Ask a knowledgeable fan or NHRA
participant when and where the AutoZone Winternationals was first
contested and the answer you'd likely receive would be: "Pomona,
California, Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, 1961".
Good guess, but wrong! The second
largest, second-oldest major event of NHRA's now 24-race schedule,
the Winternationals, actually took place on the opposite coast,
near Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1960! Even more surprising, the
first "Winter Nationals", as it was spelled in those
days, was a cooperative venture between Wally Parks' NHRA and
Bill France's NASCAR!
This inaugural Winternationals
was held on seven nights, February 7-13, 1960, at the Flagler-Bunnell
Airport, a few miles north of Daytona Beach, just minutes from
the new Daytona International Speedway. The seven-night schedule
paralleled racing at the new oval track and also addressed a
problem facing the entire Speedweek schedule.
Like NHRA itself, this first
"Winter Nationals" grew out of the need to eliminate
dangerous, illegal street racing. During previous Speedweek races,
after-hours street racing on the old beach course and on city
streets quickly earned an unsavory reputation with police, civic
officials and citizens. Wild, often drunken young people were
creating a potentially lethal situation, jeopardizing the fledgling
Daytona 500 and the new speedway itself! It became apparent that
more than increased law enforcement was needed. Sanctioned, insured
and supervised drag racing was the answer, and both NHRA and
NASCAR considered developing an alternative.
Sanctioned drag racing events
were hardly a novelty. In fact, drag racing had made substantial
progress in Florida. This was due largely to the efforts of a
Miami-based organization patterned after the Southern California
Timing Association. The Miami group even called itself the "South
Florida Timing Association", or "SFTA".
In California, organized drag
racing grew from the efforts of Wally Parks, founder of the National
Hot Rod Association. In Florida, Wally's alter ego was a young
man named George E. Schorb, "Ernie", as racers knew
him. Wally and Ernie thought very much alike, enough so that
Wally was quick to enlist Ernie's assistance in organizing and
sanctioning, under the NHRA banner, racers and tracks in early
From the beginning, NHRA and
later SFTA was based on the concept that sanctioned, organized
drag racing, was a viable means of eliminating dangerous street
racing as well as highly entertaining for both spectators as
well as participants. Long before the term "motorsports"
was coined, NHRA drag racing offered a means for measuring vehicle
acceleration in a safe manner. What was needed was the use of
this exciting new form of racing to tame the street racers plaguing
Speedweek in Daytona.
Ernie Schorb began his involvement
with drag racing in 1949. Like many others, his first car was
a fenderless '34 Ford hot rod, built as a street. It soon became
apparent to Schorb that street racing was a poor choice. Like
many, Ernie was attracted to local Miami car clubs, finding others
with a similar passion for engines, autos and competition. In
1951 he joined the Ramblers Road Club, of Miami, one of the founding
clubs of the SFTA. Schorb sold his '34 Ford and bought a new
'51 Studebaker, intending to race, but he soon found greater
enjoyment in organizing, administrating and promoting racing.
His personality and ambition quickly placed him in contact with
local political, military and police officials eager to rid their
streets of illegal "stop light drags".
One of those, a local businessman
and sports car racer, Jack Horsley, owned an independent insurance
agency and other businesses. Horsley introduced Ernie to an influential
group of Miami "movers and shakers". One of those was
the late U.S. Congressman, Dante Fascell, a young Democrat from
the Miami-Dade County congressional district and a rising power
Schorb approached Fascell with
the idea of obtaining the use of then-inactive Homestead Air
Force Base for sanctioned, insured, police supervised drag racing,
and Fascell agreed to help. With facts and figures from a presentation
assembled by hot rod organizer Ernie Schorb and support from
Horsley, Congressman Fascell convinced the Air Force to open
its base to the Ramblers, for weekend drag racing. The racing
had to be insured for liabilities against the USAF, and to achieve
that, in 1952, Ernie sought the guidance and sanction of Wally
Racing at Homestead AFB was short-lived,
however, as the base was soon re-activated. When that happened,
Schorb quickly went into action, securing the permission, support
and participation of the Dade County Road Patrol, now known as
Metro-Dade County Sheriff's Department. The answer came in the
Road Patrol's offer to barricade a seldom-used stretch of public
roadway for twice-monthly drag racing!
