Going into this weekend's NAPA Autocare 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Ford has 497 all-time wins in what is known today as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. As the countdown to 500 begins, Ford Racing will be presenting a series of...
Going into this weekend's NAPA Autocare 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Ford has 497 all-time wins in what is known today as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. As the countdown to 500 begins, Ford Racing will be presenting a series of interviews with those people who have been instrumental in making Ford the winningest manufacturer in the sport. Today's feature focuses on Jimmy Florian, the man who won Ford's first NASCAR Winston Cup event on June 25, 1950 at Dayton Speedway in Dayton, Ohio. JIMMY FLORIAN NETS FORD'S FIRST WIN It was considered an upset then and would probably be looked upon the same way today. Jimmy Florian beat NASCAR Winston Cup legends Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Lee Petty in a thrilling 100-lap feature to claim the first NASCAR Winston Cup victory for Ford on June 25, 1950 at Dayton Speedway. As memorable as Florian's victory was, he made an equally big impression on victory lane when he emerged from his car shirtless -- another NASCAR first. Florian, who was a 27-year-old mechanic at the time of his big win, passed away at the age of 75 last February after a battle with cancer. He was sponsored by Euclid Motors and made a name for himself around his native Cleveland, Ohio, driving primarily midget and sprint cars. Bill Whitley was Florian's closest friend -- ever since World War II. Whitley, who is currently 77 years old, owned a couple of cars with Florian and knew him better than anyone. A truck driver in the early fifties, Whitley is now retired and lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. He recalled that magical day in 1950, along with some of his other favorite Florian memories.
BILL WHITLEY WHAT CAN YOU RECALL FROM THAT FIRST RACE WIN IN 1950: "He did win that race in a Ford. It was a car originally that belonged to the chief of police in Detroit and Euclid Ford got a hold of it and it was a 1950 Ford. The night that he won the race against (Curtis) Turner, (Joe) Weatherly -- all the big boys were there -- and he just outdrove them that's all. We talked about that for years and years and years. I kept telling him there was no way he could outrun those Oldsmobiles with a flathead Ford, but we had been running on that track seven nights a week in midgets and sprint cars and it was just a fact that we were very familiar with it (the speedway) and they weren't. He just outdrove them."
WAS THERE A CERTAIN POINT WHERE YOU KNEW JIMMY HAD THE RACE WON? "With about 35 laps to go he passed Turner for the last time and stayed in front. He was about a half lap ahead when the race was over. I remember a whole lot about it because it was four o'clock in the morning before we got paid because Turner, Weatherly, (Lee) Petty -- the whole bunch -- they protested saying there was no way they could have been outrun with a flathead Ford. That was the year they came out with the rocket Oldsmobile engines -- overhead valve engines -- and they were really tough. But the Ford was just as stock as it could be."
DID THEY HAVE A POST-RACE INSPECTION? "Oh yeah. They even checked with Ford Motor Company to make sure it wasn't an illegal engine. Ford sent a letter back to Euclid Ford saying that the car was just as legal and as stock as it could be."
WELL, IT WAS A POLICE CAR AT ONE TIME SO IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE FAST, RIGHT? "In the old days the police cars weren't any different, it was just designated to the police department but they weren't any different in the old days. Later on they came out with high dollar police cars, but back in the forties and the fifties you just put the name on it and went with it."
ONE OF THE INTERESTING NOTES TO THAT RACE WAS THE FACT JIMMY ARRIVED IN VICTORY LANE WITHOUT A SHIRT ON. WHY DID HE DO THAT? "It was hotter than hell, that's all there was to that. The rulebook back then...you didn't have any rollbars...you didn't have to have a seatbelt if you didn't want it and the seat had to be just like it came out of the factory...a plain old seat and they're uncomfortable. You couldn't do anything to the car back then. For ventilation you had to run with the windows down and that was the main reason why he was shirtless. He thought that was the greatest because he had all the protection in the world around him. We ran a midget and sprint car back then and you had to have something on because you were getting hit by rocks. That was the main reason for that."
WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE WITH JIMMY WERE YOU LIKE HIS CREW CHIEF? "We owned two or three cars together. I drove a Hudson Hornet back then and I had another Ford that he drove for awhile. We just swapped off back and forth. I had an Oldsmobile that he took to Darlington to run and he put on a show there with it, too. He came from 69th up to second place in about 40 laps in the first race they ever ran there before somebody hit the wall and got tangled up with him. He put that old Ford on the pole at two or three races. It wasn't just that night in Dayton. He stuck that thing on the pole at two or three places and got two or three thirds out of it and two or three seconds out of it."
IF YOU HAD TO WAIT UNTIL 4 A.M. TO GET PAID WERE YOU CELEBRATING ALL THAT TIME? "Well, not really. We kind of took it as just an everyday thing like we expected to do it. You were coming from down south up north running on a track against a driver that's running there every night -- seven nights a week and sometimes in the afternoon. You just can't plan on falling in there and outrunning somebody like that because Jimmy was a terrific midget driver. We had one track where out of 75 races he had 71 feature wins. As far as I'm concerned, he just outdrove them. The car, really, I don't know if it probably would have been a wagon he would have done the same thing because he was in his prime."
WHAT KIND OF GUY WAS JIMMY? "I tell you one thing, he was always happy. He always had a smile. There was nothing that ever got him down. Cancer finally brought him down, but I knew him pretty well. Our telephone bill over a period of 50 years was out of sight. Even though I lived down here (in Winston-Salem, N.C.) and he lived up there (Cleveland, OH), sometimes three times a night he'd call me. That's the kind of friend he was."
