Sunday, 4 November 2012

'Overpaid, oversexed and over here'

 That's how the brits viewed the Yanks who were stationed in Britain during WW2. But apart from a voracious appetite for all things British - especially our Girls - the Yanks also brought - and left us - their culture: Rock n' Roll, Frigidaires, befinned cars, sharp suits, milk shakes, filter cirgarettes, nylons - and Stock car racing.

American stock car racing as a sport developed out of the need for fast and efficient delivery of illegal alcohol. The pride associated with turning out fast cars needed to outrun the Police developed from rivalry between gangs to organised races in fields or on horse tracks. The early Stock Cars were practically standard road cars, and drivers competed in hard, rough-and-tumble action. During the early years of the sport – the professional drivers would tow their ‘Sportsman’ class cars from town to town, racing up to five times a week. All the rural track surfaces were dirt – as mostly these provincial circuits doubled as horse racing venues. Whilst the cars appeared ‘stock’, outwardly running full bodywork, a black art quickly emerged that produced faster cars from the clever manipulation of standard parts. From these early racers, more sophisticated tuning techniques were developed and after-market tuning parts in the form of twin-carburettor set-ups, aluminium cylinder heads, and quick-change rear axles were to be seen on the more professional ‘team’ cars. As there was a severe shortage of new cars in post-war America, such race cars were built from pre-war cars. Weapons of choice were coupes and two-door (Tudor) saloons. Carrying less superfluous tinwork than their four-door sedan counterparts, these smaller bodied models were in great demand by racers – and the casualty rate for such cars was atrociously high – and true survivors are very rare. Many of the great stars of NASCAR started out in these self-built cars: Lee Petty, Curtis ‘Crawfish’ Crider, Fonty Flock, Wendell Scott – as did hard man of NASCAR Neil "Soapy” Castles. 

Many of you may already enjoy Stock Car racing but do you know that the sport has been running in the U.K for over 50 years? Back in 1954 one 'Digger' Pugh - an Australian showman and promoter - set out to promote a new sport in the U.K that was already setting the U.S.A alight – Stock Car racing! In those days Stock Cars were literally just that – race cars made out of standard road cars – far from the special-builds of today’s sport. Having no benchmark to work from - the Brits grabbed at anything powerful that they could lay their hands on. Big engine American cars were favoured for their tough build quality and ready horsepower. These cars were crudely stripped with defensive ironwork added in an altogether random manner. If American cars could not be sourced then the Brits tried anything that had strength and power – even pre-war Bentleys were used! But during these pioneering days of the U.K’s sport, the benchmark of car construction was set by a visiting American team which actually ‘set-up’ their cars for the cinder short oval tracks such as Harringay, New Cross and White City. Running with applied thought to the mechanics and an overall tougher build quality, these ‘Damned Yanks’ whipped us Limeys in a resounding manner! However the scene had been set and the sport grew to immense proportions – it was not out of the ordinary for an audience of 25,000 fans to turn up to watch a race meeting in those days – such was the sport’s immediate popularity! Slowly but surely, what we now recognise as 'Stock Cars' emerged and evolved as 'Specials'. But here are a few of the real cars that helped shape the future of the sport - as you can see, most of them are two-door or 'Tudor' models.

Many of the great stars of NASCAR started out in these self-built cars: Lee Petty, Curtis ‘Crawfish’ Crider, Fonty Flock, Wendell Scott – as did hard man of NASCAR Neil “Soapy” Castles.
Neil "Soapy" Castles was born 1st October 1934 in Charlotte, NC. Castles competed in the Grand National and Winston Cup ranks for 19 years before retiring from the sport in l976. He was nicknamed "Soapy" from his boyhood competition in soap-box derbies. A true ‘Redneck’, it was said that if you wanted somebody whacked, “Soapy” would do it for $300, and if you wanted flowers, it was $5 more. His NASCAR Grand National Division debut came on 20th June 1957 on the half-mile Columbia Speedway dirt track, driving Bill Champion’s No: 5 Ford. Castles was to start 17th and survive the race to finish 18th – and unharmed. He returned at Darlington Raceway, driving his own No: 68 Ford in which he was to make a further three appearances for a total of five professional major league races that year. Throughout the ’60s "Soapy" was highly competitive, spending four seasons in Buck Baker's cars and finishing eighth in the point standings in 1965 and ninth in the final standings in 1966. Other than those years, Castles fielded his own cars and was considered one of the leading "independents" -those without a factory-backed program. He was eighth in the standings in his own cars in l967 and then 12th in l968. His best seasons came in 1969 and 1970 when he was fourth and fifth in the final point standings. During his long career he made 498 starts and although he never scored a victory, he had 51 top-five finishes and 178 top-10 placings. He also performed stunt driver duties in the Warner Brothers film "Greased Lightning" alongside Wendell Scott.
Proudly wearing the later Castles No: 06, the 1938 Ford Tudor ‘Sportsman’ stock car shown above comes from the now defunct Rod Long Museum of NASCAR. Restored several years ago at a cost of over $30,000, this original warhorse was prepared especially for Neil “Soapy” Castles to demonstrate at NASCAR events. A high specification ‘Sportsman’ class racer – it features period Edelbrock aluminium race heads on its flathead V-8 engine, fuelled by twin Stromberg 97 carburettors via a rare Edmonds dual intake. A massive roll cage protects the driver, while safety hubs ensure that he will not lose a wheel during contact with another racer. Wide ‘dirt’ race wheels are employed, which give the car a menacing stance and straight through pipes emit a thunderous presence. With all this ‘go’ on tap – it’s reassuring to know that the brakes on this racer use ’40 ‘juice’ (hydraulic) brakes rather than the earlier rod type. This is no ‘Jalopy racer’ but a professionally restored survivor. Fully serviced by Valley Gas Speed Shop in Newbury and ‘on the button’ here is an evocative NASCAR racer that has already been seen and much admired at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The following pages are from a period DIY on how to build a 'Jalopy Racer' - a step down from the car above! 

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