NASCAR 75: One of a series of 75 stories that helped define the first three quarters of a century of NASCAR, as Autoweek races to the 2023 Daytona 500.
- On July 21, 1956, one of the most remarkable races in NASCAR history took place at Soldier Field.
- The race, won by rising star Fireball Roberts, was the only NASCAR Cup event held inside the stadium.
- From the late 1940s through 1968, weekly series races attracted huge crowds to the stadium.
The announcement that NASCAR’s top two series will race on the streets of downtown Chicago in 2023 caused quite a stir.
The Chicago weekend will mark NASCAR’s first street competition, but it won’t be the sanctioning body’s first appearance within the shadows of the city’s tall buildings.
On July 21, 1956, one of the most remarkable races in NASCAR history took place at Soldier Field, the downtown stadium that later would famously become home to the Chicago Bears of the National Football League.
The race, won by rising star Fireball Roberts, was the only NASCAR Cup event held inside the stadium, but it wasn’t the only time racing thunder was heard there. From the late 1940s through 1968, weekly series races attracted huge crowds to the stadium. Andy Granatelli, later a key figure in IndyCar and NASCAR racing, promoted races at Soldier Field for many years.
To fans used to seeing football played at Soldier Field, photographs of race cars circling a track inside the stadium under the facility’s iconic columns are strange, indeed.
The NASCAR race was the 33rd event on the 56-race schedule in 1956. It attracted only 25 drivers, but among the competitors were some of the sport’s biggest names—and some that would be. In the field were Ralph Moody, Jim Paschal, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Paul Goldsmith and Fred Lorenzen.
The race track was built around the edges of the football field. It was listed as a half-mile track, but people who were there say it probably was shorter.
Roberts, driving a Ford for owner Pete DePaolo, outran Paschal for the win. Moody was third.
Ten of the 25 cars failed to finish. Brake problems sidelined several.
Soldier Field in Chicago was a big-time racing venue from the late 1940s to 1968.
It was somewhat of an upset that Carl Kiekhaefer’s so-called “super team” didn’t do well. His three drivers finished fourth (Speedy Thompson), fifth (Frank Mundy) and sixth (Baker).
Rex White, who ran laps on the track and later would win the Cup championship, said the facility was imposing.
“I was used to running all these little fairgrounds tracks,” he said. “I’ll never forget driving there with those huge grandstands. It was overwhelming.”
John Carollo raced at Soldier Field in the weekly series events. “It was like any short track, very tough,” he said. “The big, thick concrete wall—it was eight or nine feet tall—got big and came at you in a hurry. You wondered if you’d make it out of the turn or eat the guard rail on the inside.”
It is unclear why NASCAR never returned to Soldier Field. The track’s weekly events ended in 1968, in part because other short tracks were opening in the region.
NASCAR will run on the streets of Chicago and past Soldier Field in the summer of 2023.
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