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE JIMMY FLORIAN STORY? "There would be too many. You could write anything in the world about him. As the nights go by I always seem to dream about him a little bit."
THE THING ABOUT JIMMY IS THAT HE RACED EVEN INTO HIS SIXTIES IN VINTAGE CARS, RIGHT? "We did that every year. We've always done that. We'd take a sprint car and go somewhere and run old-timers races. We did that all the time. As old as he was, with a sprint car he'd still make some of them look like they didn't belong there. He was pretty good."
TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF? "I drove a truck most of the time when I wasn't racing. I ran the Grand National Circuit down here in the fifties and sixties. You'll find me stuck around the record book in certain places. In the old days I had some 10ths and some eighths and even one time I think I had a third behind Weatherly and Ned Jarrett. You don't get very close unless you've got a lot of money behind you. Even in the old days when the Flock boys came out, they had a factory deal, and Petty had a factory deal."
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN WINSTON-SALEM? "I've been here since about 1957. I came through here. I was on my way back to Ohio from Florida and I stopped off here because my brother-in-law was working here. I stopped off here and went to work for Ford for awhile and started fooling around with racing again. One thing led to another and I ended up buying one of Rex White's old cars, his old championship car and I ran that for awhile."
DO YOU GET TO ANY WINSTON CUP RACES? "No. If you know anything about old race car drivers, they never will sit in the stands. I've never sat in the stands in my life. We used to say if you want to go see the race get on the track so you can see what's happening up front."
NANCY ROSE (FLORIAN'S SECOND DAUGHTER) YOUR DAD DID RACE HIS WHOLE LIFE, DIDN'T HE? "Yes, all the way through. That was his passion. That is what he loved. He loved racing and flying and when he couldn't fly he could still race with the Vintage Auto Racers. They didn't have an age limit and he still wanted to go fast. He still had to beat everybody and be the fastest and that's the way he was until a couple years before he died."
WHAT AGE DID HE STOP RACING? "He raced until he was 70. When he was 72 he sold the car (a vintage auto racing sprint car). He had a sprint car that he sold to somebody in the northern Ohio area."
DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH YOUR DAD IN RACING? "My first job was in the body shop. This was back in the early sixties and that was unusual for a girl, but that was my first profession. My job was working in his garage cleaning and doing stuff. He would paint and I would just prep the cars, get the bondo on them and sand them and prime them. Then, he would just do the final finish coat. We always had vehicles up until the day he died. I think he had a station wagon and a pickup truck and he always had more than one car. He was constantly working on stuff."
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU WENT WITH HIM TO A RACE? "From the time I was a baby that was all we did. We have pictures too. We followed him on the southern circuit for a while. We lived in Massachusetts and then when that circuit was done we went to Florida and did the Florida and south circuit for a while. Then we came back up here (to the Cleveland area). I was in kindergarten so that would have roughly been in the late fifties. Then we moved around and he mostly did New York, like Little Valley, and the speedways around the area here. Then he just mainly did Cloverleaf and the tracks around Cleveland in the early sixties. I would travel with him at that time and that was our weekend thing. That's what we did. I can remember when I was traveling around with him in my early teens and he was racing for other people. He could go anytime anywhere and not even have a car. He would just show up and they would put him in a car when he got there."
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WATCH HIM RACE AT AGE 68 OR 69? "These VARC (Vintage Auto Race Cars) cars were exhibitions with just some heat races. There were no features or anything like that because these guys didn't have that kind of stamina. They were all my dad's age, but the races would be mostly held at fairgrounds that had dirt tracks because they were the old midgets, the old sprint cars with wheels different sizes."
YOU WERE BORN SHORTLY AFTER HE WON FORD'S FIRST RACE IN 1950, WEREN'T YOU? "That's right, it was about a week after. He won that race on June 25 and my birthday is July 9. But the earliest recollections I have are of getting up at the crack of dawn and he would pack us up and we would go driving in the car. It was nothing for us to drive from Cleveland down to Florida non-stop. That was the regimen. We'd just get up and we'd be up and down travelling all over the place. We lived in the car. The backseat was not a seat. There were three of us girls and they just set it up as a bed because we spent a lot of time in the back of the car."
IT MUST HAVE BEEN FUN WHEN YOU WERE LEARNING TO DRIVE YOURSELF. "I had my first car when I was 11 and it was one of those Jeep's with a four-speed on the floor. We had 10 acres and lived next to the airport in Willoughby (Ohio) and our 10 acres ran parallel to the runway, so we had all this space to just drive. We would just ride it around in the yard, so I could drive way before I could reach the pedals. I remember having to sit on the edge of the seat, I wasn't able to sit all the way back because I was too small. When I did go to take my driver's test I remember the instructor said, 'You've been driving a while haven't you.' It was just natural. I wasn't nervous, I just got in the car and drove. The thing is all of us in our family drive with our right and left foot. We don't drive with just the right foot and that just comes from the way my dad drove. He taught us the right foot was gas and the left foot was brake and that's how we all drive. I think if I had to take the test now they'd flunk me."
JIMMY FLORIAN FAMILY BACKGROUND * Lived in the Cleveland, Ohio area and had four children -- three daughters and a son. Terri Ritz, his oldest daughter, lives in Longwood, FL; Nancy Rose, middle daughter, lives in Medina, OH; Chris Nelson, youngest daughter, lives in Salem, OR; son James II also lives in Medina, OH.