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.

 

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford
Lee Petty 42 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona Beach 1958
Ford and Mercury Convertibles on dirt
Joe Capsolik 45 1960 Oldsmobile owner Bill Gazaway Darlington
Cotton Owens 3 1958 Pontiac 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
Darlington 1962 the Last Convertible Race
Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium
Daytona beach race 1956
Rex White 1959 Chevrolet tonneau
Rex White 4 1961 Chevrolet
Lee Petty 1957 Olds pits Darlington
Lee Petty 42 Bob Welborn 49 1958 Martinsville
Joe Weatherly 1956 Ford 12 Daytona
Lee Petty Bill Lutz Ralph Earnhardt 1957 Oldsmobile 88
Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet
Larry Frank 76 1958 Ford
Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet Kansas Fairgrounds
Glen Wood 18 1958 Ford
1959 Thunderbird 12 at Daytona
Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Elmo Langley 8 1956 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium
Joe Weatherly 12 1958 Ford
Joe Lee Johnson 1957 Chevrolet victory lane Nashville
Richard Petty 43 1957 Oldsmobile Daytona 1959
Fireball Roberts
Lee Petty 1957 Oldsmobile zipper top
Bill Lang 17 1956 Ford Kansas Fairgrounds
1959 Thunderbird 93 zipper top
Petty Engineering 42 1960 Plymouth zipper top
Curtis Turner 26 1957 Ford
Curtis Turner 26 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona 1956
Curtis Turner 26 1956 Ford dirt
Dirt track 1957 Chevrolet and 1956 Mercury
Fireball Roberts 22 1957 Chevrolet Darlington Cotton Owens Pontiac far left
Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet car and driver
Petty Engineering 1957 Oldsmobiles Daytona Beach
Richard Petty 43 1962 Plymouth 1962 Rebel 300
Nelson Stacy 29 1962 Ford Rebel 300 winner 1962
Fireball Roberts Pontiac
Petty Engineering 42 1957 Olds zipper top Darlington 1958
Bowman-Gray Stadium Glen Wood 21 1956 Ford
Glen Wood 22 1956 Ford
Fireball Roberts 95 1958 Ford Daytona Beach
Glen Wood 21 1958 Ford driver shot
Lee Petty 42 1957 Oldsmobile Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet Bowman-Gray Stadium
Ford Pete Depaolo Racing team 1956
Tim Flock 15 1957 mercury
Curtis Turner 26 Fireball Roberts 22 1956 Fords
Buck Baker 87 1958 Chevrolet zipper top
Frank Mundy 503 1956 Dodge
Bob Welborn 1960 Chevrolet 49 Daytona
Curtis Turner 26 1956 Daytona winner
Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford Soldier Field
1962 Rebel 300 Ford and Pontiac
Lee Petty 42 abandoned race car
Front row Darlington convertible race 1957

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford

Lee Petty 42 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona Beach 1958

Ford and Mercury Convertibles on dirt

Joe Capsolik 45 1960 Oldsmobile owner Bill Gazaway Darlington

Cotton Owens 3 1958 Pontiac 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

Darlington 1962 the Last Convertible Race

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

Daytona beach race 1956

Rex White 1959 Chevrolet tonneau

Rex White 4 1961 Chevrolet

Lee Petty 1957 Olds pits Darlington

Lee Petty 42 Bob Welborn 49 1958 Martinsville

Joe Weatherly 1956 Ford 12 Daytona

Lee Petty Bill Lutz Ralph Earnhardt 1957 Oldsmobile 88

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet

Larry Frank 76 1958 Ford

Jim Massey 33 1956 Chevrolet Kansas Fairgrounds

Glen Wood 18 1958 Ford

1959 Thunderbird 12 at Daytona

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

Joe Weatherly 12 1958 Ford

Joe Lee Johnson 1957 Chevrolet victory lane Nashville

Richard Petty 43 1957 Oldsmobile Daytona 1959

Fireball Roberts

Lee Petty 1957 Oldsmobile zipper top

Bill Lang 17 1956 Ford Kansas Fairgrounds

1959 Thunderbird 93 zipper top

Petty Engineering 42 1960 Plymouth zipper top

Curtis Turner 26 1957 Ford

Curtis Turner 26 Joe Weatherly 12 Daytona 1956

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Ford dirt

Dirt track 1957 Chevrolet and 1956 Mercury

Fireball Roberts 22 1957 Chevrolet Darlington Cotton Owens Pontiac far left

Bob Welborn 49 1957 Chevrolet car and driver

Petty Engineering 1957 Oldsmobiles Daytona Beach

Richard Petty 43 1962 Plymouth 1962 Rebel 300

Nelson Stacy 29 1962 Ford Rebel 300 winner 1962

Fireball Roberts Pontiac

Petty Engineering 42 1957 Olds zipper top Darlington 1958

Bowman-Gray Stadium Glen Wood 21 1956 Ford

Glen Wood 22 1956 Ford

Fireball Roberts 95 1958 Ford Daytona Beach

Glen Wood 21 1958 Ford driver shot

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

Ford Pete Depaolo Racing team 1956

Tim Flock 15 1957 mercury

Curtis Turner 26 Fireball Roberts 22 1956 Fords

Buck Baker 87 1958 Chevrolet zipper top

Frank Mundy 503 1956 Dodge

Bob Welborn 1960 Chevrolet 49 Daytona

Curtis Turner 26 1956 Daytona winner

Joe Weatherly 12 1956 Ford Soldier Field

1962 Rebel 300 Ford and Pontiac

Lee Petty 42 abandoned race car

Front row Darlington convertible race 1957

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5 thoughts on “The great age of convertible racing

  1. Looking for pic of my dad in #186 1955 Buick finished 6th in first convertible race at Daytona. He also raced a 55 Lincoln #87. Red Duvall. Thanks

  2. DId anyone actually race in a 1955 chevrolet convertible? I can only find pictures of 56 and 57 models. I am trying to recreate a pedal car matched to a racing convertible 55.

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