Stock Car Speeds

SMITH HEMPSTONE OLIVER is Associate Curator, Section of Land Transportation, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

WHEN a motorist relates that his unaltered stock sedan or convertible coupé has hit 114 miles an hour, or some other fantastic speed, there is no use in arguing to the contrary. He cannot be persuaded otherwise. To tell him about the horsepower requirements for a vehicle with a certain frontal area, and that the modern American-built automobile does not meet the requirements for the speeds claimed by him, is to meet the stern resistance of an insulted man whose speedometer is as honest and reliable as a government time signal.

Recent speed trials held at Daytona Beach, Florida, revealed some hard facts which ought to interest drivers who have implicit faith in the speedometer’s version. under the auspices of the National Stock Car Racing Commission, whose National Commissioner is the well-known racing driver of former years, E. G. “Cannonball” Baker, the trials were held on the hard-packed sands where many a world’s land speed record was set in former years. An electric timing device was utilized at an accurately measured half-mile stretch. North and south-bound runs were made for each competing car, after flying starts, and the average of the two runs was the official speed for that car.

The best average speed attained by a strictly stock sedan, as delivered by the factory, was 100.28 miles an hour—reached by Joe Littlejohn of Spartanburg, South Carolina, driving a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 equipped with a standard hand-shift transmission. His best one-way run was northbound at 105.88 miles an hour.

A 1949 Cadillac driven by Frank Mundy of Atlanta, Georgia, managed to average 99,83, with a maximum one-way speed of 100.45 as timed by the electric eye. Lee Petty sent a 1949 Plymouth through the trap at an average of 89.75 miles an hour, the fastest time recorded by any of the smaller cars.

Practically every contestant found that his speedometer had indicated a speed considerably in excess of the actual figure.

William C. Spear of Manchester, New Hampshire, drove his standard British Jaguar open sports model over the northbound half mile at a speed of 115.53 miles an hour. Spear’s average speed for the two directions was 110.7 miles an hour. This particular make and model recently set up a new world’s record for stock cars at Jabbeke, Belgium, when a speed of 132.6 miles an hour was reached by the 160-horsepower, lightweight, streamlined roadster, but this car has a decided advantage over the domestic automobile because of its power-to-weight ratio and genuine streamlining, even though its engine is only about three-quarters the size of the Oldsmobile’s.

To prove that greater speeds can be attained by altering a standard automobile — by modifying the engine or the body design, or by a combination of both — several non-stock cars were allowed the use of the timing facilities at the beach. Al White, another Atlantan, drove a much modified 1932 Ford roadster over the northbound half mile at 122.03 miles an hour, and attained an average speed of 117.72 for the two directions.

Modifications to cars such as White’s usually consist of decreasing the wind resistance by the removal of fenders, running boards, lamps, and windshield, and by increasing markedly — sometimes even doubling — the horsepower through the medium of high-compression cylinder heads, multiple carburation, reworked camshafts, and increased piston displacement.

Another Daytona event, designed to show what the stock American car can do over a considerable distance incorporating turns, thereby approaching actual road conditions, was the 200-mile race held several days after the sprints. The course was over a combination beach-and-highway circuit of 4.2 miles to the lap, with the northbound section of the course on the beach, and the southbound section on the adjacent parallel macadam highway.

An unusually high tide on the morning of the race packed the beach sand down well, but a stiff wind kept the water from receding as far as usual, and the cars were occasionally in the water while on the beach stretch. This undoubtedly lowered speeds slightly, and also tested the waterproof quality of the engines and accessories.

All forty-one of the entries were strictly stock, and included Littlejohn’s Oldsmobile and Mndy’s Cadillac — neither of which, it turned out, finished the race.

The winning car was a 1949 Lincoln driven by Harold Kite of East Point, Georgia. Kite’s time for the 200 miles was 2 hours, 26 minutes, and 30 seconds, for an average speed of 81.75 miles an hour. Kite, a National Guard captain and wartime Army combat tank driver, raised by over 3 miles an hour the record set a year earlier by Red Byron in a 1949 Oldsmobile 88.

Byron took a hard-earned second place in a 1950 Oldsmobile 88, after holding first place for many laps, but he lost valuable ground because of stops for mechanical adjustments. Despite this loss of time, and driving with only the use of his parking brake, he was right behind Kite at the finish and probably would have won if the race had been of a few more laps duration.

Third and fourth places went to Lloyd Moore’s 1949 Lincoln and Al Gross’s 1950 Oldsmobile 88, Moore being passed by Byron only in the last mile. A 1950 Buick took fifth place, while the first Ford to finish was eleventh, about 8 miles behind the winner.