The National Stars of Daytona Beach
While 1998 is the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR and in particular they are celebrating it with their "new car"-Winston Cup division. It wasn't always the most popular division in NASCAR. The backbone of NASCAR was the modified division, consisting mainly of pre-World War 11 coupes and coaches competing on dirt track and fairgrounds all over the U.S. and Canada. So while we as motor racing enthusiasts acknowledge NASCAR's 50th anniversary, along with Merrittville Speedway's 47th anniversary, both forms of auto racing have one thing in common, that being the Sportsman modified division, being the oldest division within both organizations.
It's hard to believe by looking at NASCAR today that its new car division in 1948 was a fledgling- almost unpopular show when compared to the rough and tumble action packed racing of high powered pre-war coupes. While we acknowledge the fact that the first NASCAR race in Canada was held at Stamford Park Horse track on July 1, 1952, the same as Merrittville's opening day, few people remember that other touring sanctioning bodies competed against NASCAR in the early 1950's with new "stock" cars of their own, such as the AAA, ARCA and USAC.
While I was doing some research for upcoming articles, a fledgling sanctioning body known as the National Stars of Daytona Beach Florida, was also trying to sanction new car races both in the U.S. and Canada. On August 18, 1954 John Marino and George Cullen founders of Merrittville Speedway, decided to host one such event. The national Stars of Daytona Beach, rolled into the Niagara Peninsula literally, by driving their "stock automobiles" from Florida to Merrittville's 1/4 mile clay oval.
Some of the "Stars" included George Fleming of Daytona Beach- the top points man with fellow competitor Ray Davis also of Florida, as well as Ed Martin an ex-police chief from Alabama and Dick Lunvalley from the midwest, it also allowed local drivers to compete against them in this special event. Some of those from the Niagara area who were entered to compete were names well known to all in our local racing scene.
They included the Garden City's Murray Stricker, George Winger, Jerry Winger, of Stevensville, Pete Lorenzo of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Ricky Murrell of Niagara Falls. It also attracted a good contingent of U.S. stock car drivers, such as Bill Rafter of Clarence Center, Len Justa of Amherst, as well as Buffalonians Tony Ochino, Gene Blair, Al Grismacher, Bob Beck and Irv Johnson. Why was there such an interest in this first time event, it was the purse. The purse for this 50 lap event would total $2,000.00 guaranteed, this was in an era when a new house cost $13,000.00 a new car was $2,000.00 and gasoline was .30 cents a gallon. I believe our Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S. dollar and admission for a night of stock car races at Merrittville Speedway cost $1.00 for adults. The cars were also an oddity on Merrittville's 1/4 mile clay oval.
First of all, they were stock, street legal 1949 to 1954 vintage new cars. In many cases the vehicles with their taped up headlights and heavy duty truck tires would drive to the track ready to compete. Many of these cars were a variety of models, such as Fords, Hudsons, Plymouths, Mercurys, Dodges and Oldsmobiles. As far as safety requirements were concerned, they were minimal. Basically the drivers wore helmets and the cars were only required to have aircraft style seat belts. Roll bars were optional and only a few cars had them installed. This was in an era when the Merrittville stock cars had to have roll bars, seat belts and secured doors. So with the stage set, it was time to race.
Under threatening skies, the new stock cars took to the track. With drivers from seven U.S. states and Canada, the action was furious but the "Stars" regular Ed Martin of Pelle City, Alabama squeezed out a victory in his 10 lap heat. However, in the second heat, also 10 laps, Tony Ochino of Buffalo N.Y. a non-regular won, holding off many "stars" as well as local regulars. The evening was to consist of a third heat, as well as a 50 lap features, but the skies opened up and forced the cancellation of the event.
The event was rescheduled for August 27th, a Friday night, since the "Stars" were already booked for the weekend. While records show, Mother Nature was not kind to Merrittville Speedway the event took place, I understood, with George Fleming of Daytona Beach Florida winning the event, while local talents Jerry Winger and Murray Stricker placed well. As with many sanctioning bodies of the day, such as the National Stars of Daytona Beach and the Canadian Stock Car Association, they disappeared almost into obscurity. So while we in motor sports watch the celebrations of NASCAR's 50th anniversary, we at Merrittville Speedway as race fans, drivers, and alumni can celebrate our 47th anniversary on dirt.