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.
Safety rules also were nearly nonexistent.
It wasn't until 1952 that drivers were required to put rollbars on top of their cars, and many of the original modifications were homemade and prone to breaking.
According to the next day's article in The Tribune, 10 different makes of cars competed in the 30-car race, including a Nash, two Studebakers, a Willys, an Oldsmobile and several Hudson Hornets.
One driver, after crashing his Hudson on the 64th lap of the race, climbed behind the wheel of another driver's car, and finished the race in third place.
Hoekstra said he remembers a Studebaker flipping over "for no apparent reason that I could see." A Tribune photograph from the race shows spectators pushing the car off of its sides and back onto its wheels and off the track.
Maybe more noticeably, no one was seriously injured during the NASCAR race of 1952, although other races at the park had claimed lives over the years.
On July 4, 1936, one driver was killed in a holiday race, after his car slid out of a turn. Exactly a year later, Tribune photographer Gerald Toms was struck in the head by a wheel that had broken loose in a turn. Toms wouldn't regain consciousness and died a week later.
Hoekstra said he doesn't remember a lot about the specifics of the NASCAR race because he spent most of the race watching a clock.
When he volunteered to be a timer, Hoekstra was basically volunteering to stare at a large dial-clock and calculate how long it took for a certain driver to complete a lap.
"I remember it was hot," Hoekstra said. "I gave up my seat in the shade to stand out in the sun."
Sixty years later, it's hard to imagine how different both NASCAR and Playland Park have become.
The sport of stock car racing, of course, has become a billion-dollar industry, with its own celebrities, fanatics and critics.
Playland Park, in contrast, has all but disappeared from the public consciousness.
Today, the only remnant of the park grounds are the concrete bleachers still built into the hillside just south of the IUSB student housing complex.
The park, which also had roller coasters, amusement rides and baseball games, closed in the early 1960s, after years of declining revenue, and much of the land sat vacant for years. Racing fans in South Bend took their sport elsewhere, building the South Bend Speedway west of town, and a drag racing strip in Osceola.
Still, the legacy of that day lingers.
Mishawaka's Don Woolley was a teenager in the stands that day -- one of many days he spent watching races at tracks throughout the area.
Today, Woolley is still a racing fan and runs a website -- mvrcp.return.to/ -- that showcases photos of classic race cars and racetracks from across the region.
Hoekstra too remembers the races at Playland fondly.
A year or two after the NASCAR race, Hoekstra said he and his older brother attended a modified car race at the park.
When the race was over, the not-yet-licensed-to-drive Hoekstra decided he wanted to try out his skills in his father's metallic blue Chrysler Imperial.
Hoekstra said he got the car up on the oiled down gravel and was flying pretty fast when he hit the back stretch along the river.
"I went into turn three, and the car just started to drift," said Hoekstra. "I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die,' -- not from the wreck, but when I get home."
Luckily, Hoekstra pulled out of the turn and the car, and his hide, were unharmed.
Like the NASCAR racers themselves, he never tried driving on the Playland Park track again.
Staff writer Dave Stephens: