Bob Wilson - My View from the Stands in 1954

Friday, May 27, 2016
Red Sanderson at Knoxville in 1954Red Sanderson at Knoxville in 1954 My View From the Stands in 1954
By Bob Wilson

The flagman stood on the track with flag in hand.  His assistant ran between the cars checking that all drivers had their seatbelts fastened.  Engines were running and gunning.  When the assistant reached the final two cars in the lineup he signaled the flagman who jumped in the air and waved the green flag.  The cars roared to life as the flagman ran for his life to the apron of the track.  Bumping and shoving occurred while exhaust smoke nearly hid the feature lineup which had assembled in rows on the track.  Some cars pulled out of assigned spots to clear the slower cars in front them.  All the while billows of smoke erupted like a volcano to my eight-year-old eyes.  Slowly like giant mechanical beetles they gained speed as they headed toward the first turn and onto the second.  Only the vanishing clouds of smoke remained on the front stretch but the sound of competing engines heading out of turn two now commanded my attention.  It was June 4, 1954 and this was the feature event of the first weekly race ever held on the now famous Knoxville oval.  Weekly racing was scheduled for every Friday night into mid-September.

I was there that night and it would be about a month and a half before I would turn nine.  That vivid scene is still embedded in my memory.  It was so exciting yet a bit grotesque to witness.  These were stock car races featuring coupes and sedans from before the War and painted in magical colors with expertly inscribed numbers fashioned on the doors of each car.  It was 63 years ago to the June 4 date on this year’s Knoxville Raceway calendar.

So what I want to do with this piece of writing is to let you know what happened that night so you can see just how much a race night has changed with the passage of time.  So much has changed, really, that comparisons are hard to make except through the eyes of an eight-year-old.  Yet some things stay the same.

That night began the same way Knoxville tradition now dictates, with time trials.  Nineteen cars showed for that first event.  The cars had batteries and ignition switches so no push trucks were needed.  Several  trucks were in the pits having packed the track and were held over if needed to push a non-starting car.  Cars came to the push off lane which is still used today to stage time trials.  They received one lap from a flying start just like today (flying starts for racing events came later).  All racing was lined up with the fastest cars to the rear.  Just so you know, a lone string of yellow bug lights graced the pit area.  Track lights consisted of a string of yellow and red lights overhead on the backstretch and a similar one on the front stretch.  All races were flagged from the track at the start/finish line.

In the spring of 1954 light poles with lighting had been put in place in preparation for night-time racing.  Board members had also built fencing to circle the track with the front stretch fence being reinforced to protect the audience.  Government grain bins and storage units sat on the ground that is now graced by the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum and the back grandstands.

The term “stock car” meant that the car owner had to keep his entry such that no racing parts were added to the engine though very slight modifications were allowed.  By the time Knoxville started racing the fenders had been removed as had the running boards.  Most all of the innards such as seats and inside trim had been removed from what had once been a standard passenger car.  All glass was removed and sturdy-welded bumpers were placed on both the front and rear of the car.  A well-built roll cage was required inside the car for driver protection.  Most all drivers had some sort of head gear though nothing existed like the helmets of today.  Some wore goggles and none wore driver’s uniforms.  Jeans or slacks and a white tee shirt were the mode of the day.  No women were allowed in the pits.

No pace truck was used.  Drivers received their information from the flagman who signaled with his index finger that “one lap” to go before the green on a restart.  Of course, the red flag would stop them but they all continued to slowly circle and stop on the front chute after a red.  The red flag was displayed when a car was upside down or stopped in the middle of the track.  Otherwise the race continued if no safety threat existed on the track.  The flagman had the same set of flags as is used today.

The scoring and announcing was done from a very large stage that was situated right on the apron of the track.  The only other time the stage was used was for entertainment purposes during the county fairs.  It was probably built in 1917 like most all the buildings gracing the grounds in 1954.  The old wooden grandstand was built back then too.  For those of you who never saw it, it was all wooden with a beautiful canopy and all of it was painted white.  It held about 2,000 people.  Many of the old county fairgrounds built this type of structure for their horse racing tracks which is what the Knoxville half-mile had been.  The concession stand was underneath the structure with standard eats like hotdogs for a quarter and popcorn costing a dime.  Bottles of pop could be purchased from the Wise Men booth where two huge tanks of water and ice kept the beverages cold.  It was all pretty simple but then those were simpler times.  Even admission was simple:  Adults 90 cents and children paid a dime.

Timing of events was done by a stopwatch that first year.  There was one scorer for racing events at the table on the stage and he used an electric adding machine to list the cars as they flew past the start/finish line.  The sound system was provided by a local radio and television businessman.  Fire safety was covered by a man on a motorcycle with a sidecar which held a fire extinguisher.  The local fire department sent a truck too.  One of the funeral homes provided an ambulance.  The total purse for the night was $250.

Kenny Crook won the 15-lap feature that night.  Kenny was a seasoned driver who came out of Gladbrook, Iowa but had moved to Oskaloosa.  Before the season was over he had again moved and this time to Knoxville.  His car number was always 23 and had painted flames on the side of it.  He was the first track champion.  Jack Delano from Ottumwa set quick time at 31.08.  Jack too had experience driving stock cars as he was the track champion at Chariton in 1953.  Jack always had a number 3 on his cars and they were always white with red trim.  Each of these drivers would make a name for himself at the Knoxville track and would end up in Knoxville’s own Hall of Fame.

When next you end up at Knoxville for a night of racing just remember that the men who set the standard on that June 4 night were heroes for that decade of the 1950s.  Heroes change and so did Knoxville Raceway.  Take a look around at this facility and test your memory of some of the things you have read on this page.  Lots of change has happened here; lots of change is still expected.  Wish you had been there with me in the grandstand all those years ago when I was an eight-year-old and my eyes were innocent yet full of excitement.