This lasted until another more
attractive land tract, Amelia Earhart Airfield, in Hialeah, became
The United States Navy controlled
Amelia Earhart Field, and Seaboard Railroad (now part of CSX),
held an option on its development. With Congressman Fascell's
help, Schorb and the SFTA member clubs received a lease for twice
monthly drag racing. Again, NHRA and Wally Parks provided sanction
and insurance, plus rules and information on organizing and conducting
Schorb also recognized that keeping
the efforts of the "good guys" in front of local civic
leaders was a means for perpetuating the availability of Amelia
Earhart Field. To that end Ernie enlisted the help of the Dade
County Road Patrol, the Florida Sheriff's Boys Ranch, and The
Miami Herald, through its most widely read local columnist, Jack
Bell. Bell was head of the Miami Herald's "Lend-A-Hand"
charity, a recipient of donations from SFTA's twice-monthly drags.
Bell's columns frequently told of the efforts of SFTA, NHRA and
Ernie Schorb in getting drag racing off the streets.
Amelia Earhart Field hosted the
first Florida State Championships in 1954, an event that lasted
into the late 1970's. The '54 State Championships proved to be
a success, attracting cars from across the state and as far away
Schorb's success at organizing,
administrating and promoting drag racing soon earned him a position
as SFTA "Business Manager. As one of his promotions, Schorb
signed new members for the NHRA's national drive, earning third
place overall for his efforts. His winner's reward was a trip
to the NHRA Nationals, in Oklahoma City.
Although he had first met Wally
Parks while Wally was running the Hot Rod Magazine "Suddenly"
Plymouth on the beach in Daytona, it was at the '56 Nationals
that Ernie Schorb caught the attention of Wally Parks. In 1958
Schorb was offered and accepted the job as NHRA's Business Manager,
In 1959 Parks and NHRA saw the need to expand, creating field
"Division Director" positions. Wally Parks chose Ernie
as the first NHRA Southeast Division Director. His colleagues
included Ed Eaton, Eastern Director, Dale Ham, Southwest, Terrill
Poage, Northwest, Bob Daniels, Midwest, and Bernie Partridge,
Schorb selected SFTA tech man
Bill Smith as his first Southeast Division Technical Director.
Together they barnstormed the twisting two-lane blacktop roads
of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, spreading
the NHRA drag racing "gospel", promoting sanctioned,
organized drag racing, opening tracks, and overseeing events.
Schorb's new 1959 NHRA Plymouth station wagon, part of the NHRA
fleet, quickly rolled up tens of thousands of miles bringing
NHRA drag racing to the region.
NHRA's National Championship
Drag Races was the nation's largest event. By '59 The Nationals
latest "home" was in Detroit.
Schorb was eager to bring "big
time" drag racing east, and saw just such an opportunity
in the form of the Daytona Speedweek street racing problem.
NASCAR opened the new Daytona
International Speedway with the Daytona 500 in February 1959.
When hundreds of rowdy, drunken fans began using the old beach
course and local streets as drag strips, law enforcement officials
and citizens pressured Bill France to find a way to prevent a
repeat of the illegal racing before the second Daytona 500, in
Schorb huddled with tech man
Bill Smith and hatched a counter-plan for a seven night drag
racing series during NASCAR's Speedweek dates. Mike Blume, Schorb's
SFTA concession manager, had previously worked with NASCAR's
Ed Otto, and Blume agreed to assemble the interested parties
to discuss the proposal.
Ernie explained the plan to Wally
Parks, and as NHRA's Southeast Division Director, received NHRA
approval for such a race during the 1960 Daytona 500 Speedweek.
Bill France and NASCAR agreed. Schorb's promotion background
convinced him a catchy, easily remembered name was needed, so
he coined the name "Winter Nationals", forever attaching
his own name to the title.
Getting the event off the ground
presented its own set of unique "opportunities". NASCAR
knew little about drag racing. Because of that, the NHRA contingent
had to bear the majority of the responsibility for organizing,
promoting and actually hosting the first-ever Winter Nationals.
Schorb and his colleagues began assembling a workforce of volunteers
to tackle the "one hundred and one" details of the
rapidly approaching event.
Jack Harris, a Dade County Road
Patrol Sergeant and long time SFTA supporter, volunteered for
security, and brought along a couple of his officer pals. Jim
Whitaker, SFTA member and Florida Power & Light employee,
and some of his FPL friends bored holes and set poles to carry
electric lines and lighting for the pits and spectator areas.
Portable generators would provide electrical current. Lights
for the drag strip lanes came from a pair of surplus anti-aircraft
searchlights aimed down each lane.
