When legendary NASCAR driver and team-owner Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson Jr. died Dec. 20, memories of North Wilkesboro Speedway and of my father, the late John W. Hubbard, and his experiences covering racing for the newspaper, came flooding back.
Dad got the racing “bug” early, having attended the first-ever race at North Wilkesboro Speedway May 18, 1947, when he was 15 years old. He and his father were covered in dirt after the race, even though racing promoter Bill France had guaranteed the new track would be dustless because a solution of calcium chloride and salt would be spread on the surface.
When it was built, the track was considered to be “the fastest half-mile dirt track in the United States.”
Looking at old issues of The Journal-Patriot through digitalnc.org, I found several articles and advertisements about the race. Interestingly, there were no pictures because the newspaper didn’t have a dark room to develop film until the mid-1960s.
Fontello “Fonty” Flock of Atlanta, Ga. won the 75 lap feature race. More than 10,000 people attended, even though the prediction was attendance of 3,000. In the article, France praised the newly constructed track and predicted that “some of the best racing in the country will be staged there.”
Articles on the internet also gave me an insight into racing in the 1950s. Johnson ran in his first Grand National race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the 1955 Wilkes County 160. In 1956, Johnson drove a Pontiac in the last dirt race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, before it was paved. He started from the pole and led the first 17 laps before the car developed engine problems.
The article I read said Johnson spent 11 months in jail for moonshining, then ran in the Wilkes 160 on Oct. 20, 1957, his only start of the Grand National season. He started 11th, finished 20th and earned $50.
Tragedy struck in that race. Tiny Lund’s axle broke and one of the wheels came loose. Another race car hit the wheel, causing it to fly over a three-foot retaining wall and four-foot fence, hitting spectators. William R. Thomasson of Mount Holly was killed and another spectator, Frank Campbell of Charlotte, was injured.
Another tragedy occurred in 1959. Twelve days before the running of the Wilkes 160, Enoch Staley’s brother, Gwyn, was killed in a convertible race in Richmond, Va. The spring race in North Wilkesboro was re-named the Gwyn Staley 160 and stayed that way until 1978. Lee Petty won the first Gwyn Staley 160, driving the famous #43.
When my family moved back to Wilkes in 1963, my father rekindled his interest in racing and started covering races for the newspaper. We moved into a house in Highland Park, right across the street from Gwyn Staley’s widow, Bonnie, and their children.
An article I found in the newspaper’s archives from April 20, 1964, details the Gwyn Staley Memorial Race, which had to be one of the first races my father covered. It shows a picture of the cars lined up in qualifying position, getting ready to take the green flag.
I can recognize the familiar, descriptive writing style, “It was a perfect day for the race-slightly overcast sky, temperature of 84 degrees and track temperature of 118 degrees at race time.”
He also says in the article, “Miss Donna Staley, daughter of the late Gwyn Staley, presented Fred Lorenzen the trophy for being the fastest qualifier, and presented him the winning trophy. She rode in the pace car furnished by Midway Pontiac Inc. of North Wilkesboro.” Johnson finished fourth in the race, driving a 1964 Dodge.
Through the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s, Dad covered racing for the newspaper, at the tracks which were fairly close - Martinsville, Bristol, Darlington, Charlotte, Rockingham, of course North Wilkesboro and occasionally Richmond. Restrictions and access to the drivers were much less strict, and Dad often took my brothers with him.
During rain delays and extended cautions, the Junior Johnson pits were “home base.”
On Mondays after the paper went out, Dad would put together a packet to be sent to the race track he had visited that weekend. He’d include several newspapers detailing his race coverage, copies of the pictures he’d taken and a personal letter, thanking them for giving media credentials and hospitality.
In 14 years of driving, with 50 wins and 313 starts, Johnson earned just over $301,000, and there hasn’t been a NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro since 1996. My, how things have changed.