The great age of convertible racing

Current NASCAR fans are often stunned to learn that there was once stock car racing with convertibles. Sure was, and it was highly popular in its time. Here’s a look back at the racing ragtops.  

 

The great age of stock car racing with convertibles dates roughly from 1955 to 1962. Things got rolling in late ’55 when Big Bill France, looking to expand NASCAR across the country, took over the SAFE (Society of Auto Sports, Fellowship, and Education) association, which ran an all-convertible stock car circuit. Repackaged as the NASCAR Convertible Division, the series ran in parallel and in combination with the top-tier Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup) from 1956 to 1959.

A big hit with the fans because they could see the drivers at work, especially on the short tracks, the convertibles packed the house at Soldier Field in Chicago and Bowman Gray Stadium (photo above) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Convertible Division also reflected the production vehicles the fans of the period owned or aspired to, a bit like the NASCAR truck series today.

Grand National stars who also raced the ragtops included Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Glen Wood, and Joe Weatherly. Some teams ran so-called “zipper top” cars, which could be run either as Grand National cars or in the Convertible Division by removing a bolt-on sheet-metal top. The 1959 Holman Moody Thunderbird racers were designed as zipper tops. In some events, including the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, the convertibles and Grand National cars ran together, though the topless cars suffered a significant drag penalty.

 

Bob Welborn

 

The acknowledged king of the convertibles was Bob Welborn, who won the NASCAR Convertible Division championship three years in a row from 1956 to 1958. Welborn (1928-1997) hailed from Denton, Carolina, and sometimes drove Grand National cars for Julian Petty, Lee’s brother. In 1998 Welborn was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.

Joe Lee Johnson won the final convertible championship in 1959 just as NASCAR pulled the plug on the series. However, some tracks continued to run convertible events, including Darlington Raceway, which hosted the Rebel 300, a points-paying convertible race, through 1962. The final Rebel 300 with ragtops was won by Nelson Stacy. You can find his Holman Moody-prepped ’62 Ford and a bunch more intriguing convertible race cars in the slide show gallery below.

 

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet

Fireball Roberts Pontiac

Fireball Roberts Pontiac

Tim Flock 15 1957 mercury

Tim Flock 15 1957 mercury

Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet car and driver

Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet car and driver

Lee Petty 42 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona Beach 1958

Lee Petty 42 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona Beach 1958

Curtis Turner 26 1957 Ford

Curtis Turner 26 1957 Ford

Rex White 1959 Chevrolet tonneau

Rex White 1959 Chevrolet tonneau

Fireball Roberts

Fireball Roberts

1962 Rebel 300 Ford and Pontiac

1962 Rebel 300 Ford and Pontiac

Frank Mundy 503 1956 Dodge

Frank Mundy 503 1956 Dodge

1959 Thunderbird 12 at Daytona

1959 Thunderbird 12 at Daytona

Darlington 1962 the Last Convertible Race

Darlington 1962 the Last Convertible Race

Front row Darlington convertible race 1957

Front row Darlington convertible race 1957

Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet Kansas Fairgrounds

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet Kansas Fairgrounds

1959 Thunderbird 93 zipper top

1959 Thunderbird 93 zipper top

Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Lee Petty 1957 Olds pits Darlington

Lee Petty 1957 Olds pits Darlington

Joe Capsolik 45 1960 Oldsmobile owner Bill Gazaway Darlington

Joe Capsolik 45 1960 Oldsmobile owner Bill Gazaway Darlington

NASCAR Grand National Convertible Championship Race, Daytona, FL, 1956.1956 Ford Convertible (#26), Driver Curtis Turner, winning the 160 mile race with an average speed of 96.11 mph.CD#1098-3282-4909-4

NASCAR Grand National Convertible Championship Race, Daytona, FL, 1956.1956 Ford Convertible (#26), Driver Curtis Turner, winning the 160 mile race with an average speed of 96.11 mph.CD#1098-3282-4909-4

