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.
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.