Sunday, February 24, 2013

Please Take Your Top Off; The Rebel 300

Fireball Roberts (22), Joe Weatherly (12), and Rex White (4) go three-wide during the running of the 1960 Rebel 300

By Kyle Ealy

Darlington, S.C. – By the mid-1950s, NASCAR was running its Grand National, Modified and Sportsman divisions on both sides of the country and with great success.

But Bill France was always looking at other opportunities to boost his business, particularly in the Midwest, and he found it in a series called the Circuit of Champions All Stars (CCAS), an all-convertible car division. The convertibles had proven to be wildly successful and were drawing enthusiastic crowds wherever they appeared.

That was all France needed to see…in 1955, he purchased the entire series from Midwestern promoter H.E. Redkey in December. France’s plan was to run NASCAR-sanctioned convertible races as a companion division to the hardtop Grand Nationals in 1956.

Sure enough, the NASCAR Convertible Series became an immediate hit with fans and soon were drawing numbers equal to or bigger than the already established Grand National circuit.

By 1957, the convertibles had become so popular, Darlington Raceway general manager Bob Colvin decided to promote a spring race for the convertible series to compliment his already successful Labor Day Weekend race, the Southern 500. 

Over the next six years, the Rebel 300 would become one of the most popular auto races in America…

Program from the first Rebel 300

The inaugural race, despite a day’s rain delay, would take place on May 12, 1957. A paid attendance of 23,000 watched Daytona’s Glen “Fireball” Roberts unranked in the NASCAR Convertible Series; give the rag-top boys a driving lesson, winning the Rebel 300 with an average speed of 107.940 miles per hour.

Taking the lead on the 33rd lap, Roberts would hold the advantage the rest of the way in the 219-lap event in his factory-backed 1957 Ford. The only time Roberts wasn’t in the lead was lap 95 when he pitted for fuel. Bobby Myers of Winston-Salem, N.C., would merely keep Roberts’ seat in the front warm for one circuit.

Atlanta’s Tim Flock finished second driving a Mercury followed by Bobby Myers in third place. Buck Baker of Charlotte, driving a '57 Chevrolet in relief of Bob Welborn of Greensboro, N.C., fourth, and Oldsmobile chauffeur Lee Petty of Randleman, N.C., in fifth.

There were only three cautions the whole day but one of them probably made a difference in who ended up in victory lane and who didn’t.

Curtis Turner of Roanoke, Va., started third but was soon out front, and by lap 20 had set a new track record, averaging 114.640 miles per hour. He and second place Marvin Panch were dominating the rest of the field and no one was catching them.

On lap 29, however, Jim Pascal of High Point, N.C., blew a tire coming out of turn four, veered towards the pit area and collided with Buck Baker. Smoke and debris was everywhere and as one newspaper reporter stated, “It was one big free for all of racing mayhem after that.”

Turner, Marvin Panch, Bill Amick, Possum Jones and Dick Beaty were all caught up in the mess. It was miraculous no one was killed and even more amazing no one was seriously injured in view of the way the cars smashed up, one right after another.

There was also one arrest of note. The race was originally scheduled to be on Saturday, but because of rain, moved ahead to Sunday. Darlington GM Bob Colvin was arrested for violating South Carolina’s blue law against Sunday paid amusement just as the Rebel 300 got underway. Sheriff Grover Bryant slapped the arrest warrant on Colvin just as he was stepping out of the pace car. Colvin would pay the $58 bond.

The always-controversial Curtis Turner would win the 1958 Rebel 300

On May 10, 1958, Curtis Turner would revenge his bitter loss in the ’57 race by overhauling Joe Weatherly of Norfolk on the 196th lap and running off from the rest of the field to win the second annual Rebel 300. In the process, Turner established a new record for stock cars on any track at a sizzling 109.624 miles per hour average for the 219 laps.

Weatherly, who battled Turner for every lap, crossed the finish line 25 seconds behind the wealthy lumberman. Finishing behind Turner and Weatherly were Marvin Panch of Charlotte, N.C., Eddie Pagan of Lynwood, Calif., and defending winner and pole sitter Fireball Roberts.

Most noteworthy feature of the race, aside from the perfect weather and excellent driving, was the fact there were no accidents of serious nature in the race. Only two spinouts marred the performance before 22,000 onlookers.

The lead belonged to Weatherly from lap 9 to 90 when Turner became a serious contender. On lap 99, Turner took over the top spot and continued to lead until lap 158 when he pitted for fuel. Turner grabbed the lead again on lap 166 when Weatherly pitted for gas.

The lead would change several times after that with the two veterans going neck and neck down the straightaways and through the turns. Coming out of turn two on lap 196, Turner gunned his ’58 Ford past Weatherly to stay ahead for good, increasing his lead slightly on every lap.

Afterwards, Turner said that he wasn’t afraid of any particular driver, “just all of them.” But he showed absolutely no fear as he kept his foot on the floorboard and rammed his Ford around the Darlington track with devastating fury.