SFTA's concessionaire Mike Blume,
who connected Ernie Schorb with NASCAR's Ed Otto, brought in
portable concessions. SFTA's well-used bus hauled and housed
the Chrondek Dual-Lane timing system, PA amplifier, and all by-wire
communications equipment. SFTA's timing equipment was assembled
and calibrated by Chrondek specialist Jerry Tyson, a member of
the Cabriolets Road Club, one of the SFTA member-clubs. Other
SFTA clubs, The Ramblers, Road Rebels, Road Runners, Continentals
and Road Saints jumped at the chance to be a part of the largest
drag racing event ever in the southeast.
Wally Parks himself traveled
to Daytona Beach, also dispatching NHRA Northeast Division Director,
Ed Eaton. Eaton's event skills proved to be a valuable contribution,
especially in operating the staging area during each night's
Racers from 20 states competed,
coming from as far away as Illinois, Michigan and Maine. Race
car counts hovered around 200 cars per night, and spectators
were estimated at more than 15,000. While these numbers are meager
by today's standards, in 1960 they were impressive for a first-time
event on the opposite coast.
That most unpredictable element,
the weather, became a deciding factor. Daytona Beach's normally
mild February weather turned raw when a large Canadian air mass
moved South and stalled atop the region, bringing rain, wind
and cold. Temperatures on several nights dipped to freezing,
making racing, officiating or spectating a challenge.
In the end, controversy shadowed
but failed to impact the event's final results. Lewis Carden,
a strong runner from Birmingham, Alabama, took overall honors
with his injected small-block Chevy powered, B/Dragster. At that
time Top Eliminator matched class winners of the "hottest"
categories against each other, with a car-length handicap given
for each "lower" class disadvantage. Carden, who was
also an NHRA Tech Advisor (and later Southeast Division Hall
of Fame member), took overall honors by winning the most Top
Eliminators and event points during the seven nights.
Don Garlits had only recently
recovered from burns suffered in a dragster engine explosion
and fire. He returned to competition at the Winter Nationals,
driving his brother Ed's gas burning, (NHRA's fuel ban was in
effect) blown Chrysler dragster to Top Speed honors at 165+ mph.
Unlike Carden, Garlits didn't run all seven nights of competition.
When the results were announced, Garlits hotly protested, countering
that his many 160+ runs and 165 mph Top Speed performance should
have earned him the event's overall honors. Carden, having run
all seven nights with more TE wins, was declared the official
overall winner. Carden did record a best of 9.55 at 141.95 mph,
good for a B/Dragster in 1960. Carden's final win came over Joe
Jacono, in a Buick powered A/Modified Roadster.
Middle Eliminator honors went
to another racer who would become familiar to East Coast fans.
Arnie Swenson, from Milltown, New Jersey, would be known for
his driving skills in the wild-handling Swenson & Lanni AA/Altered
and early nitro Funny Cars. He won the Winter Nationals title
in his Buick powered '30 Ford pickup.
Stock Eliminator was won by an
Illinois farmer destined for future drag racing legend status.
Arnie Beswick, of Morrison, Illinois, drove his 1960, 389"
tri-power, four-speed equipped, Pontiac Catalina to the Stock
win over Harold Ramsey's '57 Chevy, winner of the '59 NHRA Nationals.
Other notable racers competing
at the first Winter Nationals included Shirl Greer, George Weiler,
Ollie Olsen, Dick Griffin, Charlie Seabrook, and Sam Gellner.
All went on to successful NHRA racing careers.
Although judged a success by
both NHRA and NASCAR, both co-sponsors later deemed the logistics
of repeating the Winter Nationals impossible. NASCAR dabbled
in drag racing in the mid-1960's, but after the 1960 winter effort
focused its attention on oval track racing and the Daytona 500.
NHRA did likewise, producing the wildly successful "Winternationals"
(now spelled as one word!), at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds,
in early 1961. Although it wasn't until 1963 that the nitro fuel
dragsters returned, the gas-only 1961 and 1962 Winternationals
established their own lofty standards as NHRA's second-largest,
second-most successful events, behind only The NHRA U.S. Nationals.
In its long and storied run,
the NHRA Winternationals has seen careers begun, records broken,
victories celebrated, tragedies shared and tears shed. But it
was in 1960, on a temporary airport drag strip a few miles north
of Daytona Beach, during seven cold, sometimes rainy and windy
nights that the first NHRA "Winter Nationals" became