Photo courtesy of Smyle Media
For many race fans, NASCAR racing in the state of Kansas means competition at Kansas Speedway, where this weekend Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion team will compete in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Kansas has its own place in NASCAR history long before the current speedway opened in 2001, bringing major-league racing to an underserved part of the country. Back in the 1950s, NASCAR’s Convertible Division ran several races in Kansas, including a 250-lap race on the half-mile dirt oval on the Kansas State Fairgounds in Hutchinson Kansas in 1956.
That historic track opened in its current configuration in 1909 with hometown driver George Wiles taking the win in an E.M.F. E.M.F. cars, built from 1909-1912, were named for the company founders – Barney Everitt, an auto-body builder; William Metzger, who previously worked for Cadillac, and Walter Flanders, who had worked for Henry Ford and helped develop production methods that led to the moving assembly line that Ford pioneered.
When NASCAR’s Convertible Division ran its first and only race at Hutchinson, it was the 18th of 47 races that year. Like today’s Sprint Cup Series, the Convertible circuit crossed the continent, starting the season at Daytona Beach, Fla., and running up and down the east coast as well as throughout the Midwest. The circuit even traveled to Canada for a race at Toronto.
Glen Wood, founder of the Wood Brothers team, joined the Convertible series in the ninth race of 1956 at Greensboro, N.C. He soon landed a Ford factory-backed ride, and ran his new Ford for the first time at the historic Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania.
He qualified 11th but was spun by another driver on the opening lap.
“I was sitting there turned around with the rest of the field coming right at me,” Wood recalled. “I’m thinking there’s no way all those drivers are going to miss me. And they didn’t.”
With considerable damage to that car, legendary mechanic Red Vogt, who was running Ford’s Convertible program at that time, lined up another car for Wood. He and his brother and crew chief Leonard Wood, took the car and headed west to rejoin the circuit.
On the way to their next race, in Oklahoma City, with the race car being pulled by a tow bar attached to Glen’s 1956 Ford pick-up truck, a problem with the tow bar caused the rear tires of the truck to wear down to the point they were completely slick. Vogt had issued the Woods six new tires for their racer, but the brothers took two of them, put them on the tow truck, adjusted the tow bar and were on their way again.
Photo courtesy of Lehman Collection
At Oklahoma City, Wood qualified fourth but finished eighth after having trouble with his clutch.
From there, the brothers headed to Hutchinson for the race on the Sunday afternoon, June 10, 1956. “I remember it was really hot that day, and the track was really muddy,” Wood said.
He qualified fifth, and was running well in the early going.
“Several laps into the race I looked at the temperature gauge and it was out of sight,” Wood said. “Mud had gotten on the radiator and made the engine run hot.” Wood slowed his pace, trying to nurse his car to the finish.
Later on, he looked at his gauge again, and the temperature was back to normal. “The mud had dried and it shook off the radiator,” he said.
Back on the charge, he moved into second place as the laps wound down. Frank Mundy, in a Carl Kiekhaefer-owned Dodge, was leading by two laps, and Wood had a 50-yard margin over third-running Bob Welborn.
With two laps to go, Mundy’s car began trailing smoke and it slowed to a crawl on the final lap. Still, he held on to win, and Wood maintained the distance over Welborn to take the runner-up spot.
“If Mundy’s engine had let go a little sooner, I possibly could have won that race,” Wood said. “But as it was, it was my first really good finish in a Convertible race after getting in a factory Ford car.”
His $700 paycheck was enough to make the trip profitable, even enough to cover the two tires he’d had to put on his pick-up en route.
From Hutchinson, the Woods traveled to Sedalia, Mo., where Glen finished third behind Mundy, who won again, and second-finishing Gwen Staley. By season’s end, Wood had run 31 races, with 14 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes and finished 10th in the final standings despite missing 16 races.
The next season, he ran all 36 Convertible races, winning four times and recording 23 top-five finishes and finishing third in the final standings.
Those long-ago Convertible races were the beginning of a long relationship between the Woods and Ford Motor Co. that continues to today. “We’ve been with them the whole time,” Wood said.
Fast forward fifty-six years to present day, where the Motorcraft/Quicklane team will unload their No. 21 Ford Fusion at the Kansas Speedway on Friday for practice and qualifying later that evening at 6:15 p.m. eastern time, with coverage on NBCSN. The race is scheduled to see the green flag fly at 2:15 p.m. eastern time on Sunday with coverage on NBC.