Cotton Owens qualified for the outside of the front row for the 2nd annual "Rebel 300" at Darlington with Smokey Yunick's Pontiac.

“A race is won in the garage and pre-race preparations,” explained Fireball Roberts after winning the Rebel 300 on May 9, 1959. “That’s why I was never worried about my car not being able to make it the distance.”

Leaving a pile of shattered records behind him, Roberts led most of the way behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Impala as he took his second victory in the Rebel 300. His average speed was 115.903 miles per hour. For his victory, Roberts picked up the $7,000 first prize. The purse was $30,640 - also a record.

Joe Weatherly, a bridesmaid for the second straight year, finished second to Roberts. He picked up $4,050, and Larry Frank of Piedmont, S.C., received $2,100 for his third place finish.

Rookie Bob Burdick of Omaha, Neb., who posted third highest qualifying time was paid $1,400 for fourth place, and fifth place finisher Rex White, of Silver Springs, Md., collected $1,175.

Roberts, Curtis Turner and Buck Baker of Spartanburg, S.C., waged a tremendous duel for the top spot for the first one third of the race before a record crowd of 30,000.

Baker took the lead as the cars rounded the first turn after the start, but Turner grabbed the lead from him before the cars had gone a lap. For the next 78 laps, it was Turner, Baker and Roberts with Turner holding a slight edge in his Thunderbird over his competitors who were driving Chevrolet Impalas.

Finally, Roberts went to the pits, Turner followed, and Baker took a brief lead. Roberts was in the pits for the shortest amount of time for tires and fuel, and he took the lead before the 90th lap. He held it the rest of the way except for a brief period when Joe Weatherly passed Roberts during a pit stop late in the race. Weatherly went to the pits shortly afterwards, and Roberts regained the lead with a lap lead. It was his race from then on.

In victory lane, Roberts explained the advantage Chevy’s had over the T-Birds. “I had figured along that the Impalas would beat the Thunderbirds because of the weight,” explained Roberts. “The Birds were too heavy and tires can’t stand that kind of weight on this type of track.”

The truth of Roberts’ statement was witnessed on the track where the Thunderbirds were forced to make more pit stops than the Chevys for tire changes.

With a lack of factory backing, the NASCAR Convertible Series would cease operations after the 1959 season. However, NASCAR and Darlington continued their commitment to showcasing the convertibles at the Rebel 300.

Rex White stands beside his '59 Chevy before the start of the1960 Rebel 300. White would start on the outside of the front row.

Joe Weatherly, the Ford jockey, would finally shed the bridesmaid role in winning the rain delayed and controversy shrouded Rebel 300 on May 14, 1960. “I’d finished second so many times here,” said Weatherly. "I was beginning to think I was stuck in that position.”

“Little Joe”, who had been running at Darlington since 1955, finally brought home a winner in the race he probably least expected to win, at an average speed (102.606 miles per hour) which no one thought could win. The average speed was 13 miles per hour off the record set in the ’59 race by former champion Fireball Roberts.

But this Rebel 300 running - the longest in the four year history of the race - was stopped completely twice and had an unusual amount of caution flags which lowered the speed average considerably.

The final two-thirds of the race was witnessed by an estimated 37,000 fans, after 30,000 on May 7 saw rain stop the running after 74 laps.

“The caution flags actually helped,” Weatherly admitted after winning. Weatherly, driving a ‘60 Ford prepared by the Holman-Moody team of Charlotte, had become irked at a decision by NASCAR president Bill France to restart the race under five caution flags, and campaigned against the yellow flags for an entire week He had refueled under the rain caution flag a week earlier, but most drivers hadn’t. He wanted to pick up the race at full speed under a given flag and had threatened court action if not allowed to do so. Ironically, he won the race by pitting under caution – four times.

Weatherly edged out young driving sensation Richard Petty, who placed second in a 1960 Plymouth prepared by his father, veteran driver Lee Petty. Both were in Plymouth's and Lee finished fourth behind his hard-driving son.

Pre-race favorite and defending champion Fireball Roberts lost a tire in the second turn and damaged the front end suspension on his powerful ‘60 Pontiac. Roberts was leading the race when it was halted because of rain last week, but was more than a lap out of the lead when he went out of the race Saturday.

This is all that remained of the scorer's stand after Johnny Allen slammed his convertible into it.

The race was halted by its second red flag in as many Saturdays when Johnny Allen slammed into the scorer’s stand in his ’60 Chevrolet. Allen, from Fayetteville, N.C., crashed into the stand after he hit a light and went over the rail on the fourth turn. It took about an hour to evacuate the scorer’s stand and replace them in another position. It took a long time because Allen’s car had knocked the steps from the stand and a ladder had to be found to get the people out of the stand.

