The First NHRA Winter Nationals

by Jim Hill

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 1950's Florida.

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 in Washington.

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 Parks' NHRA.

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 available.

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 racing events.

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 as Georgia.

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 California.
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, Western Division.

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 February, 1960.

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 racing.

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 a reality.



Members Site Map     ||     Visitors Site Map

©1998-2017. All Rights Reserved.