SOUTH BEND -- Fourteen-year-old Fred Hoekstra was sitting in the Playland Park raceway stands that day, when a man came down the walkway looking for volunteers.
"He was looking for guys to be timers," said Hoekstra, who is now 74. "So me and my buddy jumped up."
The date was July 20, 1952 -- 60 years ago today -- and Hoekstra, just a teenager still too young to drive, was assigned to be an official timekeeper for the area's first, and only, NASCAR race.
The 200-lap, 100-mile, dirt track race took place in front of the 3,700 fans who filled the concrete stands at Playland Park -- an early amusement park and carnival grounds situated between Lincoln Way East and the St. Joseph River in South Bend, on the current site of IUSB's student housing complex.
"The starting flag will drop at 3 o'clock this afternoon in Playland Park as 30 of the nation's best racing pilots ready their mounts for the 100-mile NASCAR sanctioned grand national tournament stock car race," began a July 20 story in The Tribune.
Only 4 years old in 1952, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was still known mostly as a regional organization based in the South.
But car races had long been popular in the North and Midwest, especially in cities like South Bend where automobiles were manufactured. In fact, Playland Park had hosted regular races at its quarter-mile and half-mile dirt tracks since at least the 1920s, if not earlier.
By 1952, NASCAR's Grand National racing series, which later evolved into the Winston Cup, and currently the Sprint Cup, was hosting races across the country -- both in places like Daytona Beach, Fla., and Hillsboro, N.C., which would become synonymous with the sport, and in places like South Bend and Oswego, N.Y., which became tiny footnotes in the sport's history.
And the sport's earlier pioneers were heroes to racing fans everywhere.
"Those guys coming to town was a pretty big deal," remembers Hoekstra.
Today, many of "those guys" are listed among NASCAR's early greats.
Herb Thomas, the 1951 and 1953 Grand National champion, was in the pole position. Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty, finished the race in second place.
Tim Flock -- who raced at Playland against his brothers Fonty and Bob -- would eventually win the race, and go on to win the series championship in 1952 and again in 1955.
Thomas, Petty and Flock would all be named as one of NASCAR's 50 greatest racers of all time.
Different kind of race
But despite the NASCAR name, the 1952 race looked almost nothing like the races of today.
The half-mile oval track was made up of dirt and gravel, covered with oil to keep the dust down. The back straightaway ran along the St. Joseph River, and drivers unable to make it out of the second turn were known to occasionally make a splash.
Because of the short straightaways and tight curves, Flock won the race with an average speed of 56.46 miles per hour -- slower than the posted speed limit on most highways today.