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NASCAR Connection: Winner of the first race came from Kansas

Saturday night NASCAR drops the green flag on its 2013 season and unveils a new generation of race car. It promises fans a return to the days where race cars were stock cars and looked like the cars we drive every day. The new cars are supposed to look more like the first generation cars, which first hit the track in 1949.

Large scale racing has been around for almost 40 years. But the idea of racing cars straight off the show room floor was relatively new. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) was formed in 1947. Two years later, the Strictly Stock Division or what we now know as the Sprint Cup series began to gain traction.

"It was fairly soon after World War II, so the American manufactures hadn't geared up to full speed,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “Then in mid-1949, in June there were finally enough cars that they were able to launch what was called the Strictly Stock Division."

At the same time, a local dirt track racer from Halstead was taking the midwest by storm.  “Jim (Roper) was racing in the IMCA series, which was then the equivalent of NASCAR. It was the sanctioning body and Jim was making extremely good money," said Doug Thompson of the Kansas Auto Racing Museum in Chapman.

How Roper and NASCAR came to cross paths is just the beginning of a number of unusual turns in this story.

NASCAR historians say Roper learned of the race from the Smiling Jack Comic Strip.  "Jim Roper saw that, he said that's a great idea," said McKim. 

But Thompson recalls the Kansas racing legend telling the story a little differently.  "Jim wasn't exactly in favor of it because it was a long trip and he was making good money racing in the IMCA series.  But the car owner said we gonna go, so they drove there."

Either way Roper and Great Bend car dealer Millard Clothier, decided to drive 1,100 miles to Charlotte North Carolina with their eyes on a big cash payout.  “It was a lot of prize money in those days, $2,000 to win," said Thompson.

"Millard had two brand new Lincolns and they drove both of those cars all the way from Kansas to Charlotte.  He gave Jim one car and they gave the other to Bill Blair who was a local hot shot there," added McKim.

In front of a standing room only crowd, Bill Blair put on a show in the Kansas Lincoln leading 144 laps. But his car overheated and put him out of the race.  What happened next depends on who you ask.

"Jim's version is he actually won the race and he kept track by having a counter out of a slot machine. Every time he would go under the flag man he would pop that button,” said Thompson. “So he knew he had won that race."

But NASCAR had Roper in second to a man named Glen Dunnaway, until...

“They found that the rear springs had been modified in Glen Dunnaway's car.  The car had been running moonshine actually,” said McKim. “So NASCAR disqualified Mr. Dunnaway and Mr. Dunnaway was not happy about that."

Thompson said the argument between Dunnaway and NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. actually got physical.  “Big Bill France and Mr. Dunnaway had a little fisticuffs. Big Bill won, pushed the car out of the hanger and pushed Jim Roper's in."

At the time the victory didn't seem like much to Roper.  Not many people had heard of NASCAR back then.  Although he would keep racing until an accident forced him into retirement in 1955.

“He's one of those guys who has really etched his name in the record books as the first,” said McKim. “And you can never take that away from him."

After Roper retired from racing, he worked as a flagman. He later moved to Texas and enjoyed horse racing. He died in 2000 at the age of 83.

Kansas native Jim Roper first winner of NASCAR

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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