It's always interesting to embark on the treasure hunt that is a historic retrospective. You have an idea of what you're seeking, but you never know what else you might find along the way. It's a gold mine for trivia types who can come up with little-known information for use in the next post-race party.
The racing history of General Motors reaches into its next century soon. It would be ludicrous to suggest we can provide a comprehensive history piece on the relatively few pages we can devote to the subject. There will be no such ill-advised move, but in the near future we hope to expand upon some of GM's significant events and people, mostly those who were active in the post-World War II era to today. It's an ambitious project for sure, and it won't be possible without the help of some key people within the GM corporate structure. The groundwork is being laid as we put these words on paper.
Actually, General Motors' racing involvement began before there was a General Motors. Its history is traced back to 1903, and historic accounts take us to the Atlantic coast of Florida near Daytona. The beach would be the proving ground. Alexander Winton, a racer whose claim to fame to that point was a defeat at the hands of Henry Ford in 1901, met up with Ransom E. Olds, owner of the Olds Motor Works Company of Michigan. Olds offered up a machine he called "The Pirate" for this contest. The Pirate, with W.T. Thomas at the controls, raced Winton's "Bullet" and the event was called a draw. Later, the Pirate would establish a land speed record of 54.38 mph at Ormond Beach, Florida. The car was taken north to an event produced by the Auto Club of Syracuse, New York. With Dan Wurgis driving, the Pirate established a record land speed mark for a 5-mile distance. It covered the course in 5:49, an average speed of 52 mph, on September 12, 1903. It held the mark for cars weighing less than 1,200 pounds.
The car used the symbolic "curved dash" of the Olds production line. General Motors was organized by Billy Durant, who founded the company despite his perceived aversion to the automobile. He was a carriage man, having made his way in life through the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, producing 150,000 vehicles a year in 1890. In 1904, after the Buick Manufacturing Company had been through numerous struggles, an executive with Buick sought help from Durant. Impressed by the car's ability to climb a hill, Durant became president of Buick.
The Buick name came from Scottish immigrant David Dunbar Buick, who made his fortune in the plumbing business. He was a tinkerer, and his obsession with engines led him to a second career. However, his business acumen was substandard, which opened the door for Durant.
Durant served as president of Buick until 1908. At that time, there was some movement to try to merge the top auto producers. On September 16, 1908, Durant incorporated General Motors of New Jersey with a capital of $2,000 and parlayed the money into $12 million in 12 days. With the monetary backing in place, Durant acquired Buick first. Six weeks later, Oldsmobile was added to the fold. Cadillac, the company started by Henry Leland, came next. Durant also acquired majority interest, then complete interest in the Oakland Company, later named Pontiac. General Motors had several major players in its fold.
Within two years, Durant lost control of GM, but remained in the automotive industry. One of his ventures was the founding of Chevrolet Motor Company with performance enthusiast Louis Chevrolet. He returned to power at General Motors in 1915, bringing the Chevrolet Motor Company with him into the GM fold. Durant was forced out again five years later and never regained power.
Racing continued to play a role in the growth of the individual companies and the automaker's overall reputation. A Cadillac scored a victory in an AAA-sanctioned race in Portland, Oregon, in 1909. Louis Chevrolet and Bob Burman teamed up to set a speed record at the recently-built Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Their trip of 105 mph came in a Buick "Bug" in 1910.
Changing times were in store for motorsports enthusiasts through the Roaring '20s, especially at GM. While European motorcars were ripping up continental contests abroad, the mindset took a little different tack in the United States. Under the leadership of Alfred Sloan, General Motors was looking at its efficiencies and motorsports wasn't one of them. Few can argue that his steps certainly enhanced the success of the company overall. In 1927, the General Motors Executive Committee decided to ban involvement in motorsports.
It was quiet for General Motors for a couple of decades. Of course, there was also an international conflict, World War II, that directed domestic manufacturers toward defense operations and away from automaking altogether. When the conflict ended, the sense of adventure and a renewal in the challenges offered by racing returned.
Near the very spot where Olds ran the Pirate in 1903, there was a move afoot to improve the sanctioning of the sport. The establishment of NASCAR in the late '40s helped speed up General Motors' involvement in big-time auto racing.
