Nascars First Winner Dies

NEWTON, Kan. -- Jim Roper, who took a car from a showroom floor and won NASCAR's first strictly stock car race in 1949, has died at 83.

He died at a retirement home in Newton on Friday. Friends said Roper had cancer in recent years and suffered from heart and liver failure.

Roper drove his Lincoln off the showroom floor in Great Bend to North Carolina and on to victory in the June 19, 1949, race at Charlotte Speedway before 23,000 fans.

"NASCAR was brand new," Roper said in 1998. "It started out well, one of the biggest crowds they ever had."

The race was held on the dirt track of Charlotte. It was hot and cars were overheating, Roper's included.

Glenn Dunnaway of Gastonia, N.C., took the checkered flag after completing 200 laps on the three-quarter mile track, three laps ahead of Roper's Lincoln Cosmopolitan. First place paid $2,000.

However, an inspection of Dunnaway's car found a violation in its factory-installed springs. NASCAR rules required that cars be showroom versions available to the public.

That gave Roper the victory, followed by Fonty Flock in second, future Hall of Famer and 1949 series champion Red Byron third, Sam Rice fourth and Tim Flock fifth. Other NASCAR stars competing that day were Lee Petty, Curtis Turner and Buck Baker.

Roper's trophy is on display at the Kansas Auto Racing Museum in Chapman.

During a postrace inspection, NASCAR officials dismantled Roper's engine. He had to get a replacement from a North Carolina dealership for the drive home to Kansas.

Roper raced in only one other NASCAR event, finishing 15th in Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C., two months later. He didn't participate in NASCAR's top level again.

"He liked girls and fast cars," said Henry Ward, a friend of Roper's for about 50 years. "He liked to joke a lot. He liked to play jokes on people."

Roper raced midget cars, stock cars and track roadsters, also known as hot rods, throughout the Midwest. He also competed in the International Motor Contest Association in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Iowa.

He earned the nickname "Alfalfa Jim" after a midget race in Salina. Roper apparently spun out off the track and into an alfalfa field. He finished the race, only to discover his car was full of alfalfa, thus the nickname.

Roper quit racing in 1955 after breaking a vertebrae in a sprint car accident. In later years he became a flagman at races, built cars to train drivers and even became a thoroughbred horse breeder in Kaufman, Texas.

At 80, Roper drove one of his original midget cars at the Belleville track during an exhibition race in which he still holds a record.

NASCAR honored Roper in 1998 at the Texas Motor Speedway, and again in 1999 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for being the first winner in the Grand National Division, what is today the Winston Cup Series. In addition, the 1999 NAPA 500 trophy was named in his honor.

Roper was born in Halstead. He recently moved back to Kansas to spend his final days after becoming ill.

"He was a kind, considerate guy," longtime friend Bryson Mills said. "He didn't believe in getting in a hurry on anything except getting on a race track."

Mills said shortly before Roper died, the racer talked about his life.

"He said, 'Boy I've had fun,'" Mills said.

Roper's funeral is Tuesday in Halstead.

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