A version of this column ran in the June 18, 2004, Lexington Herald-Leader
CORBIN — When Junior, Smoke, the Busch brothers and their Sprint Cup contemporaries take the green flag Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, it will not be the first "Cup" race run in the commonwealth.
The memory is largely lost to the mists of history, but NASCAR's highest series has run in Kentucky once before. On Aug. 29, 1954, a field of 21 drivers — including four that would one day be named among the 50 greatest NASCAR drivers of all time — lined up on the half-mile dirt track that was then the Corbin Speedway.
A local man, Eddie Poynter, dropped the green flag and waved the race to life.
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An hour and 35 minutes later, Lee Petty — yep, that Lee Petty, father of The King — made a dramatic pass of Hershel McGriff and guided his No. 42 Petty Engineering Chrysler to victory in the 200-lap race.
"Lord have mercy, it was the greatest thing since peppermint candy around here," said Poynter in 2004. "People came from all over the country."
Buz McKim, a NASCAR historian, said in 2004 that the Corbin race had lasting significance in two ways.
It was the sixth of Lee Petty's seven wins in a 1954 season when he would claim the first of his three points championships. "And," McKim said, "it was the only quote 'Cup race' ever held in Kentucky."
Media takes a pass
There will be hundreds of credentialed media at Kentucky Speedway this weekend for the facility's Sprint Cup debut.
In 1954, legends-in-the-making like Lee Petty, Buck Baker and McGriff came to race in Kentucky yet the state's main newspapers didn't give them even one paragraph.
Had you purchased the Aug. 29, 1954, Courier-Journal, you would have read about the "youth, grit and late-warming putter" that led a new golfer, chap by the name of Palmer, to the National Amateur Championship.
From the same day's Lexington Herald you would've read — I kid you not — stories on trap shooting and pro wrestling.
There was not one word in either paper about the Grand National Series, as NASCAR's elite division was then known.
When Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick arrive at Kentucky Speedway this week, they and their cars will have likely traveled to the commonwealth in luxurious splendor.
The cars take to the road in specially designed haulers. The drivers tend to move about the country via private planes. When NASCAR's stars get to the track, they live in custom-built motor homes so plush Jennifer Lopez would feel at home.
Corbin in 1954 may as well have been a different planet.
It was an Oldsmobile owned by Frank Christian that Hershel McGriff drove to second place.
Actually, McGriff says, there were two 1954 Oldsmobiles in use by his team that year: The one he raced and the one that pulled his race-car from track to track.
"That's why you didn't want to tear up the front of your (race) car," McGriff said in 2004. If you did, "you couldn't get it back on the tow-bar" to pull.
In 1954, driver accommodations were a bit less than extravagant.
Before a suspension problem knocked Ralph Liguori's Dodge out of the Corbin race, the driver from New York City spent the days leading up to the event sleeping in a local Nash dealership.
"For the life of me, I can't remember the guy's name, but he was a real neat guy," Liguori said in 2004. "Let me sleep and work right there."
In the current era, the business of NASCAR can overshadow the racing. Kentucky Speedway's decade-long pursuit of a Cup race has been one of the commonwealth's predominant sports stories of the 21st Century.
How Corbin, 1954, got a big-league race seems lost in the past.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing sanctioned its first race in 1948. McKim, the NASCAR historian, says that early in its existence the organization ran its top league in some unlikely locales.
"It raced once in North Dakota. Once in Oklahoma," McKim said in 2004. "It went to several tracks in the Midwest for one-shot deals."
There is not a specific answer, he says, to how NASCAR's big league came to Corbin.
We're left to the locals to fill in the blanks. Poynter, the race's flag man, said in 2004 that the connection that brought stock-car's big league to little Corbin was Bub King, a local driver.
King ran NASCAR events at both Daytona Beach and Darlington and the contacts he made eventually led to the Grand National Series coming to Kentucky, Poynter said.
"Bub just knew some NASCAR people," added Allen Dizney, the unofficial "historian" of Corbin, in 2004. "That was the connection."
What about the race?
The feel and flavor of Lee Petty's win in Corbin are also all but lost to the ages.
NASCAR can give you the race results. Of the 21 drivers, only Petty and McGriff finished on the lead lap. Jim Paschal laid down a 65.789 mph qualifying lap to claim the pole. The average speed of the race was a scalding 63.08 mph.
The four drivers in the field — Petty, McGriff, Buck Baker and Herb Thomas — who would go on to be named among the 50 Greatest NASCAR drivers of all time finished 1-2-3-4 in Corbin.
Petty earned a cool $1,000 for winning at Corbin; McGriff got $650 for coming in second. Everyone who finished below 10th got $25.
In 2004, I tracked down two drivers who drove in the race.
I asked Liguori what he remembers about the race in Corbin.
"I think I had one of my better days," he says.
You finished 16th of 21.
"I guess I had one of my bad days," he said, laughing.
Next, I called McGriff, a remarkable racing figure who raced as a driver well into his 70s.
What do your remember about Corbin?
"I seem to remember the name Corbin," he said. "Where is it exactly?"
Remember anything at all about the race?
"Well ... not really. It's been 50 years, that's a lot of races ago ..."
You finished second to Lee Petty.
"Then I finished behind a real good driver."
For flavor of the first "Cup race" ever run in Kentucky, we again turn to the locals.
Poynter, a World War II vet, recalled Buck Baker approaching him (remember, he was the flag man) before the race and "flexing his muscles."
"I'm an old war veteran, you don't pull that bull(crap) on me," Poynter said in 2004.
He remembers McGriff asking him to help sneak the driver's family into the race. "He said he'd raced his way across the country and he didn't have the money to get them in."
Paul Jones, then a local racer himself, has vivid memories of meeting Petty in Corbin in 1954.
Given the rowdy reputation of stock-car racing in its early days, Jones was expecting in Lee Petty an ebullient, hell-raiser type. "But he was very reserved, quiet, a gentleman," Jones said in 2004.
On Saturday, Kentucky Speedway will draw a crowd in excess of 100,000 for the first Cup race at the Gallatin County facility. Jerry Carroll, whose ownership group built the racetrack, and Bruton Smith, who bought Kentucky Speedway, improved it and moved a Cup race here from Atlanta will deserve to take bows.
But they didn't bring Cup racing to Kentucky. They brought it back.
Corbin got there first.