RACING BACK TO GREENVILLE-PICKENS HISTORY
THE DAY JUNIOR JOHNSON MADE COMPETITION BURN RUBBER ON THE GPS DIRT, BILL FRANCE USED GREENVILLE-PICKENS TO STOP CURTIS TURNER IN COLUMBIA
By - Roger Jewell
Many years ago a motorsports journalist asked Greenville-Pickens Speedway co-owner Pete Blackwell what was the most memorable NASCAR Cup race held at the historic half mile oval. Blackwell thought for a few seconds and said there were many but one of the best races has to be the October 28, 1961 race that was won by Junior Johnson. "Joe Weatherly finished second in that one and finished the race with his car running on rims, he had two rear flat tires but kept racing wide open trying to catch Johnson," Blackwell said.
Actually, the 200 lap event at GPS was added to the NASCAR schedule two weeks after the track had closed for the season. Bill France, the founder and president of NASCAR, contacted Blackwell and asked to schedule the extra 200 lapper on Saturday, October 28th. France wanted to head off Curtis Turner's attempt to move in on NASCAR territory by promoting a MARC (Midestern America Racing Circuit), 100 miles down the road at Columbia Speedway on that same date. France had banned Turner and Tim Flock from NASCAR earlier that year for trying to unionize NASCAR. Turner hooked up with MARC and wanted to expand that stock car circuit to the southeastern short tracks.
Blackwell told France they would lose money but agreed to having the extra race on October 28th. The GPS event was scheduled as a day time race while Turner scheduled his Columbia MARC race for Saturday night. Turner, after hearing about the extra race at Greenville-Pickens told Columbia reporters, "That's fine, this will give everyone a chance to attend both races. They can attend the race near Greenville that day and then come down to Columbia and attend our race that night. There is room in the southern states for two stock car sanctioning bodies."
Turner had hopes of drawing France's drivers down to Columbia but "Big Bill" ordered his drivers to enter the Greenville-Pickens race which would be held one day before the season finale in Hillsborough, NC. GPS promoted the race with ads that proclaimed, "Come See the Greatest Drivers In NASCAR." And to make sure his drivers showed up, France announced he would be at Greenville-Pickens and would drive the pace car himself.
Joe Weatherly, Rex White, Jim Paschal, Joe Lee Johnson, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson, Maurice Petty, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, and the top drivers of NASCAR came to Greenville-Pickens. Meanwhile, Buck Baker and Tim Flock were the only two NASCAR drivers entered to compete against the MARC regulars in Columbia. In an effort to get more folks to the Columbia, Baker managed to get Hollywood actress June Wilkerson to appear at Columbia Speedway as the race queen. Wilkerson had also been featured in Playboy magazine. Baker also made his race a 250 lap event which meant a longer race than the Greenville Pickens 200 lapper. Columbia newspapers reported, "seeing Wilkerson is worth the admission price alone."
Over 6,000 fans showed up that Saturday at Greenville-Pickens Speedway plus unknown numbers of fans that showed up in treetops outside the track grounds. Bill France landed his plane at GPS, got in the pace car and the race was on. Buck Baker won the inside pole position with a qualifying time of 29.0 seconds. Baker led the first 100 laps and appeared ready to dominate for the win when his clutch and pressure plate exploded, sending chuncks of metal through the car's firewall. Fireball Roberts contended for the lead several times until the rearend of his Pontiac gave out on lap 117.
On the 117th lap Weatherly took the lead and held off the 19 car field until lap 192 when both rear tires blew out. Junion Johnson roared around Weatherly for the lead but Weatherly refused to pit and kept chasing Johnson with two front tires and two rear rims. Johnson led the final eight circuits for his seventh victory of the 1961 season in a Pontiac. It was Junior Johnson's first win at GPS. Weatherly was second. Rex White finished third with Richard Petty in fourth, Curtis Crider was fifth, Ned Jarrett finished sixth while Maurice Petty was seventh, Wendell Scott was eighth, Joe Lee Johnson was ninth and Jim Paschal was tenth. Lee "Pops" Petty was crew chief for his sons Richard and Maurice. A total of 28 tires were blown during the race due to heat and the hard dirt surface which was like asphalt that day. Jarrett clinched the NASCAR points championship just be taking the green flag at Greenville Pickens. The average speed of the race was believed to be a world's record for a 200 lap dirt track race and it marked the first time in NASCAR history that the circuit visited a speedway three times in a single season.
Down in Columbia, Curtis Turner dominated Columbia Speedway in a Holman Moody Ford. The 250 lap race was marred by an accident when a teenager in the infield was hit when two race cars left the track and hit the teen who was sitting on a fence. The teen was transported to an area hospital and survived. 5,000 fans attended the race. Curtis Turner and Tim Flock were eventually reinstated to NASCAR and the MARC circuit was never successful in the south.
On the following day, the NASCAR boys traveled to Hillsborough, NC where Joe Weatherly dominated the event and took the victory which ended the 1961 season.