With all the attention given to Formula 1 (F1) cards recently, racing collecting is on an upswing. The way that collecting the worldwide sport F1 has sucked all the oxygen out of the racing card room, however, put a uniquely American racing sport and collectible field on the backburner.
If you are of a certain age and watched sports on broadcast television or read sports magazines as a kid, NASCAR and Indy 500 were the big motorsports and you will know some of the bigger names of NASCAR, even if you never watched a race: Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, A.J Foyt, and other stars were everywhere, doing commercials and appearing in print ads. All drove for NASCAR. STP sponsored Petty, and its rotund, smiling owner, Andy Granatelli, was a familiar face on my family TV set on weekends during football games and sports shows, pitching STP.
The formal history of NASCAR (an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) begins after World War II with its organization in December 1947 in Florida, but the sport had its roots in the interwar period, arising from Prohibition and the need for seemingly standard (stock) street-legal cars that bootleggers and moonshiners modified to outrun law enforcement vehicles. A few of the early NASCAR drivers were bootleggers (Junior Johnson and Wendell Scott are HOF examples).
Car-crazy California also had a vibrant racing scene far removed from the whiskey trade, and a good number of early NASCAR drivers came out of the Golden State. The premiere event in NASCAR historically was the Daytona 500, which started in its present incarnation in 1959 on the modern Daytona International Speedway. There is a NASCAR Hall of Fame, formed in 2010 and headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. Its website is quite informative.
Unlike open wheel racing (e.g., F1 or Indy 500), where custom vehicles are designed from scratch and could never be mistaken for anything you would see on the road, NASCAR began with the requirement that its racing vehicles would be assembled from retail vehicles and parts. While these vehicles are modified in ways that allow them to rocket around the track at as much as 210 miles per hour, the idea of buying essentially the model of car that won a NASCAR race is integral to the appeal of the sport.
Most racing collectors look to 1972 as the watershed year for NASCAR cards because in 1972, STP issued a standard-sized 10 subject (the checklist has 11 thanks to a picture variation) set of cards on postcard stock, produced by Racing Pictorial, Inc. (publisher of Racing Pictorial Magazine). These full-bleed color cards are somewhat scarce and expensive, as they contain what has been considered the rookie cards of a bevy of NASCAR Hall of Fame members, including The King, Richard Petty, who is basically the Babe Ruth of NASCAR. The STP set is not the first standard card set to feature NASCAR subjects, however, just the first dedicated standard sized set. For example, one card in the 1965 Donruss Spec Sheet set of 66 drag racing cards is of driver Bobby Unser (#57) and the 1971 Fleer Dragstrips set of nine includes NASCAR drivers Darel Dieringer and Dan Gurney.
While the 1972 STP set is treated as the inaugural NASCAR issue by many collectors, should that be the case? I ask because the actual history of NASCAR cards goes back at least a decade before the STP set, in the form of postcards. The ‘rookie’ cards of The King and other NASCAR HOFers in the 1972 STP set were issued years after their earlier NASCAR postcards; in Petty’s case, it was ten years after his first cardboard appearance.
As far as I can tell (the field is not well studied and undoubtedly there is more to learn), the first dedicated NASCAR set was a series of postcards issued under the Daytona International Speedway banner in 1962. These oversized (about 5 x 7) full color postcards have a black bar at the bottom with the track name. They were produced by Racing Pictorial, Inc.
The checklist of the 1962 set that I have been able to verify, which will probably grow, includes:
- Ned Jarrett
- Fred Lorenzen
- Lee and Richard Petty
- Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
- Joe Weatherly
- Rex White
Every single man on the above checklist is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The 1962 set was not a one-off set. Racing Pictorial made additional NASCAR postcards for years before producing STP’s 1972 set, and for years after it. The other main producers in the pre-1979 timeframe were Anderson Press, Dexter Press, and Don Hunter (who made a really nice set in 1969). Race teams and sponsors also made their own postcards, primarily in the 1970s and 80s, but some early ones too.
NASCAR-related postcards were produced into the early 1990s, but starting in the 1980s, the cards were phased out in favor of premiums, typically sponsor or fan club issued. That movement started years earlier: in 1973, for example, Coca-Cola made a really nice Bobby Allison jumbo postcard-sized premium with detailed biographical facts and stats on the back. I suspect that this format of card eventually supplanted the postcard format as the go-to collectible because eliminating the half of the card back devoted to the address and stamp box allowed for more advertising content.