Richard Petty 43 1957 Oldsmobile Daytona 1959

Richard Petty 43 1957 Oldsmobile Daytona 1959

Joe Weatherly 1956 Ford 12 Daytona

Joe Weatherly 1956 Ford 12 Daytona

Curtis Turner 26 Fireball Roberts 22 1956 Fords

Curtis Turner 26 Fireball Roberts 22 1956 Fords

Lee Petty 42 Bob Welborn 49 1958 Martinsville

Lee Petty 42 Bob Welborn 49 1958 Martinsville

Lee Petty 42 abandoned race car

Lee Petty 42 abandoned race car

Fireball Roberts 95 1958 Ford Daytona Beach

Fireball Roberts 95 1958 Ford Daytona Beach

Nelson Stacy 29 1962 Ford Rebel 300 winner 1962

Nelson Stacy 29 1962 Ford Rebel 300 winner 1962

Rex White 4 1961 Chevrolet

Rex White 4 1961 Chevrolet

Glen Wood 22 1956 Ford

Glen Wood 22 1956 Ford

Joe Lee Johnson 1957 Chevrolet victory lane Nashville

Joe Lee Johnson 1957 Chevrolet victory lane Nashville

Ford and Mercury Convertibles on dirt

Ford and Mercury Convertibles on dirt

Petty Engineering 42 1960 Plymouth zipper top

Petty Engineering 42 1960 Plymouth zipper top

Buck Baker 87 1958 Chevrolet zipper top

Buck Baker 87 1958 Chevrolet zipper top

Glen Wood 21 1958 Ford driver shot

Glen Wood 21 1958 Ford driver shot

Ford Pete Depaolo Racing team 1956

Ford Pete Depaolo Racing team 1956

Bob Welborn 1960 Chevrolet 49 Daytona

Bob Welborn 1960 Chevrolet 49 Daytona

Richard Petty 43 1962 Plymouth 1962 Rebel 300

Richard Petty 43 1962 Plymouth 1962 Rebel 300

Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Elmo Langley 8 1956 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Elmo Langley 8 1956 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium

Cotton Owens 3 1958 Pontiac Darlington

Cotton Owens 3 1958 Pontiac Darlington

Lee Petty Bill Lutz Ralph Earnhardt 1957 Oldsmobile 88

Lee Petty Bill Lutz Ralph Earnhardt 1957 Oldsmobile 88

Fireball Roberts 22 1957 Chevrolet Darlington Cotton Owens Pontiac far left

Fireball Roberts 22 1957 Chevrolet Darlington Cotton Owens Pontiac far left

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford Soldier Field

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford Soldier Field

Dirt track 1957 Chevrolet and 1956 Mercury

Dirt track 1957 Chevrolet and 1956 Mercury

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Daytona winner

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Daytona winner

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Ford dirt

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Ford dirt

Petty Engineering 1957 Oldsmobiles Daytona Beach

Petty Engineering 1957 Oldsmobiles Daytona Beach

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford

Lee Petty 1957 Oldsmobile zipper top

Lee Petty 1957 Oldsmobile zipper top

Glen Wood 18 1958 Ford

Glen Wood 18 1958 Ford

Petty Engineering 42 1957 Olds zipper top Darlington 1958

Petty Engineering 42 1957 Olds zipper top Darlington 1958

Daytona beach race 1956

Daytona beach race 1956

Bowman-Gray Stadium Glen Wood 21 1956 Ford

Bowman-Gray Stadium Glen Wood 21 1956 Ford

Curtis Turner 26 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona 1956

Curtis Turner 26 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona 1956

Joe Weatherly 12 1958 Ford

Joe Weatherly 12 1958 Ford

Larry Frank 76 1958 Ford

Larry Frank 76 1958 Ford

Bill Lang 17 1956 Ford Kansas Fairgrounds

Bill Lang 17 1956 Ford Kansas Fairgrounds

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