In February 1949, NASCAR sanctioned a tripleheader with Roadsters, European Sports Cars, and Strictly Stocks. Benny Georgeson, driving a Buick, picked up the Strictly Stock win. The Strictly Stocks, though a companion class on this day, would become the headlining division for NASCAR. On the beach at Daytona, running a 4.15-mile course, Red Byron in a '49 Olds passed fellow GM racer Gober Sosebee six laps from the finish and scored the first points win for the Olds drivers.
These efforts were not receiving formal factory support, but the company had to be taking notice. Byron would tally two wins in six starts and become the first NASCAR champion. Drivers using Oldsmobiles won five of the eight races. Consequently, Oldsmobile won the Manufacturer's Championship trophy. Now, someone had to take notice.
The success continued in 1950. Oldsmobiles won 10 of the 19 races on the schedule. The biggest race was the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The event started 75 cars and more than 30 were General Motors entries.
The success continued for GM products, but soon competitors started getting in on the action in a big way. Oldsmobiles won 20 of the 41 races in 1951, then the bottom fell out. The Hudson domination started in earnest and only two GM drivers found Victory Lane for a total of three races. The rise began again in 1953 with nine wins and then Olds visited Victory Lane 11 times in 1954.
The idea of "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" was very real as the sport's popularity continued to spiral upward. General Motors, through the Chevrolet division, decided to up the ante and supplied a team of factory-backed drivers with resources to speed up the success rate. Of course, other manufacturers had the same idea. Chevy scored its first NASCAR Grand National win on March 26, 1955, in Columbia, South Carolina, when Fonty Flock came home a winner. Buick notched a victory later that year as Buck Baker prevailed at Charlotte's 3/4-mile dirt track.
Chevrolet had high hopes in 1957. With drivers like Buck Baker, Speedy Thompson, Jack Smith, Rex White, and Frankie Schneider on the payroll, the talent pool was deep. Through the efforts of Ray Nichols in Indiana, Pontiac became a player with Banjo Matthews and Cotton Owens behind the wheel. Oldsmobiles were handled by the independent duo of Lee Petty and Ralph Earnhardt.
Just like Oldsmobile in 1949, Pontiac's first win came on the beach at Daytona. Cotton Owens did the honor.
But the fun stopped three months later. During the Virginia 500 at Martinsville, Billy Myers' car went into the crowd, injuring spectators, some seriously. The incident made national news wire reports. The Automobile Manufacturers Association, already concerned about the obsession for more horsepower, had seen enough. In June, the board of the organization voted unanimously that the industry have no association with automobile racing. Factory-backed drivers suddenly became independents.
Of course, technology was still very much a part of the picture. Engines were needed to propel passenger cars, and some of the engines were easily adaptable to high-performance applications. The forerunner to the big-block Chevy engines was already in progress. Though it would be many years before it was officially acknowledged, GM would play a key role in developing engines and technology to support racing.
General Motors has been successful in racing throughout the world. At some point, General Motors has had the engine and/or car to beat, whether it was short track racing on a weekly basis, professional, straight line, oval track, or road course racing. There has been total domination in NASCAR's Winston Cup and victory in the Indianapolis 500. There have been countless short track wins and drag racing triumphs. The wins and championships that were accumulated over the past 100 years can be considered the start. With the emphasis returned to competition, GM and its competitors keep raising the standards to prove time and time again just who's best.
The first race 100 years ago may have ended in a draw, but General Motors has never settled for a tie. When it comes to the GM racing heritage, it's about 100 years of winning.
The cars are the stars in...
The cars are the stars in the history of General Motors' involvement in motorsports. The success of the auto giant has reached all the way around the world.
Here is a replica of the famous"Pirate"...
Here is a replica of the famous"Pirate" that raced on the beach in1903 and started the GM racing heritage.
The beaches around Daytona...
The beaches around Daytona proved to be the place where success started for GM in NASCAR racing. In addition to racing, speed trials were held on the sand with GM products very active in that arena.
Stock cars in the '50s were...
Stock cars in the '50s were simply that--stock. Take off the lettering and the Buicks look very similar.
Buick made a new name for...
Buick made a new name for the mark in the '80s. Top drivers such as Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Buddy Baker used Buicks powered by Chevy engines. Mark Martin is driving this Buick at North Wilkesboro.
The most famous GM car of...
The most famous GM car of all time has to be the Dale Earnhardt Monte Carlo. General Motors may only have two brands in racing today, but they are formidable when the green flag flies.