In the 1980s the postcard format more or less standardized into cards that measure about 5 inches tall and anywhere from 7-9 inches across. NASCAR postcards have varied sizes, from standard postcard all the way up to 8 x 10. Most of the pre-1972 cards are about 5 x 7 to 6 x 9, with a smattering of standard and continental sized cards.
In general, the older a NASCAR postcard is, the harder it is to find. NASCAR postcards issued in the 1960s and early 70s, before the sport really took off (the first Daytona 500 to be broadcast in full was the 1979 race on CBS), are way tougher to find than cards from the early 1980s, and the 1980s cards get easier as the decade progresses. Cards made in the 1990s are common, except for certain limited editions.
One of the most enjoyable features of early NASCAR postcard issues are the biographical write-ups on the backs. More accomplished drivers have bios that are several paragraphs long and basically eliminate the space available for writing a message. Some of the biographical tidbits are classics. Duane (Tiny) Lund, for example is described as a 6’4 1/2” 270# man who loves to fish and “holds the world record for striped bass with a 55-pounder.”
With postcards treated as rookie cards in baseball and other sports, it seems to me that NASCAR postcards are the rookie cards of many of the major stars of the sport. For example, all the drivers depicted in the 1972 STP set have earlier postcards, except Richard Brooks, and he may have one that I have not seen. The earliest cards I know of for drivers who appear in the 1972 STP checklist of drivers are as follows:
- Bobby Allison: 1969
- Buddy Baker: 1968
- Richard Brooks: 1972
- Charlie Glotzbach: 1970
- James Hylton: 1968
- Elmo Langley: 1966
- Fred Lorenzen: 1962
- Dave Marcis: 1970
- Benny Parsons: 1969
- Richard Petty: 1962
If you take the postcard issues into consideration, as we do in baseball, 90% of the ‘rookies’ in the 1972 STP set are not really rookies at all. STP was the most important sponsor of NASCAR postcards and I find it notable that Racing Pictorial made the early postcards for STP; many of which are inscribed with “Compliments of STP Corporation” on the back, indicating that they were STP giveaways, precursors to the 1972 standard sized set.
From what I can tell, 1972-1973 marked the apex of NASCAR postcard issues, at least in terms of number of cards issued. The Racing Pictorial/STP issue from that era contains dozens of cards.
NASCAR drivers were by and large accommodating signers, so always keep your eyes peeled for autographs. Petty still signs through his museum, two items per person via mail order, no fee. I once acquired a collection and went through it twice before I realized that several items were signed.
A few signed cards will be pricey because of tragic circumstances. For example, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts was killed in May 1964 in a crash, so any signed postcard of Fireball had a two-year or less window to be autographed. His 1962 card was re-released in 1968 with the Daytona bar blacked out and replaced with a facsimile signature, and a biographical note that he is deceased. Obviously, no authentic signed copies of the re-released card can exist.
There should be some open wheel racing cross-over interest in NASCAR postcards. Several Indy 500 drivers also drove in NASCAR, most famously Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, and A.J. Foyt. Foyt is the only person to win the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. A few of his postcards and premiums show both his Indy car and his stock car.
If you are doing a Hall of Fame run and want career-contemporary cards, the postcards are all you can get for several HOFers, like Fireball Roberts. Here is a list of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee drivers on career-contemporary postcards that I can confirm, and there may be more:
- Bobbie Allison
- Davey Allison
- Donnie Allison
- Elzie (Buck) Baker
- Buddy Baker
- Dale Earnhardt
- Red Farmer
- Bobby Isaac
- Ned Jarrett
- Junior Johnson
- Terry Labonte
- Fred Lorenzen
- Hershel McGriff
- Benny Parsons
- David Pearson
- Lee Petty
- Richard Petty
- Fireball Roberts
- Wendell Scott
- Rusty Wallace
- Darrell Waltrip
- Joe Weatherly
- Rex White
- Cale Yarborough
At current prices, the early NASCAR postcards seem like bargains, with most prices ranging from $10-$60, unsigned, when they come up for sale. Should interest in NASCAR cards increase, I expect the prices will reflect it. For now, they are one of those inexpensive, colorful and fun backwaters of card collecting that increasingly draw my interest and maybe yours too.