Weatherly earned $9,070 for his victory while Petty netted $5,295 for his runner-up showing. Rex White, who placed third, took home $3,025 and the elder Petty grabbed $2,025 for fourth.

Asked if he planned on filing a lawsuit against France for the yellow flag start, Weatherly chuckled, “Let’s just forget about that. I don’t know f I have a complaint against anyone right now.”

Marvin Panch pits the Ray Fox Pontiac (#8) during the 1961 Rebel 300.

A terrific fender-banging and bumping duel between Curtis Turner and Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst, Ill., over the final 30 laps highlighted the fifth annual Rebel 300 on May 6, 1961, as speed records tumbled on every lap.

Lorenzen would beat Turner at his own game as the two 1961 Ford pilots staged a heated battle at high speed over the mile and three-eighth asphalt plant after Fireball Roberts, who had a lap lead over the field, bowed out with a broken right front wheel.

Lorenzen took Turner on a fender-smashing desperation maneuver two laps from the finish Saturday, barreling by the usually assertive Turner on the inside. Turner, the master of aggressive racing, was sent skimming the rail as Lorenzen battled into the lead on the 217th turn around the track.

It marked the first time in Rebel 300 history that the pole winner had become the eventual race champion. Lorenzen turned 128.965 miles per hour to break the track record in time trials. His average speed for the race was 119.520 miles per hour as he won over Turner by some six-car lengths. It snapped the previous record of 115.903 miles per hour set by Roberts in 1959.

A total of 15 lead changes, among eight different drivers, were chalked up. Lorenzen took the lead at the outset, leading the first 72 laps until pit stops were made. Joe Weatherly took the lead as Lorenzen pitted. Ralph Earnhardt took over two laps later on the 74th and Turner moved into the lead on the 75th. Johnny Allen grabbed it on the 77th and Banjo Matthews on the 79th before Roberts took over on the 80th as pit stops piled up quickly. 

Roberts set a blistering pace until he had to pit on the 143rd lap. He had a lap lead over every one at the time except Lorenzen and Turner. All the top leaders pitted around the same time, with the lead rapidly changing hands. Turner took it on the 143rd, Weatherly on the 147th Bob Burdick on the 149th, Earnhardt again on the 150th, Allen on the 155th and Roberts regained the lead on the 166th.

On the 198th circuit, Roberts had to pit when his right front wheel snapped. That left Turner and Lorenzen running one-two with 30 miles left. Lorenzen took Turner on the backstretch but lost it on the homestretch as the terrific duel brought the estimated 32,500 fans to their feet.

Around the 210th lap, Turner skidded high in the first turn, almost lost control but managed to retain the lead. Lorenzen pulled even on the backstretch, but had to back off going into the third turn, with Weatherly moving up on his bumper

With two laps left, Lorenzen sped down on the inside after faking turn on an outside maneuver, brushed against Turner and took the lead going into the first turn on a daring maneuver. He took the white flag on the next lap and, at speed of 130 miles an hour, outdistanced Turner for the win.

Johnny Allen, who had taken out the scoring tower only a year before, drove to an impressive third place finish in his 1961 Chevrolet, Bob Burdick was fourth in a ’61 Pontiac and Roberts came roaring back from his wheel issues to earn fifth in his ’61 Pontiac.

The convertibles make their final NASCAR appearance at the May 12, 1962, Rebel 300 at Darlington Raceway. Nelson Stacy, driving for the Holman-Moody Ford team, went into the record books as the winner of the final ragtop race.

On May 12, 1962, Nelson Stacy of Daytona Beach, Fla., would charge past Marvin Panch on the next-to-last lap to win the final Rebel 300 race by one second. The husky winner picked up $7,900 for his efforts before a crowd of 35,000. The race was run in 80-degree weather but track temperatures hit 125 degrees.

Stacy would duel Fred Lorenzen through most of the race, but a lap penalty for passing the pace car when the caution flag was out probably cost Lorenzen the race.

As an anti-climax, Lorenzen blew a tire on the last lap and spun out. However, he finished third. While the caution flag was out six times - including the winning lap - the race was run at a relatively fast two hours, 33 minutes and 17 seconds, or 117.864 miles an hour.

Panch picked up $4,890 for his second place finish in a Ford, and Lorenzen, in the same make, won $3,310.

A three-car tangle on the third lap of the race knocked Fireball Roberts completely out of the race and put defending champion Joe Weatherly and Richard Petty too far back ever to be in contention.

Of the 32 cars that started, 21 still were on the track at the end. Mishaps, rather than mechanical failures, reduced the field.

The "King of the Convertibles" Bob Welborn would never win the Rebel 300 despite claiming the NASCAR series' championship three times (1958, '59, and '60).


  1. I've been told it's Marvin Panch in car #3 instead of David Pearson in car #8. #3 makes sense since it matches the greyhound at front.

  2. The Rebel 300 did not become the Southern 500. The Southern 500 was an annual Labor Day event for hardtops that began in 1950.