Saturday 19th September 1953
NASCAR’s first night-time superspeedway, a 220-mile Modified-Sportsman race at Raleigh Speedway, was marred by tragedy. Bill Blevins and Jesse Midkiff are killed in an opening-lap crash. Officials were unaware that Blevins’ car has stalled on the backstretch during the pace lap. The 60-car field got the green flag and the crashed occurred seconds later. Buddy Shuman won the race, which was shortened to 170 miles.
The Raleigh Speedway was a 1 mile paved oval. Rivaling Darlington for finest track in the south, Raleigh opened in 1952 with an Indy Car race won by Troy Ruttman. NASCAR first came to the track in late May 1953, a race run the same day as the Indianapolis 500. That race goes down in history as the race Jocko Flocko attacked Tim Flock under green, costing Flock the victory to remove him. The monkey no longer raced in Grand National competition. NASCAR was so impressed with the track, it led them to schedule a big-purse 220-mile Modified and Sportsman race for mid-September.
This Modified / Sportsman race was surrounded with much fanfare from the auto racing community. For the track however, this was just part of a series of battles with the local community and government. The track was not in an isolated area and the people in the area were not happy about the traffic and noise it brought. In 1949, Wake County placed a ban on Sunday auto racing in the county. Raleigh Speedway got around this law by installing lights. The September 19th race was advertised as the first stock car race to be run at night on a track over 1 mile. It was a big race for the Modified / Sportsman drivers who were used to running on short tracks. A huge 60 car field was set by heat races in the days leading up.
Saturday September 19th, 1953, was an average late summer day in Raleigh, North Carolina. The temperature had gotten up to 84°F at 2:00PM, but by race time the thermometer dropped to the mid 70s. They say that racing gets a little wilder on a full moon, but on that day it wasn’t quite full. It was a waxing gibbous, four days from the official full moon. Sunset that night was at 7:16 PM, around the time the race was starting. 10,000 fans were in attendance for the race which saw Glenn Wood claim the pole.
After much excitement, no one could imagine the horror that was about to unfold. Bill France was the driver of the pace car that night. As the drivers started their engines and rolled off, one couldn’t get going. 24-year-old Bill Blevins sat on the frontstretch trying to get his engine cranked. Court documents state that he had rebuilt his V-8 Mercury engine the night prior and the starter motor was not strong enough to start the powerful engine. Blevins was mechanic at a local body shop, certainly well skilled at automotive work. A push truck came and he was able to get his car started and drive off. His car made it to turn one when it stalled again. Once more, he was push started. Then as the cars were coming to get the green flag, Blevins stalled again. As the engine stalled once more, he stopped right in the racing groove in the middle of the backstretch, expecting to get another push. Car number 50 stopped and attempted to push Blevins off, but when the green flag waived, car 50 turned to the apron and drove off. A voice on the public address shouted three times, “There is a car on the track: don’t start the race.” Lights at race tracks were nowhere near as good as they are now and Blevins’ burgundy colored car was lost in the darkness, shielded by the backdrop of a forest behind the backstretch. None of the officials noticed Blevins’ stopped car before waiving the green flag.
The massive field came to the green in rows of three. The legendary racer, E.G. “Cannonball” Baker waived the green flag under the supervision of starter Alvin Hawkins. Glenn Wood led the cars around the first and second turns. You can only imagine how agonizing it was for the fans, including Blevins’ wife Rebecca, in the grandstands to see him sitting there, waiting for the impending impact.
The first few cars passed Blevins, but not all had the luck. 19-year-old Jesse Midkiff plowed into Blevins’ car at around 90 mph. A massive fireball erupted as cars slid in every direction in avoidance. 15 cars were involved in the accident. Some reports said as many as 12 of them hit Blevins’ car. One car rolled over and over down the backstretch. Two explosions were heard above the screams of the crowd and flames rose reportedly 70 feet into the night sky.
News reports stated that a woman who was standing along the backstretch witnessed the entire accident and collapsed from shock at the scene, needing to be taken to local Rex Hospital. Two other drivers were brought there as well. James Croom suffered a broken collar bone and Buddy Mathews had first and second degree burns on his hands, arms, and face.
Midkiff was killed instantly from massive head injuries. Blevins burned to death in his race car. This still remains as the only time an accident claimed two drivers in NASCAR competition. The wreck would later be known as “Black Saturday” in the media. Many opponents of the track used this as an excuse for why auto racing shouldn’t be run there.
The race was red flagged for 80 minutes as the track was cleaned and the twisted metal was dragged from the track. 47 cars would return to the race. When it was restarted, Fireball Roberts led most of the way until he was plagued with engine failure. Because of the county ban of racing on Sundays, the race had to be shortened by 50 laps to end by midnight. Buddy Shuman beat Bill Widenhouse amd Curtis Turner by two laps to claim the $2,000 winner’s share of a $15,000 purse. Ironically, Shuman died two years later in a hotel fire in Hickory.
In the aftermath, both families sued NASCAR. In October 1953, Midkiff’s father sued NASCAR for $100,000 claiming negligence, the result of the suit is unclear but presumably unsuccessful. Because Midkiff was under 21, his mother need a 1957 lawsuit to get the $3,000 insurance death benefit promised. Blevins’ wife Rebecca sued NASCAR, Bill France, James Chesnutt (president of Raleigh Speedway), the J&W Co. Inc. (the company founded by France and Chesnutt that leased the track for the race), and Raleigh Speedway Inc. for $230,000. The basis of the case was: does the release signed by Blevins protect NASCAR from their own negligence? Much of the argument was that the starter, Alvin Hawkins, was unqualified and shouldn’t have given the green flag. On February 3, 1956, Judge Clawson Williams threw out the case. He based his decision on three points: Jesse Midkiff was negligent as other cars had avoided Blevins; Blevins had the opportunity to leave his car but chose to stay in it; And finally, Blevins’ car was not in “good repair for that particular race” and he knew it because the car couldn’t start and stalled once before. Mrs. Blevins appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court with no success.
Raleigh Speedway lost its fight to stay open in 1958 but remained standing until 1967. It was built in a heavily populated area and noise complaints finally doomed the track. Following Black Saturday, many calls for NASCAR to stop racing at the Speedway came in. It was seen as too dangerous and the track was especially hated by the local government. But nonetheless Bill France’s racers kept coming until 1958. Following the track’s closure, reportedly three separate deaths occurred throughout the 1960s when people would test their personal cars on the abandoned track.