NASCAR at Christmastime? Oh, yeah

NASCAR greats Curtis Turner, left, and Fireball Roberts in a Ford Motor Co. publicity photo prior to the start of the NASCAR racing season on Jan. 1, 1957. Getty Images

College football on Christmas Eve?

NBA on Christmas Day?

Aren't you glad that you root for NASCAR, a sport that would never, ever dare drop the green flag on Dec. 25? Don't you give thanks for a sanctioning body that wouldn't be so brash as to wave the red flag for Santa just so they could hold a race?

Well ... hold that thought.

NASCAR's top series has never had a driver named Christmas. The closest you can get is by combining Chauncey Christ, who started one race in 1958, and inaugural Brickyard 400 pole winner Rick Mast. There aren't three Kings, but six (Al, Brownie, Bub, Byron, J.W., Max), along with two Rudolphs (Don and Charlie) and one elf ... ord (British-born two-time Daytona 500 starter Vic Elford). The nearest you'll find to Santa Claus is Byron Clouse, who finished seventh out of 18 cars at the Lincoln City (Neb.) Fairgrounds on July 26, 1953, and former Nationwide Series racer Bryan Clausen.

"Naw, we've never raced on Christmas," said Richard Petty. At a holiday gala fundraiser for the Victory Junction Camp on Dec. 13, I asked The King if he could recall ever racing in a Ho Ho Ho 500 or the like. But after his quick initial response, His Royal Fastness, donned in a white cowboy hat decorated with holly sprigs, paused and corrected himself. "You know what, though? A couple of times we came a lot closer than I bet anybody realizes. I won one real close to Christmas. Look it up."

I did. And yes, he did.

It was Dec. 29, 1963, on the dirt half-mile Savannah Speedway. But don't look for it on the 1963 NASCAR Grand National schedule. It was actually the fourth race of the 1964 calendar during an era when it was common NASCAR practice to actually start seasons during the previous year (and you think stuff is confusing today).

A robust crowd of 3,500 fans, perhaps eager to finally get out of the house and away from their families, packed the short track to watch 22 cars in a "Between The Holidays Special" that had been pushed to the late date via three autumn rainouts. It was a cold day, particularly for an event titled the Sunshine 200. The small field was crammed with future NASCAR Hall of Famers. Ned Jarrett started on the pole. Buck Baker was in the field, joined by his 21-year-old son, Buddy. David Pearson had just turned 29 on Dec. 22, the proud owner of just three of his eventual 105 career wins.

But it was Petty's day, taking over the lead when Jarrett blew an engine. His first real challenger was his brother, NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of '13 member Maurice Petty, but Chief eventually fell off the pace. Then Petty was pushed by Lee Roy Yarbrough, but on the 96th lap of the 200-lap event, his Plymouth sailed over the first turn and got stuck in a big pile of cold mud.

Happy holidays, Lee Roy.

In total, NASCAR's top series has held eight races in December, including one of its most historic. On Dec. 1, 1963 (the '64 season race that preceded the Savannah event), Wendell Scott won in Jacksonville, Fla., still the only win for an African-American at stock car racing's highest level. However, NASCAR and Buck Baker stepped in to play the roles of Scrooge and the Grinch, as Baker was flagged the winner, went to Victory Lane, and left with the trophy. A couple of hours later, after the crowd was gone, Scott was declared the victor after a scoring error was corrected. He always maintained that he'd been the victim of a stall tactic.

Of the eight races run in December, only two fell between Christmas and New Year's. Before the Savannah event was a Dec. 30, 1956, trip to the Titusville-Cocoa Speedway. The "speedway" was actually a runway, with a 1.6-mile road course fashioned out of the pavement in and around the Titusville-Cocoa Airport, and the '56 race was actually the third race of the '57 season. Local hero Fireball Roberts outlasted party buddy Curtis Turner and Marvin Panch to win $850.

"The field was tiny," Panch told me. "I think there was 15 cars. The crowd was nice, but I think we realized that racing on New Year's Eve wasn't going to bring big car counts."

Or even on New Year's Eve ... eve.

NASCAR's eighth and final December holiday party happened on Dec. 12, 1971, at the still-new but already financially struggling Texas World Speedway in College Station. The field was massive, with 49 cars. The grandstand was not, with 18,600 people huddled together in a chilly grandstand built to accommodate four times that amount. The following year, at new series sponsor RJ Reynolds' urging, NASCAR contracted its Grand National-turned-Winston Cup schedule to the current model, which wraps up the schedule before Thanksgiving.

When they got to College Station in '71, Richard Petty had already clinched his third championship, the first Winston Cup title, nearly a full month earlier. But his 500-mile win at Texas World, outlasting Buddy Baker, capped off a year that is among The King's greatest, the 21st victory of the 48-race season. For his efforts, he pocketed $13,395. That day Petty told reporters he was going to "Take this check home, get Lynda, and go do some Christmas shopping."

Almost exactly 42 years to the day was this year's Victory Junction Gala. I asked Petty if he remembered what presents he'd bought with the money from NASCAR's final holiday season race.

"Naw, I don't remember," he said with a laugh, then pointed to a fellow partygoer, entertaining a group of kids nearby. "But go ask that guy, I bet he does."

It was Santa.