yourself to the legend? This is my way of doing it, and you can do it without trying very hard. The history, I find, is always right under your nose.



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